[Viewpoint] A glimmer of hope from GeorgiaNorth Korea’s message was unequivocal. It wants to renew talks and relations with South Korea. It hopes to reunite separated families and reopen the Mount Kumgang tourism program as well as push forward the next stage of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
North Korea said that the two Koreas should establish a peace zone along the maritime border in the Yellow Sea in order to prevent attacks like the Cheonan ship sinking and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. It went so far as to argue that if South Korea is seriously concerned about North Korea’s overreliance on China for economic aid, it should take the initiative in revitalizing inter-Korean economic cooperation.
North Korean representatives expressed such views during a four-day unofficial debate at the University of Georgia among scholars, legislators, and government officials of the two Koreas and the United States.
What was interesting was the composition of the North Korean delegation. It was led by Ri Jong-hyok, a vice chairman of the Workers’ Party Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, which is in charge of trade, foreign investment and inter-Korean economic projects, and included other key committee members as well as members of the Institute for Disarmament and Peace under the auspices of North Korea’s foreign affairs ministry. The composition may have been carefully arranged to send the same message to both Seoul and Washington that Pyongyang is ready for serious talks.
But South Korean delegates repeated the same rhetoric - that without a formal apology and promises not to repeat deadly provocations like the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island incidents, inter-Korean ties cannot be improved to the level desired by North Korea. They explained that the people of South Korea won’t tolerate it.
North Korea’s response was also unchanged. The North Koreans said they were not responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan and are willing to send delegates for a joint investigation. The Yeonpyeong shelling was in response to military provocation from South Korea. They said they had sent prior warnings of taking military action if provoked and therefore do not necessarily have to apologize. The two Koreas still remain worlds apart.
The possibility of an inter-Korean summit was not discussed during the forum. But officials from the Asia-Pacific Peace Committee indicated in individual talks that trust had been broken after two failed meetings that were leaked to the press.
Moreover, the two Koreas cannot agree on an agenda. South Korea stands steadfastly firm on its demands for palpable evidence of commitment to denuclearization efforts and an apology for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong attacks as well as assurance not to repeat provocations.
Meanwhile, North Korea will likely demand real action on South Korea’s commitments to economic cooperation and aid pledged during the past two summit meetings. North Koreans doubt they can find middle ground. They believe their leader’s authority could be impaired if the summit agreements are not carried out.
North Koreans were primarily eager to improve ties with the U.S. during the meeting in Georgia. The director of the North Korean Institute for Disarmament and Peace called for sincerity from Washington to help improve inter-Korean ties and resolve the nuclear issue, blaming the U.S. for shying away from dialogue for the last two years.
North Korean delegates demanded the armistice treaty be replaced with a peace pact to formally end the state of war on the peninsula. They demanded executive-level bilateral talks with Washington to make progress. They added that pressure from the U.S. through economic sanctions and military intimidation only provokes hard-line military leaders in Pyongyang.
U.S. officials, however, responded coolly to the North Korean demands. They said North Korea has lost credibility due to a series of provocations. The Obama administration also will not likely take a risk with North Korea ahead of presidential elections. It wants North Korea to first demonstrate real actions to dismantle its missile and nuclear weapons programs as well as commit to a joint investigation on missing soldiers during the Korean War and improve human rights if it wants meaningful development in bilateral ties. This too appears to be a long way off.
But there is a glimmer of hope. North Koreans appear to be desperate to save their economy and improve living standards in order to meet the publicly declared goal of realizing a strong nation by 2012. If we exercise wisdom and capitalize on their eagerness, there may yet be room for a breakthrough.
*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.
By Moon Chung-in