Be flexible with the North

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Be flexible with the North

In a meeting with new heads of the ruling and main opposition parties, President Lee Myung-bak said the government does not want to appear hostile to North Korea in the transition period following the unexpected death of long-time leader Kim Jong-il. The government granted a select number of civilians the opportunity to visit Pyongyang to attend Kim’s funeral as well as send out condolence letters. Lee told the Grand National Party’s leader Park Geun-hye and Democratic Unity Party head Won Hye-young that Seoul plans to be flexible in handling North Korean affairs.

The Lee administration has been insisting on an apology from Pyongyang for its attack against a South Korean naval ship and Yeonpyeong Island. But a senior official at the Blue House said the government could change its position depending on how North Korea responds to the international demand for denuclearization. The latest comments from the presidential office suggest a dovish shift in North Korean policy in the wake of Kim’s death.

When North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung died suddenly in 1994, the government had been vehemently opposed to an expression of condolence or visiting Pyongyang to attend the funeral. The Pyongyang regime took the action personally and held a grudge against Seoul for many years. Even as tens of thousands starved to death, North Korea refused any help from the Kim Young-sam government. Inter-Korean relations only revived when President Kim Dae-jung took office. This different reaction to Kim Jong-il’s death implies that the Seoul government does not want ties with Pyongyang to worsen.

It remains unclear what changes the untested young heir will bring to the foreign and inter-Korean front. But Seoul does not want to waste any chance at a possible positive change with new leadership in Pyongyang by demonstrating flexibility and performing a reconciliatory gesture. “We want to reset inter-Korean relations with the occasion of Kim’s death,” the senior Blue House official said.

The political community should also get on board with the government position and wait patiently for a definite direction. In the special meeting on inter-Korean relations at the National Assembly, lawmakers were engrossed in the intelligence failure concerning how Kim died. It is meaningless to raise conspiracy theories and questions over a country when mourning for state leader. The government must be discreet at sensitive times like these.

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