[Viewpoint] Seizing the moment with the North

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[Viewpoint] Seizing the moment with the North

“Until now, we have been choked by the Cheonan sinking. If we continue to be strangled by it, nothing can be done,” a senior government official said three days before President Lee Myung-bak’s New Year’s address.

Taking into account four years of hard-lined policies toward North Korea, it was a significant confession - an expression of strong intentions to use Kim Jong-il’s death as an opportunity to improve inter-Korean relations.

As expected, Lee did not mention the Cheonan sinking or the Yeonpyeong Island shelling in his speech. In response to the March 2010 Cheonan sinking, the president used the May 24 punitive measures to warn the North that inter-Korean relations wouldn’t take any steps forward without an apology from the North. Now, he is taking a bold step toward reconciliation by extending a hand to North Korea.

“Kim’s death provided an exit. We cannot tell the son to pay for his father’s debt,” the senior official said. Since Kim Jong-il has died, the issue of the North’s apology should be settled in the larger framework of the inter-Korean dialogue so that the two Koreas will plan the future together.

Although the South made a similar offer to the North during secret contacts in Beijing in May of last year, North Korea did not accept it at the time. Shocked by the situation, the North Korean officials at the meeting exposed the details of the discussion.

But with Kim Jong-il, the ultimate culprit of the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong Island shelling, now dead, the altered expectations of the South were reflected in the senior government official’s remarks and President Lee’s New Year’s address.

It is important to understand the background of Lee’s message to the North in his speech. The decision to omit the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong Island shelling was not for strategic ambiguity but rather a clear and timely message of reconciliation toward Pyongyang and an offer to resume inter-Korean talks.

From Kim Jong-il’s death to early this year, North Korea has issued a series of criticisms of President Lee. Many in the South, therefore, criticized the government for chasing a fantasy based on wishful thinking because the minister of unification had expressed sympathy for the North Korean people and Lee sent this message in the New Year’s address.

The criticism is natural when the statements from Pyongyang are interpreted literally. On Dec. 30, the National Defense Commission of the North said, “As already declared, we will have no dealings with the Lee Myung-bak group of traitors forever,” and “We will surely force the group of traitors to pay for its hideous crimes committed at the time of the great national misfortune.” A joint editorial of the North’s newspapers also attacked the South Korean government with similar tones.

But the statements came from a grief-stricken North Korea as it mourned the death the “dear leader.” It was a situation in which party, military and government agencies needed to express sadness in loud voices so that everyone could hear. Countries and individuals that do not share the grief are treated as traitors. The Japanese government, which did not offer condolences and stopped pro-Pyongyang ethnic Koreans residing in Japan from visiting the North to join the mourning, also became a target of the criticism. But the hostile sentiment will calm down as time goes by.

That’s why a Jan. 3 statement issued by Uriminzokkiri, North Korea’s official propaganda organ of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea that has led attacks on the South, is surprising. In a tone similar to the Democratic Unity Party’s spokesman’s response to the president’s New Year’s address, the Uriminzokkiri denounced Lee’s message: “[President] Lee Myung-bak gave his New Year address today, the last one before his term ends, but no changes were seen. .?.?. It gave once again a deep despair to our people.”

It refrained from using cruel words such as “traitors,” and it also referred Lee by his title, although it put the word “president” inside brackets. The level of criticism in the statement is about the same as the tone of the Democratic Unity Party spokesman’s statement.

It may also be wishful thinking to interpret it as the North’s positive response to the South’s conciliatory gesture. But it was confirmed that the North had been very keen to find out what the South Korean president would say about the North in his New Year’s address.

It is clear that Kim’s death ended a chapter in inter-Korean relations, and a new chapter is beginning to unfold. What’s unclear is the direction of the new era, but that is largely dependent on our next steps.

The Lee administration is thinking about linking food aid with the family reunions to resume food assistance to the North. About five tons of rice would be provided for each North Korean allowed to join the reunion. Five tons of rice is enough to feed 30 people for one year. If the deal were arranged, the North would demand more than five tons, and it is necessary for the South to be flexible about the number.

But the Lee administration only has one year left in its hands, and it must bet everything on dialogue with the North for the sake of denuclearization and peace on the Korean Peninsula. The culprit of the Cheonan sinking is now gone. The Lee administration, responsible for the frozen inter-Korean relations, must use this opportunity with a strong determination to untie the knot that it has created.

*The author is the JoongAng Ilbo’s editor at large for international affairs.

by Kim Young-hie
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