[Viewpoint] Hope for bipartisan policy on North
The eight-point joint declaration on peace and prosperity signed by South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il after the summit in Oct. 4 2007 remains contentious not only between the two Koreas but also among South Koreans. The incumbent Lee Myung-bak government and conservative camp refuse to blindly comply with the agreement, citing its overly generous and uneconomic nature. North Korea and South Korea’s liberal sector argue the gains as a result of the agreement, which calls for replacement of the armistice treaty with a peace mechanism, have value beyond economic figures.
In an address to the National Assembly on July 11, 2008, President Lee said he is ready to sincerely discuss with North Koreans a follow up to the 2007 joint statement, softening his stance from when he was inaugurated. But the government returned to its hard-line stance after a South Korean tourist was killed by a North Korean guard while touring Mt. Kumgang in North Korea on the same day of the speech.
In the latter half of 2009, government officials of the two Koreas began to meet discreetly in Singapore to discuss an inter-Korean summit to break the ice between the two Koreas. But the government lost its chance to hold the summit meeting after President Lee hinted there were signs of fissures in the Pyongyang regime. Inter-Korean ties reached their lowest point since the war after North Korea attacked a South Korean naval warship and shelled the island of Yeonpyeong.
The Lee government’s hawkish policy on North Korea received kudos from some conservatives for flexing its muscles against Pyongyang. But it nevertheless cannot escape criticism for intransigence and inconsistency without any clear long-term vision or strategy. In his inauguration speech, the president vowed to unravel inter-Korean relations with practicability instead of ideology. But he demanded the reclusive and secretive North Koreans include South Korean officials in the probe into the shooting of the South Korean tourist at Mt. Kumgang. If the government planned to be practical, it should have made a realistic demand that Pyongyang could accept.
South Koreans have employed carrots and sticks against North Korea for the last two decades. There are both advantages and disadvantages in the two policies. But in view of today’s general opinion on North Koreans in South Korea, the uniqueness of the North Korean system, and geopolitical factors, it is best that Seoul pursue the consistent dovish policy on North Korea. According to a study by Research and Research, most South Koreans in the consensus-moving age group between their 20s and 40s regard North Korea as a cooperative partner rather than a hostile one. We can hardly expect North Koreans to change overnight considering their tendency to unite more solidly upon external threats and pressure.
China turned explicit in protecting and sponsoring North Korea in late 2009. North Korea, under cash-rich Chinese patronage, can now do without economic support from South Korea. Seoul cannot expect to get what it wants by opening up to Pyongyang. But it can get nothing if it remains stubborn against North Korea. In fact South Korea could be isolated and excluded from North Korean affairs as seen with the recent Washington-Pyongyang agreement.
Park Geun-hye, interim leader of the Saenuri Party and potential candidate to run in the December presidential race, recently said the 2007 inter-Korean summit agreement should be respected. Her dovish position suggests that a consensus on North Korean policy is building across the society.
We hope the next government will pursue bipartisan and consistent policy on North Korea. In peace time, it should continue dialogue and engagement in North Korean affairs. The incumbent government failed because it did things the other way around.
*The author is a senior fellow of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute.