Long-term vision neededTwo years ago, the Lee Myung-bak administration imposed strict sanctions on North Korea as a retaliation for the sinking of the Cheonan warship in the Yellow Sea. The measures were a 180-degree turn of our government’s policies toward Pyongyang.
The relationship between the two improved noticeably after the historic summit in 2000 between President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. Hundreds of thousands of South Korean citizens visited the secluded country, and long-term joint projects like the Kaesong Industrial Complex began in a spirit of reconciliation and cooperation, raising expectations about our eventual unification.
President Lee, however, concentrated his North Korea policy on deterring Pyongyang’s nuclear dream since taking office in 2008, partly because of his campaign, which criticized Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun’s rapprochement with Pyongyang. Yet Lee maintained his two predecessors’ engagement policies, though downsized a bit.
However, a North Korean sentry’s shooting to death of a South Korean tourist at a resort on Mount Kumgang in North Korea turned the tide with the Cheonan attack and retaliatory sanctions further aggravating ties. All humanitarian aid to North Korea, except food for toddlers and infants, stopped, not to mention a full-fledged suspension of economic exchanges, except those at the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Social and cultural exchanges also came to a halt.
But the problem is that the government imposed sanctions without a long-term vision for the future. Trade between the two dwindled to $1.7 billion last year compared to $1.9 billion in 2010, and instead China’s trade with the North sharply increased from $3.4 to $5.6 billion during the same period, effectively replacing the economic exchanges between Seoul and Pyongyang.
We have witnessed an extreme fluctuation of our bilateral relationship.
A bigger problem is our government’s inability to present a far-sighted vision on how to raise expectations for reunification of this land. Some pundits insist that intensified sanctions are the only way to unification, citing the possibility of a collapse of the recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang. But a vision of unification through augmented sanctions could be one of the worst ideas for the Korean Peninsula. Establishing a vision for a prosperous single state by normalizing crippled ties may not be an easy job, but that’s the only way to go.