An opportunity for rapprochementNorth Korea has accepted our offer for aid to the flood-stricken country one week after our government proposed it through an unofficial channel. Given the precedents in which our aid couldn’t go through due to delicate disagreements over the size and contents of aid packages, it’s still too early to tell if our aid can be successfully delivered to the people who need it. But we hope Pyongyang accepts our humanitarian aid through amicable working-level talks to break the current deadlock in South-North relations.
Our bilateral relations have been at an impasse since the launch of the hardline Lee Myung-bak administration more than four years ago - except for the somewhat miraculous operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex in the North. The primary responsibility for the egregious situation is with Pyongyang. Without a stunning spate of provocations - shooting a South Korean tourist to death, sinking our Cheonan warship on a patrol mission near the tense maritime border and the shelling of the peaceful Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea - relations probably would not have worsened to this extent.
Yet our government is not free from accountability for the ongoing stalemate. After the Lee administration put a top priority on a tangible resolution of the North’s nuclear weapons issue - and linking all dialogues and negotiations to the issue despite it being an international conundrum beyond the realm of a single administration - it has ended up with a situation in which even an easy matter like humanitarian aid cannot be addressed.
At the JoongAng Global Forum sponsored by the JoongAng Ilbo early this week, the presidential candidate for the ruling Saenuri Party, Park Geun-hye, vowed to push ahead with an “evolving policy” toward North Korea as a gesture to depart from the Lee administration’s hawkish stance and embrace elastic and flexible approaches toward the North. Not only Park but also Ahn Cheol-soo, a still undeclared dark horse in the presidential race, and the opposition Democratic United Party’s presidential candidates all point out fatal loopholes in the government’s high-handed position toward Pyongyang, not to mention a number of scholars and journalists at home and abroad who hope for a change in North Korea policy to substantially improve South-North relations no matter who is elected in December.
It is too rash to interpret Pyongyang’s acceptance of our aid as a sign of change in the recalcitrant regime; North Korea might have accepted our offer for practical reasons after it suffered colossal damage from Typhoon Bolaven last month. In other words, Pyongyang may reject our aid unless we provide it in a “massive quantity,” as it demanded earlier.
Given the precedent in which we successfully delivered 5,000 tons of rice and 3,000 tons of cement in 2010 when the North was hit by a typhoon, we hope our government takes a flexible approach.
If the aid should lead to reunions of separated families and other altruistic gestures, it could relieve the next administration of a burden down the road.