Ramifications of the NLL brawl

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Ramifications of the NLL brawl

There is an unprecedented trend in the ongoing presidential election campaign. It appears the issues that draw the most heated debate among candidates actually have little impact on approval ratings.

A recent survey showed the public approved of an apology from conservative party candidate Park Geun-hye. The apology was announced after she made a controversial comment about the legitimacy of the persecution of anti-government activists. Yet with or without the apology, her ratings declined only slightly. In general terms, the opinion was unsympathetic toward her press conference regarding another contentious issue - her involvement in the Jeongsu Scholarship Foundation and its role in the campaign. Yet, regardless of the controversy, her ratings remained unchanged. Lee Taek-soo, from the pollster Real Meter, said contentious past issues and negative campaigns lose their effect on the poll scoreboard very quickly.

When former President Roh Moo-hyun made the controversial comment about the Northern Limit Line, it made similar ripples on the campaign trail. Roh made the comments during summit talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. As a consequence, the ruling Saenuri Party made an attack and claimed that there was a transcript of the confidential talks between Roh and Kim. This outbreak had an immediate impact on the ratings of Moon Jae-in, the main opposition candidate and President Roh’s chief of staff and orchestrator of the summit meeting. However, when the issue dragged on without any major development, Moon’s ratings eventually recovered, while the Saenuri Party took a hit.

Nevertheless, the Saenuri Party remains intransigent on demanding the disclosure of the summit talk transcript. Leaders of the ruling party have been taking turns pushing the hot button. Some have even lashed out at the deceased president for an “act of betrayal” against the nation. Yet, Moon and his liberal camp counterattacked the ruling party for trying to resort to their typical election scheme of triggering anti-North Korean sentiment as an attempt to woo conservative votes. The sensitive security issue is bad for national interests, but since it has been so publicly discussed, it is best that the matter is settled.

Overall, candidates of the ruling and opposition parties should remember one thing. Park and the ruling Saenuri Party need to re-examine her North Korean policy in relation to the NLL issue if she is elected. She must study whether she can maintain her avowed stance on North Korea without finding herself in a contradictory circumstance.

A inter-Korean mood of reconciliation is necessary for her to uphold her pledge to create bilateral ties. She should not plead for dialogue and would have to take a firm stance if North Korea takes provocative action. Regardless, she needs to break the ice between the two Koreas in order to keep her campaign promise.

But the NLL issue would provide the biggest stumbling block to the resumption of talks. It won’t be easy for the two Koreas to reach a middle ground, considering North Korea’s persistent resistance to the current sea border arrangement it claims was unilaterally drawn up by the United States. But without settling the debate over the sea border, inter-Korean relations will continue to be on the brink of tension and conflict. Seoul needs to come up with an entirely new and comprehensive strategy on North Korea to draw Pyongyang to the negotiating table. It must seek a package deal on the NLL issue with humanitarian aid, a tourism program and industrial innovation. Otherwise, it won’t be able to remove the bottleneck.

Moon vowed to pursue summit talks with young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in his first year as president. But having learned a lesson from the last hastily arranged talks between Roh and Kim Jong-il, his government would have to be impeccably ready. Roh’s controversial comments, such as “the debt issued by the prior president should be paid by the successor” and “NLL is a line drawn up by children,” were irresponsible and arrogant. They raised suspicions that Roh may have offered to disavow the NLL in his discussion with Kim.

The incoming government should depart from the quid-pro-quo approach to draw up an agreement from North Korea. Pyongyang has become increasingly skeptical and cautious about Seoul’s engagement policy. After the agreement to create a joint fishing zone along the west coast during the summit talks, Pyongyang demanded that the fishing zone be accessible only on the southern side during defense ministerial talks the following month.

North Korea may be signaling that it is not ready to risk opening, despite the positive ramifications of South Korean economic aid and joint ventures on the west coast. Before the summit talks in 2007, North Korea was restricting private business practices and not in a position to endorse a large-scale inter-Korean economic exchange and venture.

We face an unpredictable geopolitical climate around the Korean Peninsula with new leadership in the two Koreas and China, and possibly Japan and the United States. Our stance will be pivotal. The tone of inter-Korean relations will depend on our move. Whichever direction it takes, the new leadership would first have to tap public opinion about upgraded relations with the North.

The truth behind Roh’s comment would have to be verified after the election if it is not during the campaign period. But the debate should not dominate the campaign. Instead, we need to use the momentum to polish our negotiating strategy in order to gain the upper hand in future talks with North Korea. The campaign is important, but not as much as inter-Korean relations.

* The author is a senior fellow of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute.

by Ahn Hee-chang
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