Everyone’s against the NorthSouth and North Korea are drifting further apart with distrust and hostility mounting as they go on growling at each other. Today’s bilateral ties contrast sharply with the lively exchanges and cooperation the two Koreas shared several years back. What is surprising, though, is that the public seems perfectly content with the mutual antipathy and strained inter-Korean ties. Polls show that more than 70 percent of respondents blame North Korea for calling off of the ministerial-level meeting in June and the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. They support South Korea’s tough stance. Even as inter-Korean relations worsen, an uncompromising stance with a touch of bitterness is preferred to efforts to mend ties.
Under the no-nonsense, conservative President Lee Myung-bak, inter-Korean relations deteriorated to their worst level. The clock was set back on our North Korean policies. Yet the fallout among the public was a toughening of animosity and hard feelings toward North Korea. South Koreans have become disillusioned and have few hopes for a better relationship with North Korea after it pushed ahead with its third-generation dynastic succession, nuclear tests and deadly attacks on our Cheonan warship and Yeonpyeong Island. South Koreans now regard North Koreans as a hopelessly wayward group that can’t be changed. As North Korea refuses to take responsibility for a series of obvious provocations and continues to misbehave, a hawkish North Korean policy became justified.
The exhausting wrangling between liberals and conservatives, opposition and ruling parities over a transcript of a conversation between former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il at the summit in Pyongyang in 2007 still hasn’t ended. Roh allegedly offered concessions about the Northern Limit Line, our de facto border with the North in the Yellow Sea, to create a joint maritime and fishing zone. Even though a copy of the transcript released by the National Intelligence Service showed Roh saying vague and contradictory things to Kim about the NLL, the scandal actually ended up sanctifying the de facto border.
The Democratic Party, which was the ruling party under Roh, is more aggressive than the ruling conservative party in championing the NLL. Now nobody in the South would step up any effort to negotiate the NLL with the North. In fact, it has become more important than after the 1992 Basic Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation between the two Koreas.
Even as talks to reopen the industrial park in Kaesong, closed since April, drag on, few in the South Korea seem to care. Although the fate of the nearly decade-old industrial park is probably a life-or-death matter for the South Korean enterprises with stakes there, most people have become sick and tired of the erratic North Koreans and do not see the need to resume operations or other types of economic exchanges.
The government issued an ultimatum that it could permanently walk away from Kaesong if North Korea does not accept its conditions, largely because of an indifferent public. Efforts to save the Kaesong complex, which symbolized inter-Korean cooperation and a path for peaceful and reciprocal coexistence, elicit an apathetic shrug.
It’s an irony that a hard-line, antagonistic stance is preferred at a time when the two Koreas need to reconcile and improve ties to revive a relationship that has been on hold for the last five years. The primary fault lies with Pyongyang’s excessive hostility. North Korea responded recklessly to the Lee administration’s hard line, bombarding it with accusations and insults as well as deadly attacks that killed innocent people. The attacks on Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island put all the blame for dismal relations on Pyongyang.
North Korea also provoked controversy among our lawmakers after it insinuated that Seoul knew little about what really happened during the Roh-Kim summit in Pyongyang in 2007. The catastrophe of the Kaesong park was triggered by the North’s unilateral decision to pull its workers from the industrial park. All the blame will fall on Pyongyang regardless of how the South conducts its policy if it continues to act in such a wayward, unreasonable and murderous manner whenever ties between the countries are strained.
As result, South Koreans have turned tougher against North Korea and support a hard-line policy. Few dare to raise a voice calling for reconciliatory overtures and cooperation. It is a negative by-product of worsening inter-Korean relations. But we cannot give up on the goal of bringing peaceful coexistence, reconciliation and cooperation to the Korean Peninsula. It is useless to recycle old rhetoric and policies of the past while resentment and antipathy toward North Korean is widespread.
Pyongyang should restrain from aggressive and violent behavior if it wants to reignite engagement and restore a sunnier mood in the South.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
* The author is a professor of political science at Kyungnam University.
by Kim Keun-sik