The peninsula’s winter thaw

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The peninsula’s winter thaw

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Kim Young-hie

It is promising that North Korea’s internal affairs have been moving in the direction of resumed dialogue and cooperation with the South since the beginning of the year. Han Park, a professor at the University of Georgia, visited Pyongyang and met with senior officials, including Kim Yang-gon, secretary of the North’s Workers’ Party and director of the United Front Department on South Korea policy. According to Park, North Korea is actively carrying out projects to promote the supremacy of Kim Jong-un since the execution of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek.

In a speech to officials of the party, military, workers’ groups and media last June, Kim urged all of them to concentrate their efforts on solidifying the sole supremacy of the party. The supreme leader will sit on top of the system. Although in principle North Korea was to be ruled by a tripartite leadership consisting of the supreme leader, party and people, the supreme leader takes absolute superiority. Jang, who was considered an obstacle in this system, had to be purged.

Many forecast that the North’s military will control the country’s South Korea policy in the post-Jang period, but they were wrong. A new system is being established under which Kim makes final policy decisions based on the ideas of the party, cabinet and military.

In the process, Kim Yang-gon’s status seems to have been noticeably reinforced - when it comes to the North’s South Korea policy - since Jang’s execution. Won Tong-yon, deputy head of the United Front Department and the North’s chief negotiator for the latest inter-Korean talks, is like an avatar of Kim Yang-gon. He is a powerful figure who orchestrates the North’s South Korea policy. Last summer, he proposed that a Blue House official who could speak for President Park Geun-hye meet with him in Beijing.

After escaping Jang’s interference regarding the secret contact, Kim Jong-un launched an aggressive reconciliatory effort toward the South and the first outcome was the agreement to hold the reunions of war-separated families and the high-level talks.

It was, however, confirmed at the talks that the two Koreas still have a long way to go. North Korea demanded that the South Korea-U.S. “Key Resolve” military exercises, scheduled to start Feb. 24 be postponed to after the Feb. 20-25 family reunion period. It also demanded that South Korean media must no longer insult its “supreme authority.”

However, South Korea made it clear that humanitarian issues should be separate from military issues, and the media is something over which the government has no control over in the South’s liberal democracy.

Despite concerns that the family reunions could once again be scrapped at the last minute, the two Koreas on Friday finally agreed to hold the long-awaited event as scheduled. Canceling reunions that had been agreed on would be a heavy burden for both sides.

What we can rely on is the will of President Park and North Korean leader Kim to improve inter-Korean ties. During her New Year’s press conference, Park expressed her strong desire for a “northward project,” including inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation as well as her signature Eurasia initiative.

Kim Jong-un, who believes his supreme leadership is on track, faces an urgent task of turning around his country’s moribund economy. In order to accomplish this, the South’s assistance is desperately needed after Jang’s execution resulted in the suspension of many development projects with Chinese companies. Kim can no longer count on Beijing’s unequivocal support.

As the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is still employing its “strategic indifference” toward the North, Kim cannot wait indefinitely for an improvement in ties with Washington to develop its struggling economy. Economic restoration is also directly linked to the legitimacy of Jang’s execution.

East Asia is in a stage of dramatic flux due to the fierce power game between America, which strives to maintain the existing order, and China, which seeks a new balance of power. The Korean Peninsula issue has been brushed aside as a dependent variable in this power game along with the once-urgent issue of denuclearizing the North.

Under such circumstances, the two Koreas should improve their relations with a dramatic idea, resolve pending issues on their own and create a symbiotic system for mutual prosperity. To this end, the first step is an emotional issue - the reunion of war-separated families.

We are at the starting point of spring, and inter-Korean relations have awakened from their hibernation to start the long journey to find an active way to participate in the process of restructuring the regional order of East Asia. As we hear a faint sound that spring is approaching the Korean Peninsula, we need to change the basis of our North Korea policy more pragmatically to ensure the arrival of spring. The two Koreas’ officials and the people will need to go forward deliberately and carefully.

The three hawks of the Park administration - Kim Jang-soo, Kim Kwan-jin and Nam Jae-joon - also must lower their voices. Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin in particular must refrain from making comments on matters pertaining to North Korea. Strong national security, no doubt, is the basis of our North Korea policy, but diplomacy and dialogue must not be controlled by the three hard-liners in the government.

President Park has appointed Kim Kyu-hyun, an icon of dialogue and diplomacy, as the first deputy director of the Presidential Office of National Security. The government must use it as an opportunity to strike an effective balance between security and dialogue in its North Korea policy to ensure success.

*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Young-hie

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