Time to reset policy on the North

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Time to reset policy on the North

The coordinates of peace on the Korean Peninsula are adrift. It’s been a while since the inter-Korean relationship has been dotted with discords and confrontations rather than reconciliation and cooperation. A series of nuclear experiments and North Korea’s enhanced nuclear capacity has worsened the situation. No country is sincerely working to come up with creative ideas to break through the deadlock, so where should we begin to seek changes?

The obvious start would be through a thorough review of existing policies, without which new changes are not possible.

Seoul and Washington’s go-to policy on the North Korean nuclear issue are UN sanctions in response to the nuclear provocation. The basis of inter-Korean policy by the South Korean government are the sanctions outlined in the May 24 measures. While the Park Geun-hye administration has advocated a trust process on the Korean Peninsula, no specific plan has been made. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the policies are based on sanctions.

The United States leads UN sanctions to have North Korea give in, but - as if laughing at the measures - the North Korean economy is gradually improving instead. During the sanctions, North Korea’s nuclear capacity has been enhanced, and Pyongyang’s will to possess nuclear weapons has grown.

After two nuclear experiments in 2009 and 2013, the United Nations strengthened sanctions against North Korea. But then we learned the incredible news that the number of mobile phones owned by North Korean residents grew from several thousand in 2009 to 2.4 million now.

Trade with China, the lifeline for the North Korean economy, grew by 244 percent in the past four years, reaching $6.5 billion in 2013. It is nearly 1.2 times the total trade of North Korea in 2008 before sanctions. Given that the actual per-capita national income of North Korea is estimated to be $600, more than 45 percent of the gross national product (GNP) depends on official trade with China.

While China is participating in UN sanctions, Beijing has an understanding of North Korea’s future that differs from the Western vision, and as long as the sanctions continue, the economic relationship between China and North Korea is likely to grow.

The failure of the May 24 measures was more obvious than that of the UN sanctions and resulted in a more tragic outcome for the South. While the purpose was to punish North Korea, it was the South Korean companies trading with North Korea that went bankrupt as a result, while most of their North Korean counterparts partnered with Chinese companies to continue their businesses.

As the expansion of the Kaesong Industrial Complex was suspended, and South Korean companies were no longer able to advance to the North, tens of thousands of North Korean workers chose to work for Chinese or Russian companies that offered better wages.

Seoul’s policy to link nuclear tension with the inter-Korean relationship accelerated the shift. The May 24 measures not only strengthened the North Korean economy’s dependency on China but also closed the window of northward opportunities, the only breakthrough for the slumped Korean economy.

In the end, the policies by Seoul and Washington to use sanctions have failed. If they continue, we will be faced with a North Korea with more advanced nuclear weapons, and instead of mutual prosperity, we will have to live in a permanent confrontational posture. We have reached a point where a change in policy direction is inevitable.

First of all, Korea and the United States need to review if the reasoning and expectation on China has been logical and accurate and make necessary revisions. By resuming the six-party talks as soon as possible, a long-term, step-by-step strategy should be prepared to freeze and shut down North Korea’s nuclear program. North Korea’s sincerity can be discussed in the six-party talks.

In fact, Korean and U.S. leaders demanded Pyongyang’s unconditional return to the six-party sessions in early 2010, but now, the U.S. government seems to have neither the will nor competency to pursue a policy change, so the South Korean government must take initiative.

The May 24 measures should also be lifted. Moreover, the nuclear issue, which is a long-term task, should not be linked to pending inter-Korean issues and be handled independently. By pursuing a break in nuclear tensions and an improvement in relations, we need to create a virtuous cycle for the two agendas to exert a positive influence on each other.

Korea has attained economic development despite the geographical limitation of being flanked by the sea. Now, we are given the perfect opportunity to open up a land route, advance to the continent and enjoy new economic prosperity as well as cultural and psychological richness. But the opportunity will never be ours if we miss it. Only talks and cooperation can make it possible. The government needs to have a vision to reset the coordinates of the Korean Peninsula and seek cooperation with North Korea.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 30, Page 35

*The author is a former minister of unification and co-chair of the Korean Peninsula Peace Forum.

by Lee Jong-seok
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