A hopeful turning pointA North Korean delegation made a stunning appearance at the closing ceremony of the Incheon Asian Games, where North Korean athletes performed their best to rank seventh with 11 gold medals. The visit by three top Pyongyang officials, including Hwang Pyong-so, the newly elected vice chairman of the mighty National Defense Commission, was rare and sudden. Hwang was accompanied by North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s another confidante, Choe Ryong-hae, the secretary of the Workers’ Party Central Committee, and Kim Yang-gon, who heads the party’s United Front Department in charge of South Korean affairs.
Their visit was announced and approved just a day before they arrived, but most inter-Korean high-ranking visits and meetings go through lengthy procedures. The appearance by top brass at an international event may have been aimed at showing the world that Kim Jong-un’s leadership has been safely established in Pyongyang. It also suggests Pyongyang’s change of attitude toward Seoul. Although their visit was made to attend Saturday’s closing ceremony, they also held a series of closed-doors talks with Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae and Kim Kwan-jin, the chief of the national security office and former defense minister. Hwang said, “We have paved a small path this time. Let’s make it lead to a bigger one,” which suggests a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations.
Pyongyang has recently been visible and eager on the diplomatic stage. It has shifted away from its traditional reliance on Beijing and has tried to improve ties with Russia and Japan. Its breakout from isolation is a positive improvement. North Korea also has been holding tours to attract foreign investment to its special economic zones. But since sanctions were imposed by South Korea in 2010, North Korea has been entirely dependent on China.
The time has come for us to ease the sanctions and permit tourism to North Korea. We must change our mind-set and take the initiative in inter-Korean relations. The lifting of sanctions could also be a boon for business. Seoul needs to re-examine its whole North Korean policy, which hinges heavily on nuclear issues. The nuclear issue must be resolved, but it can’t be done overnight. We must take a farsighted approach that won’t interfere with other parts of the relationship with North Korea. But Pyongyang also must stop all military provocations to maintain mutual trust. Our relationship with North Korea remains unchanged while other countries have made progress. The high-profile visit must serve as a turning point in the inter-Korean relationship.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 6, Page 30