Don’t waste this ‘golden time’

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Don’t waste this ‘golden time’

“Golden time,” the time period during which there is the highest likelihood of overcoming a crisis, is the latest buzzword. If the golden time is missed, the situation is often irreversible.

During the Sewol ferry incident, many lives could have been saved if rescue efforts had been inititated within the right time. Squandering this golden time can also make an economic revival irrecoverable - it’s when necessary steps must be taken.

But the golden time is not just limited to saving lives or the economy. It also exists for diplomacy and security. When the right timing and opportunities are missed, a country can become diplomatically isolated or fall behind. As the year-end approaches, a golden time for the inter-Korean relationship is passing.

It started when a North Korean delegation led by Hwang Pyong-so made a surprise visit to the capital in early October. After prolonged discord, Pyongyang and Seoul finally agreed on high-level contact and a conciliatory mood emerged. However, the hard-earned golden time for inter-Korean talks has been wasted by tension over the leaflets. Seoul admits that the leaflets don’t help tine the inter-Korean relationship, but the campaign remains because freedom of speech is a vested right here. However, Pyongyang maintains that it will not come to the table for talks unless the leaflets are stopped.

Now another golden time is desperately needed due to the changing dynamics in Northeast Asia. There are no eternal enemies or friends in diplomacy, and countries find allies according to their own national interests. The United States and China are emphasizing cooperation and dialogue rather than pressure and confrontation. Despite the territorial dispute over the Senkaku-Diaoyudao islands, China and Japan reached an agreement and held a summit.

The United States, China and Japan seem to have decided that excessive tension on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia has no merits and restored talks in order to relieve military confrontation and tension. But Korea remains in an awkward position, caught among the three nations.

The latest predicament, in which Korea is being excluded in regional affairs, started when we did not take advantage of the right opportunity in the inter-Korean relationship. Seoul should have initiated a conciliatory mood by alleviating inter-Korean tension as discord and confrontation in Northeast Asia changes to dialogue and management. If Korea has leverage in the inter-Korean relationship, we have more say in the overall situation in the region. But if we forget the relationship with North Korea, Korea’s diplomatic capacity is reduced. After the inter-Korean summit in 2000, Cho Myong-rok’s visit to the United States and Madeleine Albright’s visit to North Korea was made possible. In 2005, the unification minister visited the North and met with leader Kim Jong-il, bringing North Korea to the six-party talks and making official the September 19 Joint Statement.

However, this golden time for the inter-Korean relationship is not completely over. Considering North Korea’s domestic and international situations, Pyongyang is not likely to turn down the chance for an improved relationship and progress in talks. As Pyongyang hopes for summits with Russia and China in 2015, it could take advantage of an improved relationship with the South through talks and cooperation rather than confrontation and deadlock.

The Park Geun-hye administration can also use this opportunity. If Park fails to improve inter-Korean relations in the third year of her administration, the realistic meaning of a “unification jackpot” would be greatly undermined. Because Seoul must balance between U.S.-China relations and China-Japan relations, the Park administration may see itself stuck among the three powers with no influence in the region or on Korean Peninsula affairs if it fails to secure leverage in the inter-Koran relationship.

Pyongyang criticizes the leaflets civic group have sent via balloons, but the possibility for talks is still open. Instead of making official the cancellation of high-level contact, Seoul should propose contact again. It’s necessary to inform North Korea that the leaflet and military exercises can be discussed at the high-level meeting.

In the early days of the Kim Dae-joong administration, talks in Beijing on fertilizer ruptured, and the Yeonpyong Naval Battle occurred in his second year. But the Kim administration adhered to the line of trust and consistently maintained a determination to improve that relationship. In his third year as president, a summit was successfully held, and the golden time of the inter-Korean relationship went into full swing.

If this golden time is missed, the inter-Korean relationship may aggravate irreversibly. In 2009, the second year of the Lee Myung-bak administration, improved relations and an agreement for a summit broke down. In 2010, the Cheonan warship was torpedoed and the Yeonpyeong Island bombardment followed, pushing our relationship to an irrecoverable state.

Sticking with the principles is just stubborn. Neither the principles nor the actual interests can be secured. The golden time is not over. If we make the best use of this golden time to escape crisis, we can make 2015 the golden age of the inter-Korean relationship. We need to act fast to take advantage of the right timing.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff. JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 4, Page 33


*The author is a North Korean studies professor at Kyungnam University.

by Kim Keun-sik

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