The perfect time for change
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un welcomed South Korea’s proposal for dialogue and said Pyongyang was willing to respond to any form of talks with sincerity. “If the authorities of the two Koreas are really sincere about improving bilateral ties, we can resume high-level dialogue or meetings on separate issues,” Kim said during his televised New Year’s address, which he has made annually since taking power in late 2011. “We will do our utmost to make real progress through dialogue and negotiations.” He even indicated a summit meeting, saying talks were possible if the conditions and environment are right. It is rare for Pyongyang to start the year with such an aggressive overture.
Pyongyang’s renewed charm offensive raises hope for improving the inter-Korean relationship. But actions are needed more than words. Pyongyang should respond to Seoul’s proposal to hold the second round of high-level talks in January.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule. The two Koreas remain technically at war after the Korean Peninsula was divided at the end of World War II. Despite the collapse of the Communist bloc, North Korea maintains a unique hereditary dictatorship. But the North’s people have suffered under years of sanctions, diplomatic isolation and economic hardships. Pyongyang can no longer rely on blind support and aid from Beijing under President Xi Jinping and cannot turn to Moscow, which is saddled with its own economic and diplomatic problems. Washington is steadfast in its hard-line stance. Seoul offers the only relief.
President Park Geun-hye also cannot ignore Pyongyang any longer. Despite her grand rhetorical plans - trustpolitik and the Dresden Initiative (her vision for peaceful unification), there has not been any progress on the inter-Korean front. Park, halfway into her five-year term, may have to consider this year as her last chance for a breakthrough in the inter-Korean relationship. Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae’s proposal for a ministerial meeting in January underscores Seoul’s eagerness.
The North and South must not waste the momentum by arguing. They must focus on bigger issues - easing sanctions, resuming Mount Kumgang tourism and reuniting separated families - and keep the dialogue alive. Park has clarified that her vision of unification does not mean absorbing North Korea. She could consider a summit meeting to make things clear with Kim. There is no reason why the two Koreas cannot make this year a new meaningful beginning for co-prosperity.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 2, Page 30