The summit that must be
Hopes for breakthrough in relations between the two Koreas and a high-level dialogue were raised from the beginning of this year, which marks the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule. South Korea’s Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation proposed to Pyongyang ministerial-level talks for this month. In a New Year’s address, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un expressed the intention to improve ties with the South by responding to any form of dialogue, which could even include a summit between him and Park Geun-hye.
For the first time in seven years - five under former President Lee Myung-bak and two under incumbent President Park - momentum has built that could change the tide in inter-Korean relations from conflict to dialogue. It all depends how authorities play the game - whether they proceed in the new direction of dialogue or keep the current state of confrontation.
In proposing an inter-Korean summit, Kim wants to take the initiative to solve inter-Korean issues. Seoul served Pyongyang a ball and Kim returned it with a smash. North Korea actually had the lead in the game when it dispatched a high-profile team on a surprise visit to the closing ceremony of the Asian Games in Incheon in October. It included Hwang Pyong-so, director of the General Political Bureau of the People’s Army and Choe Ryong-hae, the secretary of the Workers’ Party Central Committee. The two Koreas agreed to hold a second round of high-level talks during Hwang’s visit.
On the surface, the two Koreas worked hard to create the right mood. The South’s Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae visited the United States on Dec. 9; North Korea’s Workers’ Party secretary Kim Yang-gon, who is in charge of South Korean affairs, met South Korean corporate visitors in the joint industrial complex in Kaesong on Dec. 24; the South’s unification preparation committee proposed dialogue on Dec. 29; and Kim Jong-un floated the idea of summit talks on Jan. 1. The ball game has been on since October.
Kim appears to be seeking a breakthrough amid mounting external pressure. Kim and his regime came under renewed international pressure after the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution asking the Security Council to refer North Korean human rights abuses to the International Criminal Court in December and Washington slapped fresh sanctions as a part of a “proportional” response to suspected North Korean hacking activities against a Hollywood studio and threats against movie theatres preparing to show “The Interview,” a comedy about a plan to assassinate Kim Jong-un. Pyongyang must have come to conclude that it cannot earn favor with Washington or any other government unless it normalizes relationship with Seoul.
At the same time, Kim wants to raise his image at home and abroad as a leader taking the initiative to restore relations with the South on the 70th anniversary of Korea’s division. He may have believed he has nothing to lose by holding a summit with his South Korean counterpart.
President Park cannot dither in responding by dredging up complaints about North Korea’s nuclear program and human rights. She is in the third year of her five-year term and needs to achieve some accomplishment on the North Korean front with the general elections in 2016 and presidential elections the following year. For the current Seoul administration, this is a golden time to put the inter-Korean relationship on a new level. Moreover, aspirations among the people for better bilateral ties are particularly high this year because of its special meaning in history. A summit could be the tipping point for the so-called “unification jackpot” and Dresden unification vision Park has been championing. If the administration does not accomplish anything on the North Korean front, she will end up as a president who accomplished only one round of reunions of separated families. That’s not a lot.
What matters most is the president’s will. If she can remove the major stumbling blocks - the sanctions from May 24, 2010, and the resumption of Mt. Kumgang tourism program - the path to better relations will be clear. Hawks continue to maintain that Pyongyang must first sincerely apologize for the deadly attacks in 2010 and the death of a South Korean tourist on a Mt. Kumgang tour. They are important issues, but should not dominate the inter-Korean agenda any longer. Regular reunions of separated families could be a condition for the resumption of Mt. Kumgang tours. Seoul can then consider easing the May 24 sanctions. Once the first stumbling blocks are removed, the two Koreas could extend talks to investments in economic zones in North Korea.
If authorities on both sides are intent, progress is possible, even if it’s baby steps. Reunions of separated families during the Lunar New Year’s holiday could serve as an ice-breaker. The reunions must take place before the regular Korea-U.S. military drills scheduled for late February. Whether they are at the high level or ministerial level, talks must be held by the two Koreas as soon as possible. The South and North must also set the date for reunions.
The worsening external factors - especially the coldness from Washington - could play a negative factor. The question is whether Seoul can push ahead with improving ties with Pyongyang while Washington is irked with North Korea. Seoul must muster its diplomatic skills to persuade Washington to win its support in an ameliorated relationship with Pyongyang.
Russian President Vladmir Putin has invited leaders of both Koreas to Moscow in May for a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Soviet defeat of Nazi Germany. The two leaders may be able to meet face to face in Moscow and then schedule official talks for sometime in June. Both leaders have a huge burden on their shoulders this year. Their actions will be crucial in setting the tone for the bilateral relationship for the future.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 6, Page 29
*The author is a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.
by Kim Yong-hyun