Actions speak louder than words
During her New Year’s press conference, President Park Geun-hye said she would not attach any conditions for a summit with North Korea. She said denuclearization is not a precondition, and did not refer to human rights concerns in North Korea. But hopes for a dramatic overture were dashed. She reiterated Seoul’s past position on the terms Pyongyang set out for high-level dialogue - a ban on the distribution of anti-North Korean leaflets and easing of the May 24 sanctions. It may not have been easy for the president to respond without questions about Pyongyang’s real intentions, as the North has been swinging back and forth between provocation and a charm offensive.
But it is disappointing that she did not set a creative outline to put the inter-Korean relationship onto a new level in her address to start 2015, which marks the 70th anniversary of liberalization from Japan’s colonial rule. Nearly halfway into her five-year term, the president needs to make progress on the North Korean front this year. The government must unveil specific plans to realize the president’s wishes to improve inter-Korean relations.
The ball is in North Korea’s court now. Pyongyang should pay heed to President Park’s response to its leader’s proposal and her choice to use the words “peaceful unification” to draw distance from the “absorbed union” that North Korea fears is Seoul’s intention. Renewing dialogue with South Korea is the only way the North can get out of its deepening isolation and economic hardships.
The president also said she would be devoted to reviving economic growth that she hopes will last for the next three decades. Her economic focus is on the right track, but she will have to take action.
She stressed the need for structural reforms and deregulations. But again, we must see a detailed schedule. Clashes with interested parties are inevitable. The proposal to ease problems of non-salaried workers has already caused an uproar in the labor market. Little progress has been made to extend the retirement age and revise the salary base. The president already indicated that pension reforms for teachers and veterans would be pushed back.
With such lack of will, we can’t help but wonder if the government can accomplish reform in the government employees’ pension program. Despite her strong words, the president did not offer a clear indication that she would remove red tape, especially prohibitions on industrial development around the capital. A local research institute estimated that easing two acts regarding industrial corporate activities could spur investment worth 1.4 trillion won ($1.29 billion) and 2,000 new jobs. What matters is action.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 13, Page 30