On January 12, President Park Geun-hye said for the first time that she was willing to hold a summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un without any preconditions. Her statement came after the North rejected the National Assembly’s call for a resumption of negotiations on human rights, separated families and other issues and Kim Jong-un demanded “the right atmosphere” for a resumption of dialogue. By signaling a readiness for talks without preconditions, Park is skillfully putting pressure on Pyongyang to drop its own demands for an end to U.S.-ROK military maneuvers or condemnation of human rights violations before it will engage with Seoul. If the Blue House stratagem works, then North-South talks might get back on track.
What if the minuet between Seoul and Pyongyang actually leads to a North-South summit before Park leaves office? There are at least four issues the Blue House would have to handle carefully.
First, how would Seoul respond to the North’s conditions? For example, one of the North’s key demands is that Seoul stop activists from launching balloons with anti-North Korea leaflets across the border. Park has replied that the government must uphold the basic right of freedom of expression, but could request the groups from refraining from further launches for public safety reasons. This could be treacherous territory right now. The United Nations Commission of Inquiry into Human Rights in North Korea has referred the issue to the Security Council for the first time, citing systematic human rights abuses, including forced starvation, enslavement and rape. There is also increased international scrutiny of Seoul’s position on freedom of expression because of the prosecution of a Japanese journalist for a story about Park and the expulsion of Korean-American Shin Eun-mi for praising the North. These are complicated cases on their own, but the appearance of more government efforts to silence criticism of the North right now would play badly for the government.
Second, how would the Blue House meet Pyongyang’s expectations for economic rewards for a summit? In 2000 Kim Dae-jung offered Kim Jong-il the Kaesong Industrial Project and expanded tourism at Mount Kumgang in addition to secret cash payments. Seven years later, Roh Moo-hyun pledged expanded cooperation, but he was already a lame duck and the North had ruined any prospect for economic inducements because of nuclear testing. It is doubtful that Park could or would offer significant economic cooperation beyond Mount Kumgang tourism or other limited measures that are usually associated with the resumption of reunions of separated families. Morally, the Blue House is right to do what it can to help Korean citizens see their loved ones in the North, but this is usually the result of lower level talks - not necessarily the stuff of summits.
This raises a third issue: how would Seoul handle the nuclear issue in a summit? Limited economic cooperation to facilitate North-South reunions would probably not in itself induce Kim Jong-un to join a summit. If Pyongyang accepts a summit, its motivation would almost certainly be to change the international dynamics surrounding the nuclear issue. By agreeing to a summit without conditions, Park has certainly implied that she would meet even if the North refuses to freeze, reverse or halt its nuclear and missile programs. Pyongyang would want to present a North-South summit to domestic and international audiences as evidence that neighboring states are prepared for peaceful coexistence with a nuclear North; or use it to dissuade Seoul or Beijing from applying pressure on them; or to demonstrate that there are divisions among the surrounding states. Presidents Kim and Roh did not care as much how Pyongyang used the summits for international and domestic propaganda, but this would have to be an area of concern for the Park government.
Finally, the announcement of readiness for a North-South summit “without preconditions” raises questions about what principles guide Park’s approach to diplomacy overall. How, one might ask, can Seoul say “no preconditions” for a meeting with the leader of a regime that is condemned by the international community for the most egregious nuclear proliferation and human rights abuses, yet continue to demand conditions for a summit with the leader of Japan? No matter how frustrating the Japanese discourse on sensitive historical issues, this is a hard juxtaposition to explain.
Park has seized the moral and diplomatic high ground with her principled yet forthcoming attitude towards the North. A dialogue aimed at longer-term reunification that begins with a discussion of divided families, improvement of North Koreans’ lives, and the recovery of national identity could serve peace and stability on the peninsula without damaging efforts to end the North’s nuclear program. Washington trusts Park’s instincts on the North in a way that was less true when Roh scrambled to arrange a summit in 2007. Yet the more forthcoming the Blue House is with Pyongyang, the more careful it will have to be about retaining pressure on the nuclear issue and human rights.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
by Michael Green