Don’t lose the third year

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Don’t lose the third year

Shaky peace persists between South and North Korea. Tensions over military drills in the South and an anti-North human rights group’s intermittent distribution of propaganda leaflets through balloons across the border show no sign of let-up this year. Despite spectacular growth of the North’s nuclear capability, concerned parties’ diplomatic efforts to denuclearize the recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang are off-track. Apart from the Kaesong Industrial Complex, inter-Korean economic cooperation has frozen since the attack on the South’s Cheonan warship in 2010. Even the joint industrial park could face trouble any time after Pyongyang’s unilateral notification of a pay raise for employees earlier this month. Regardless of President Park Geun-hye and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s earlier vow to achieve better relations, no tangible improvement has been made.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of our liberation from Japan’s colonial rule, which could build momentum for rapprochement. Park faces no major election this year, while Kim has to show who he really is after wrapping up the three-year mourning period after his father’s death in 2012. Given all conditions involved, inter-Korean ties will likely be at a crossroads.

The third year of the five-year presidency was a turning point in South-North relations. In the Roh Tae-woo administration, high-level talks ended up with the 1990 Inter-Korean Basic Agreement and the 1991 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

In the third year, Kim Dae-jung held the first summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and Lee Myung-bak saw two fatal maritime battles - the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong shelling - unfold on the Yellow Sea.

There are many reasons to improve inter-Korean relations. First of all, it helps broaden our diplomatic space in Northeast Asia where inter-Korean dialogue and cooperation has fallen into the vortex of distrust and confrontation. Improved ties will offer economic opportunities to our businesses while reducing North Korea’s over-reliance on China for survival. It could also encourage our diplomacy to turn the North into a denuclearized state.

The government must lay the cornerstone for a new approach linking the establishment of a peace system in the peninsula and denuclearization of North Korea. The people want to see some tangible progress beyond the planning stage in bilateral ties. The president can’t do it if she misses a perfect chance in her third year.

JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 23, Page 30

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