Flexibility is neededLee Hee-ho, the widow of former President Kim Dae-jung, departs for Pyongyang today. A total of 18 former government officials, including Kim Sung-jae, the culture minister in the Kim administration, and liberal scholars such as Paik Nak-chung, emeritus professor at Seoul National University, will accompany her on the three-day trip to North Korea across the West Sea.
South-North relations have sunk to their lowest level since the hard-line Park Geun-hye government took charge in 2013, despite the president herself famously declaring unification a boon for all.
Civilian groups have been actively contacting their northern counterparts under the table to hold joint events. Such efforts would be meaningless unless both sides hold talks to ease tensions and strengthen cooperation towards the goal of peaceful reunification.
Lee’s visit to North Korea against such a gloomy backdrop attracted our attention, as it could help lead to a breakthrough in the deadlocked relations.
But the Park Geun-hye administration drew a line by reiterating that Lee makes a trip to the North on her own, not as a special emissary.
The government also sends the widow to Pyongyang without any groundbreaking proposal to turn the tide in the political logjam as a result of the government’s hawkish stance.
But the government’s official emissaries have not brought about breakthroughs in the past, and many of the most hope-inducing visits have come from unofficial visitors.
At the peak of the crisis over the North’s first nuclear test around in 1994, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Pyongyang on a personal level played a big part in achieving an outstanding result - a freeze in the North’s drive for nuclear capabilities.
But in South Korea and the United States at the time, Carter’s trip was criticized for potentially leading to unexpected chaos.
Today, the construction to reconnect the Seoul-Wonsan railway - cut off for decades since the 1950-53 Korean War - kicks off as part of President Park’s proposal in 2013 to mark the 70th anniversary of the division of the peninsula.
The government needs a flexible approach to South-North relations to pave the way for better ties. It can put aside politically sensitive issues for now. But it can definitely rekindle a drive for another round of family reunions or a repatriation of South Korean citizens detained in the North.
JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 5, Page 30