Searching for the peakOn Nov. 3, North Korea’s state-controlled Rodong Sinmun’s headline was “Park Geun-hye must step down by noon, Nov. 12.” It was reporting the demand of some South Korean groups. The article included some wishful thinking and attitude on the part of Pyongyang: “South Korean groups made an ultimatum” and “powerful struggles brought the traitor to justice.”
At the end of last month, North Korea geared up its propaganda and agitation. It pays no attention to the Ministry of Unification’s admonition to “refrain from intervene in domestic affairs.” It is eager to pay back the Park Geun-hye administration’s continued harping on the possibility of “North Korea’s collapse.”
The Choi Soon-sil scandal surrounding President Park Geun-hye has swept away all other issues. Foreign policy, our security, North Korea and unification are no exception. Only two months ago, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, and the president and her government made full-scale responses and sought international cooperation. But the public remains calm even when an additional nuclear test is a possibility and foreign media report on the prospect of another Musudan intermediate-range missile launch within days.
Additional sanctions on the North have now become a kind of sport among the United States, China and Japan. Inter-Korean relations don’t get any attention from anyone. A unification ministry official said he even misses the days when Seoul and Pyongyang exchanged sharp attacks.
North Korea experts and defectors busy with television appearances and lectures say that their business has been ruined by the Choi Soon-sil scandal. No one wants to watch them on TV anymore.
In a New Year’s address in 2014, Park declared, “Unification is a jackpot for us.” Two months later, she proposed a plan for peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula at Dresden University of Technology. Recently, it has been revealed that Choi, a longtime friend of Park, reviewed the draft of the Dresden Declaration in advance. Park’s North Korea policy, which has been dubbed the “Korean Peninsula trust process,” is in tatters.
Allegations and suspicions are rapidly spreading. It is suspected that Choi was behind the government’s decision to shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex in February as a part of sanctions on the North. Businessmen who ran factories in the industrial park want to resume operations, especially if the closing of the park was some kind of power play by a presidential friend.
It is unacceptable that the head of state had a personal friend involved in policy-making. It is especially serious for North Korean and security-related issues. The Korean people are understandably angry and frustrated.
But at this moment, we need composure and wisdom to distinguish facts from allegations. The foreign policy and security agenda is extremely complicated due to our relationships with the United States and China.
The closure of the Kaeseong Industrial Complex was decided through three-day consultations among ministries after a long-range missile test in early February and was decided by the National Security Council on February 10, said a government official.
The decision on the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) deployment also needs to be understood in the same context. It is hard to believe that a presidential chum had the power to okay a U.S. weapons system deployment in South Korea. Washington’s Korean Peninsula policy does not work so simply.
What’s important is the management of North Korean policy and inter-Korean relations in the remaining years of Park’s term. She has already lost moral leadership due to the scandal. As her term nears its end, the bureaucrats have started to blame the president for failures and mistakes in the government’s North Korea strategy. It is hard to find anyone who is determined to stick to an approach on North Korea based on principles, which is how a policy should be run.
Since the Kim Dae-jung administration, Seoul’s North Korea policy has gone through a decade of a liberal agenda — the so-called Sunshine Policy — followed by a decade of a conservative agenda featuring less engagement. People in the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations called the Sunshine Policy followed by the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations “a lost decade.”
But they are likely to be judged in exactly the same way. At this rate, we cannot avoid watching an ugly mud fight of those who ruined the nation. We are tired of the fight among those who don’t care about the people or the security of the nation.
32-year-old North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is making a 50-year plan through nuclear possession. We are at the critical crossroads: we can move towards integration and prosperity or fall back into despair. We desperately need concentration to march toward reunification. But we have lost direction as if we are under the spell of black magic.
Poet Lee Eun-sang wrote in his poem “The Peak is Right Ahead”: “Born with the destiny of suffering, riding on the ridge of history, we are crawling up day and night. We cannot give up here when the peak is right ahead.” The Republic of Korea couldn’t have come this far if we give up so easily.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 4, Page 28
*The author is head of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute and a unification specialist for the JoongAng Ilbo.