Park’s greatest sin ㅡ distractionAn awkward moment came to Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo a few days ago while attending a seminar on unification to make a congratulatory remark. “You must not have much to do these days,” one guest bluntly told him to his face. Hong tried to be cool about it.
“There are everyday affairs that keep me busy,” he said, and the audience chuckled along equally uncomfortably. Unification, along with other state affairs, has been put on hold due to the power abuse scandal involving the president and her friend Choi Soon-sil.
The damage is not limited to Hong. North Korean experts and defectors who had been in high demand to speak in various news programs have not been sought after by broadcasters for more than a month. The news of the UN Security Council slapping its toughest-yet sanctions on North Korea, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordering his troops to wipe out South Koreans during his recent visit to a training session made brief mentions on local media. Popular professors and pundits on North Korea who usually earn 10 million won ($8,580) a month for lectures and article contributions complain of poor business in year-end, which usually had been their peak season.
They no longer can expect handsome side payments, even though North Korea gets more unpredictable and aggressive.
The Choi Soon-sil scandal has spilled over to unification and North Korean affairs upon rumors that most of North Korean policies including President Park Geun-hye’s famous comment about “unification jackpot” could have been the brainchild of Choi. The rumor was put to silence after it was clarified that the term was borrowed by Shin Chang-min, an honorary professor at ChungAng University who wrote a book titled “Unification is a Jackpot” seven months before Park elaborated on the merits of a unification in her 2014 New Year’s address. But distrust ran deeply. Some even suspected the decision to shut down the inter-Korean industrial park in Kaesong in February as the work of Choi.
Policy drive also lost steam because of distrust in the disgraced policymaker. Every policy on North Korea that had been the hard work of the government and other elite minds is being questioned. Critics take pleasure in ridiculing politics they did not like as the magic work of a cult group. But such childish and emotional outbursts will do little to help inter-Korean relationship. The policies on North Korea and foreign and security decisions in related to North Korea require highly sophisticated and delicate brainwork. If the fate of the Kaesong industrial complex, which had been the sole inter-Korean joint venture that survived nuclear and other military provocations from North Korea, had been in the hands of a ringleader of a shadowy inner circle, Hong’s lips would not have been so cracked during the negotiations to suggest the toil and work the government had put in to arrive to a best possible solution.
Concentration on North Korea has been distinctively shaken. North Korea’s Kim let out his fiery rhetoric, ushering his forces to march towards the South, but few in the South seemed to be paying attention. North Korean hackers invaded the military intranet computer system in August and are suspected of having stolen classified military information, but no one is making fuss about it. The United Nations and the international community have come up with a new package of sanctions on North Korea for its fifth nuclear test after long deliberation, but South Korea is not very concerned. We don’t see any moves from the foreign department pitching to get U.S. president-elect Donald Trump’s attention on North Korean affairs. Pyongyang has sensed Seoul’s heedlessness and is making reconciliatory gestures to work directly with Washington. It said it won’t make provocations until it learns of the North Korea policy of the Trump administration.
The mood in North Korea and the surroundings is not good. Kim now marks his fifth year as the ruler of North Korea this month and considers the political upheaval in the South a windfall. He would like to make Choi a national hero if he could. Pyongyang’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, covered Park Geun-hye’s fall from grace in detail, declaring a complete collapse of the conservative forces in South Korea. The 32-year-old leader may be now confident about ruling for the next half a century. Because of the absence of Seoul, outsiders are making rash geopolitical judgments about the Korean Peninsula. Lieutenant General Thomas S. Vandal, the commander of the Eighth U.S. Army in South Korea, warned that North Korea could carry out a military provocation in the next 30 to 60 days to see how the new U.S. administration would react.
Seoul’s North Korean policy reflects the government’s philosophy and direction. Liberal governments under Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun that emphasized a humanitarian approach and cooperation with North Korea have been criticized for all-giving and all-yielding attitudes towards Pyongyang. The conservative administrations of presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, determined to be the opposite of the previous governments, turned too rigid in addressing North Korea. Inter-Korean relations wore down due to lengthy tensions. The candidates running for next year’s presidential election were demanded of studying the merits and defects of both liberal and conservative governments of the last decade to come up with a new strategy and vision on inter-Korean relationship. The mega-scandal of Park has ruined so much that we should have kept in mind. Contestants would have to enter the race unprepared because sudden change of the schedule in election. The impeachment is not the end of the national ordeal. Policymakers must keep vigilance so that North Korean policy does not become jeopardized amidst the political turmoil. We must remind ourselves that impeachment against the president is not our only worry.
JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 9, page 32
*The author is head of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute and a unification specialist for the JoongAng Ilbo.