New threat from the North

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New threat from the North

In January 2003, President Kim Dae-jung sent envoys to North Korea with less than a month left in his term. Former National Intelligence Service chief Lim Dong-won, who was Kim’s North Korea policy strategist, and presidential transition committee member Lee Jong-seok, who designed the incoming Roh Moo-hyun administration’s North Korea policy and became Minister of Unification in 2006, headed to Pyongyang.

The envoys carried a letter from Kim detailing worries about the North’s highly enriched uranium (HEU) nuclear development, inter-Korean relations and the relationship with the incoming administration. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il did not meet the envoys. The Blue House and the government had hoped to arrange a meeting with Kim, but said the envoys’ journey was not a complete failure.

Veteran agents long involved in inter-Korean meetings say that “an envoy is an envoy when he is actually received by the other side.” While communication between high officials is important, it can lead to a fiasco if it does not live up to expectations or a meeting does not happen. Yet, the possibility of sending a special envoy is often discussed because of the hope of expecting a quick resolution.

Minister of Unification Cho Myoung-gyon said that the government will aggressively push the idea of sending an envoy to North Korea as Pyongyang did not yet respond to a proposal for an official meeting in late August. A related source said it was a tempting option as it could quickly bring a top-down resolution of the current stalemate.

But he advised that the timing may not be right, “as the ongoing conflict did not result from a difference in stance on specific issues between South and North Korea, but was caused by Kim Jong-un’s nuclear and missile provocations.” Therefore, the tension should first be resolved between Pyongyang and Washington, he said. As Pyongyang cannot afford to take the offer of a special envoy now, Seoul could lose face for suggesting one.

The government is working hard on resuming official talks. The Ministry of Unification expressed the willingness to restore and develop inter-Korean relations in a report to the National Assembly’s Foreign Policy and Unification Committee on Oct. 13. 131 contacts with North Korea have been approved since the liberal administration was established in May. It is also weighing the timing to execute $8 million in aid to the North.

The government is bent on restoring inter-Korean ties. Above all, it is the best policy to set itself apart from the nine years of conservative administrations. The liberals no doubt have the absolute advantage of having successfully facilitated two inter-Korean summits.

Nevertheless, South Korea was faced with the brutal reality of nuclear and missiles provocations shortly after the new administration launched. Kim Jong-un’s extreme provocations enraged public opinion and the international community. President Moon even called North Korea an “enemy” and condemned its nuclear experiment for “disappointing and enraging” South Korea.

On Moon’s hard-line stance, former unification minister Jeong Se-hyun said that Moon was “becoming like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.” The liberal administration is caught between the rightists and liberals. The nuclear and missile threats could lead to political debacles like the mad cow disease scare during the Lee Myung-bak administration and Park Geun-hye’s mishandling of the Sewol ferry tragedy. It could also affect the local elections in June 2018.

The government wants to leave some room for a breakthrough by encouraging North Korean athletes to participate in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in February 2018. But that is not likely to happen. North Korea remained unresponsive on the anniversary of the June 15 Joint Declaration or Liberation Day on Aug. 15. The tenth anniversary of the second Joint Declaration and Chuseok holiday on Oct. 4 also passed without communication. Pyongyang focused on reinforcing internal unity by holding a Workers Party meeting.

North Korea may soon seek peaceful options. After its sixth nuclear test, Pyongyang is known to be gearing up for Hwasong-14 ICBM and SLBM launches. But it has no other means to threaten the United States and the world. A nuclear attack or strike on Washington is nearly impossible realistically. Kim may feel that a sword is more powerful when it remains in its sheath. Nuclear weapons are an arms system that is most valuable when its power is veiled.

The sanctions triggered by the nuclear and missile provocations are tightening on the Kim Jong-un regime. It is no longer boasting that it won’t submit to pressure. It seems to have really felt the pressure and set up a committee to investigate damages from the sanctions. Public rallies are held on a daily basis in Pyongyang and other cities denouncing sanctions and pledging resistance. North Korean ambassador to the United Nations Ja Sung-nam said on Oct. 11 that the sanctions brought serious difficulties in schools, production of textbooks and food for children. But the international community is unsympathetic to Kim Jong-un as he invited the sanctions with nuclear and missile provocations.

Having the entire world against it, the Kim regime seems to be seeking ways to survive. Choe Son-hui, head of the North America department, was sent to Russia to deal with former U.S. Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who was involved in the Iran nuclear deal. As early as January, we may see a drastic peace offensive in Kim Jong-un’s New Year address as surprising as the nuclear and missile provocations.

Kim could declare the completion of his nuclear armory, call for a simultaneous reduction of conventional weapons in South and North Korea and demand the dissolution of the Korea-U.S. Combined Forces Command and a withdrawal of U.S. Forces in Korea. If he proposes arms reduction talks and suggests family reunions or cooperation projects, South Korea could fall into serious internal discord. It could be an oasis of death for the liberal Moon Jae-in administration. We need to be warier of a peace offensive — rather than talks — and prepare thoroughly.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 18, Page 30

*The author is head of the JoongAng Ilbo Unification Research Institute.

Lee Young-jong
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