There is a time for everythingUnification Minister Lee In-young held a business conference on Monday, which was the 10th anniversary of North Korea’s deadly bombardment at the inhibited frontline island of Yeonpyeong. Senior executives from household companies like Samsung Electronics, Hyundai Motor, SK and LG as well as business organizations attended the meeting on the topic of supplying aid to North Korea.
A cabinet member in charge of fostering peaceful inter-Korean relations should work to improve ties. But there is a time for everything. Ten years ago, North Korea’s artilleries killed two South Korean civilians and two soldiers. Residents of the island had to flee to the mainland for shelter. The bombardment of artilleries and rockets ruined 22 houses and 70 percent of the forests.
The attack took place just eight months after the North’s underwater attack on the South’s patrol ship Cheonan. If the minister could not go to the memorial service, he should at least have the decency to arrange a meeting to aid North Korea on a different day.
Lee has been acting out of tune with public sentiment. On Nov. 18, he proposed to share Covid-19 vaccines with North Korea. His comment came when the government has yet to secure vaccines when other governments have long worked hard to make the first orders. On the following day, Pyongyang flatly refused any aid from outside.
Two days after his controversial remarks Lee then proposed to set up a joint virus response center at the border. North Korea, which has been putting off any form of contact with South Korea, would hardly agree. Moreover, people in the South cannot agree to the idea. Two months ago, the North shot a South Korean fisheries official and burned his body at sea. In June, North Korea blasted down the inter-Korean liaison office building in Kaesong in protest to the dispatch of fliers critical of the Kim Jong-un regime. Few people would support the idea of aiding North Korea at this stage.
In his first press conference on Nov. 9, the minister said the U.S. election could be a geopolitical turning point. It is more important to act prudently after objective judgment of the changes during the transition period. The Biden presidency won’t likely pursue a top-down bargaining policy with Kim Jong-un as President Donald Trump may have preferred. The Democratic administration will likely go back to instilling sanctions and pressure to denuclearize North Korea. Seoul’s peace process based on the engagement policy toward Pyongyang therefore requires a huge fix. Lee will lose public confidence at home if he pursues détente with little regards to public sentiment.