‘We’re willing to address thesecurity concerns’

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‘We’re willing to address thesecurity concerns’

Jeong Yong-soo

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

The scar from a blister on the upper lip of Unification Minister Kwon Young-se pointed to the hard work he has faced since taking office in May. Despite the suspension of inter-Korean dialogue after the launch of the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol administration, Kwon has been busy drawing up so-called “bold plan” to deal with North Korea and the controversial repatriation of two North Korean defectors during the Moon Jae-in administration.

In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo on July 27 — the day when the Armistice Agreement was signed between the UN Command and North Korea 69 years ago —Kwon stressed the need to normalize inter-Korean relations, maintain principles and have dialogue for future cooperation. He made clear the new administration’s position to correct — not entirely deny — the wrong practices in the previous administration to help break the deadlock in South-North relations. The following is the interview.

Q. Will the forced repatriation of North Koreans in 2019 affect inter-Korean relations in the future?

A. That’s an issue that should be dealt with according to our Constitution and law, not something North Korea should get involved in. The past administration often damaged our principles and yielded to North Korea’s demand for the sake of dialogue. The Yoon administration pursues practical and flexible policies toward North Korea while upholding principles. We need to let North Korea recognize that change, though it may take time.

What principles and flexibility does the Yoon administration want to show to North Korea?

We prioritize free democracy and human rights. But we can take a flexible approach to dialogue or negotiation. Despite the opposition from conservatives, we have an intention to offer the public access to North Korea’s media reports. On humanitarian aid, we can cooperate with North Korea without taking external conditions into account.

Have you said that with aid to North Korea in mind?

As North Korea said it needs help in public health and medical fields, we’ll provide what they need. We can help lift sanctions on North Korea if needed. If it requests food aid, we can provide it on humanitarian grounds. That will help build trust and draw denuclearization from North Korea.

The government expects that food production in North Korea will worsen this year in the wake of the pandemic and drought. The CIA recently projected that North Korea will suffer a food shortage of 860,000 tons, the amount to feed entire North Koreans for two months.

Is that what was meant by the bold plan?

Bold plan refers to a massive assistance to North Korea if it chooses to denuclearize. As Pyongyang mentions so-called “security concerns,” we also are willing to deal with the issue. That’s a big difference from the Lee Myung-bak administration. As North Korea says it developed nuclear missiles because of security concerns, the country will lose the cause for nuclear development if we remove the concern. When we have dialogue, I would ask North Korea what steps it wants South Korea to take. We are willing to help the North improve its relations with the United States.

North Korea has not respond to South Korea’s proposal for dialogue at all. Do you have any ideas about restoring relations?

We are trying to find a creative solution. No matter how sumptuous a feast a chef has prepared, it would be meaningless if the guests don’t eat. Allowing the private sector to open the door to dialogue could be an idea to facilitate the exchanges, followed by aggressive government support. Even under the past liberal administrations, there was a limit to civilian exchanges. That’s because the dialogue was led by the government. We will proactively encourage religious exchanges in particular.

Does Seoul have an effective means to prevent Pyongyang from launching an armed provocation?

A. Nuclear bombs and missiles are different. Over its missile launches, some countries vetoed UN sanctions on North Korea, but if it conducts another test, the situation will change. Even if additional UN sanctions are not imposed, South Korea can consider separate sanctions together with the U.S., Japan and the European Union.

What is your most important job?
Unification Minister Kwon Young-se talks with the JoongAng Ilbo about the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s North Korea policy.

That would be a division of roles between the National Intelligence Service (NIS) and the Ministry of Unification. So far, the ministry mostly played the role of executing decisions made by the NIS or the National Security Office (NSO) in the presidential office. Now is the time for the ministry to draw up — and set the direction for — North Korea policy rather than simply carrying it out. Strangely, the spy agency has been directly involved in negotiating — and making compromise — with North Korea even though it is a body aiming to collect information and engage in espionage activities since the July 4 South-North Joint Statement in 1972. We must put all of them back on track. We will pursue North Korea policy based on national consensus.

Do you have anything to say to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un or Ri Son-gwon, chairman of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland?

The entire world, including South Korea, is having tough times after the pandemic and the start of the Ukraine war. South and North Korea under such harsh circumstances must have dialogue and cooperate to tackle challenges first. I hope North Korea comes to the negotiating table.
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