Hyundai-N.Korea Agreement Should Serve to Thaw Icy Inter-Korean Relations

      August 18, 2009 12:31

      Hyundai Group chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun returned to South Korea after meeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and signing a five-point accord. On the outside, the accord seems to be an unofficial one made in the private sector between Hyundai and North Korea's Asia Pacific Peace Committee, which is responsible for inter-Korean business projects. But considering its contents promising the resumption of tours to Mt. Kumgang and Kaesong, the launch of tour programs to Mt. Baekdu, the normalization of the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex, and the resumption of reunions of separated families during Chuseok or Korean Thanksgiving, which falls on Oct. 3, it could lead to a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations, which have been deadlocked since July of last year when a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist at Mt. Kumgang. To realize the Hyundai-North Korea accord, as the Unification Ministry said, an agreement must be reached between the South and the North, and this calls for immediate talks between the two sides.

      Since there is only a month and a half left before Chuseok, the two governments and Red Cross officials need to begin discussing the reunion of separated families right way. When it comes to the resumption of tours to Mt. Kumgang, the government has been demanding a joint investigation into the shooting death of tourist Park Wang-ja as well as an apology from Pyongyang and a pledge that such an incident will not happen again. Thus, Hyundai's accord with the North alone is not enough to resume tours to the North Korean mountain resort. Even if South Korea agrees to accept a roundabout way to meet its demands, both sides should anyway meet to discuss how to do it. North Korea's decision to lift restrictions on border-crossings has removed hurdles to normalize the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex and to resume tours to Kaesong, but the safety of tourists and South Koreans remaining at the complex still need to be guaranteed. As for the tour programs to Mt. Baekdu, the South Korean government not only needs to give a green light to Hyundai, but also the two governments have to conclude an aviation agreement.

      Without making any concrete promises, North Korea simply said that all accommodations and safety issues will be strictly guaranteed according to the special order issued by its leader Kim Jong-il. This may work in North Korea, but it is not sufficient as a guarantee to the outside world. When Park was shot to death and Hyundai Asan worker Yu Seong-jin was detained for months by North Korean authorities, the South Korean public realized there was nothing their government could do and concluded that inter-Korean business projects could not continue under such conditions.

      Because of the fact that the agreement between Hyundai and the North is simply a civilian accord, it could be viewed as being part of North Korea's propaganda attempt. But since it could lead both governments to resume stalled talks, flexibility should be shown. Pyongyang should also promptly release the four fishermen detained by North Korea after their vessel 800 Yeonan strayed into the communist country's waters, so that remaining obstacles to the resumption of inter-Korean projects can be removed.

      North Korea must realize that South Korea is the only country willing to offer substantial support during difficult times, and make a strategic decision about what to do by taking into account the "new peace regime" by President Lee Myung-bak calling for Pyongyang's abandonment of nuclear weapons in return for economic support.

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