Seoul Must Not Waver in the Face of N.Korean Overtures

      August 24, 2009 13:11

      President Lee Myung-bak on Sunday met a delegation of high-ranking North Korean officials who came to South Korea for the funeral of former president Kim Dae-jung. It was the first time since Lee's inauguration that a meeting with a North Korean official took place at Cheong Wa Dae. Lee said, "I hope South and North Korea can cooperate and resolve all our problems" and asked that his administration's "consistent and firm North Korea policy" be conveyed to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, according to Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Lee Dong-kwan. The North Koreans had also delivered a message from their leader, but the presidential office did not disclose details citing its "sensitivity."

      The delegation delivered a message from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il which said, "I want to meet President Lee Myung-bak," a government official said. The president met with Kim Yang-gon, a North Korean Workers' Party director in charge of inter-Korean relations, who traveled to Seoul in secret in September 2007 to fine-tune the preparations for the summit between Kim Jong-il and then president Roh Moo-hyun that year. In his speech on Aug. 15 Liberation Day, Lee said, "Our government is ready to hold dialogue and cooperate with North Korea at any time and at any level about all inter-Korean issues."

      Lee is said to have told the North Korean delegation that Pyongyang should involve South Korea in discussing the nuclear issue with the United States, and that this will help resolve them easily. He called the meeting "the start of a new beginning" in inter-Korean relations and said, "There is no issue the South and the North cannot resolve if they talk with sincerity." Yet Lee also said a "paradigm shift" was necessary in inter-Korean relations based on international principles. In other words, he views inter-Korean relations from an international perspective rather than as a special relationship between the Korean people.

      North Korea was sanctioned by the UN Security Council this year for conducting a second nuclear test and launching a series of missiles. If the international community is to recognize North Korea as a normal state and offer it support, the North must first give up its nuclear program and its missiles. And if Seoul intends to develop relations with the North based on international standards, then it should start by convincing the North to abandon its nuclear weapons and missiles.

      The reason previous inter-Korean summits caused so much conflict in South Korea and drew so much concern from the international community was that they avoided the North Korean nuclear problem. Previous South Korean administrations saw inter-Korean summits as their crowning achievement and were reluctant to include such a thorny issue on the agenda for fear of drawing North Korea's ire. If the present government is considering a summit, then the nuclear issue must top the agenda. There is no longer any need for flashy summits that fail to address the greatest problem facing the Korean Peninsula. The South Korean public will no longer put up with them.

      North Korea's stance has been that the nuclear issue needs to be resolved with the U.S. The North Korean delegation is said to have reiterated that position. Everyone knows that the North is trying to get the upper hand on the peninsula by talking only with Washington and excluding Seoul. But the U.S. cannot guarantee North Korea's survival. Pyongyang may believe that going straight to Washington would prompt South Korea to offer more money and goods to stay in the picture, but that is a miscalculation.

      Realistically, South Korea is the only country that can be hit by a North Korean nuclear attack, and it is the only country that can provide vital food and other aid to North Korea. If Lee intends to hold a summit with Kim, he needs to make this very clear to the North Korean leader and let the North revise its survival strategy.

      Seoul was active in efforts by the UN Security Council in July to adopt Resolution 1874 and impose fresh sanctions on North Korea, and the international community has been implementing them. On Sunday, when Lee met the North Korean delegation, Philip Goldberg, the U.S. envoy for sanctions against North Korea, arrived in Seoul. His visit sent a clear signal. Seoul must make sure that its relations with Pyongyang do not conflict with the international sanctions.

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