Shifting Ties with N.Korea Will Be a Long Game

      August 25, 2009 13:53

      Cheong Wa Dae spokesman Lee Dong-kwan on Monday said the government believes that the old ways in inter-Korean summits or dialogue "are no longer permissible" and called for a change in inter-Korean relations described by the media as "paradigm shift." "Inter-Korean relations must not be viewed as a special relationship and remain trapped in that framework, but must be subject to international principles in order to progress," he said.

      The government said the new principle was applied in practice for the first time when President Lee Myung-bak met a delegation of North Korean officials who were in Seoul for the funeral of former President Kim Dae-jung. Previous administrations allowed visiting North Korean officials to meet government officials at their convenience. But this time, Lee included the meeting in a string of similar encounters with officials from other countries who had come to pay their respects to Kim. And instead of timing it by the schedule of the North Koreans, they had to wait their turn, with the result that they extended their stay by an extra day to meet the president. The government reportedly told the delegation that fundamental progress in inter-Korean relations is possible only when the nuclear problem is resolved. With that, the Lee administration has placed an issue at the top of its agenda for talks with North Korea that previous governments were afraid to address in case it might anger the regime.

      The government did the right thing in deciding to pursue dialogue but make it clear that the rules have changed. The reason past inter-Korean talks generated so much debate and conflict in South Korea lies not only in what was discussed but in the way the talks took place. Previous administrations approached inter-Korean talks as their crowning achievement, which only encouraged North Korea's impudence, acting as though South Korea should be thanking the North for accepting aid. This has angered many South Koreans. Under the two administrations of the last decade, South Korea gave US$6.9 billion worth of assistance to the North, but instead of a "thank you," North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and test-launched a battery of missiles. This is why South Korea has been accused of inadvertently aiding the North's arms development by providing lavish cash support for the regime and allowing it to gain valuable time.

      The Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun governments handled inter-Korean ties on the basis of a "special relationship," with some officials even talking about an "internal approach" whereby North Korea's antics must be seen from the perspective of its own government. But by treating inter-Korean relations as a special matter among "one nation," South Korea ended up rationalizing Pyongyang's grandstanding, and the internal approach meant turning a blind eye to its vile human rights abuses.

      The government has called for a "paradigm shift" in inter-Korean relations because it wants to emancipate itself from that relationship and apply proper international principles to cross-border ties. But chances that North Korea will simply accept this are slim. The two Koreas may well end up in a prolonged tug-of-war, and inter-Korean dialogue could fall apart again before any fundamental changes can be achieved.

      The government will need patience and wisdom as well as flexibility as it pursues its broad objectives in relations with North Korea.

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