How to Engage N.Korea in Dialogue

      January 04, 2010 12:46

      In his New Year's address on Monday, President Lee Myung-bak is unveiling a plan to improve relations with North Korea. Unification Minister Hyun In-taek in a policy briefing to the president last Thursday said, "All kinds of dialogue are possible, including those involving the highest officials." At the start of the New Year, there are signs of a potential thaw in inter-Korean relations, which had been virtually frozen during the first two years of the Lee administration. There is even talk of an inter-Korean summit.

      In a New Year's message on Friday carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, North Korea said, "It is the consistent stand of [North Korea] to establish a lasting peace framework on the Korean Peninsula and make it nuclear-free through dialogue and negotiations." The Choson Sinbo, a North Korean mouthpiece in Japan, said the message was a precursor to "radical changes" this year. It was markedly different from its New Year's message in 2009, when North Korea called the Lee administration "fascist" and called on South Koreans to rebel against their government.

      This is not the first time that North Korea shifted its stance to fit its needs. During the first half of 2009, the North was busy testing missiles and nuclear weapons, only to turn around during the second half and start making peace overtures to the U.S. and South Korean governments. North Korea has always used provocation and dialogue depending on the situation, so there is no need to get excited. Still, the shift is worth noting.

      In the title for its New Year's message, North Korea called on its people to speed up the development of the country's light manufacturing and farming industries to achieve a "decisive transformation." Those words demonstrate the seriousness of North Korea's economic situation. Public anger over the revaluation of the North Korean currency is said to show few signs of abating, and the third-generation dynastic transfer of power to Kim Jong-un does not seem to be going smoothly while the health of leader Kim Jong-il remains in question. These troubles are probably what is prompting the North to seek improved ties with South Korea and the U.S.

      North Korea said in its message, "The fundamental task for ensuring peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the rest of Asia is to put an end to the hostile relationship with the U.S." It may have waved an olive branch at South Korea to create conditions to improve ties and hold direct negotiations with the U.S. North Korea will use dialogue with Washington to demand a peace treaty, which in turn could lead to revisions in the South Korea-U.S. defense pact and cause changes in the status of American forces in the South.

      The uncertainties and complexities in inter-Korean ties could lead to major opportunities, but also carry heavy risks. Seoul must not regard a summit as a goal in itself but as a means to address the opportunities and risks in inter-Korean relations.

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