Evaluations of President Lee Myung-bak's performance over the last three years vary, but he is generally seen as having been consistent in his North Korea policy. While maintaining that he is willing to help the North if it abandons its nuclear weapons program and reforms and opens up, he refuses to cave in under the North's provocations and threats. Many domestic policies have been adjusted or reversed, but in terms of North Korea policy, he is widely believed to have stood firm.
The Lee administration's North Korea policy was clearly a breath of fresh air for the South Korean public, who had been used to a decade of treading softly-softly and giving the North generous handouts for nothing under the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. It is particularly significant because he has not given in to persistent attacks on the policy from the opposition parties and left-wing forces, who try to change the policy. Many leftwing pundits have urged obliging the North in the name of "brotherhood" and "peace." They also want six-party nuclear talks to resume unconditionally as a way of helping the North Korean regime out of its growing isolation.
Members of the ruling Grand National Party, conservative pundits and even some of Lee's associates have said the South must counteract China's growing influence on the North by making concessions. In an extreme case, they warn, the North could be absorbed by China, and that would be the end of any hopes of reunification. But in the 21st century, a country is not going to become a colony simply because it has debts.
Lee, too, has sometimes seemed to waver. Some suspect that his offer to invite North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul next year was an attempt to free himself from the shackles of his rigid policy. Without North Korea's attacks on the Navy corvette Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island last year, they say there would have been no additional economic sanctions against Pyongyang, and his North Korea policy would have softened soon enough.
Lee abandoned the idea of replacing hardline Unification Minister Hyun In-taek with the dove-ish Yu Woo-ik, which he had conceived after the GNP was trounced in the April 27 by-elections. But that he had the idea at all suggests he is not immune to the temptation of a showy inter-Korean summit, and the constribution he could then be seen to have made on the road to reunification.
And indeed, why shouldn't he? Every president, including Park Chung-hee, tried to make a summit happen, and behind-the-scenes negotiations never cease.
Can he remain firm? Kim Jong-il recently visited China in a desperate bid for military and economic aid and approval of his son's succession, but he met with a lukewarm response from his hosts. It remains to be seen where Kim will turn. Given that the North faces serious food shortages this year, he may extend his hand to South Korea and Lee. Or if he thinks that a leftwing government will take office in 2012, he could try to hold out for the rest of Lee's tenure.
Leftwingers in the South, too, will not wish to see Lee meet Kim Jong-il near the end of his term. That Kim mentioned the six-party talks in Beijing is suggestive. It indicates that he is looking for some sort of solution to the economic crisis from the international community, rather than from either China or South Korea.
Lee must do his best. If he remains consistent, without being shaken by the attacks of the opposition parties, leftwingers and the appeasers in the ruling camp, the North will eventually respond. This is a critical time. If Lee vacillates now, his entire North Korea policy will have been a waste of time and the North Korea problem will become chronic. "Waiting without resorting to hostile acts is the best way," a scholar said. He was right.
By Chosun Ilbo columnist Kim Dae-joong