There are mounting fears in South Korea over thawing relations between the U.S. and North Korea, based on bad memories of the past. In June of 1994, former North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed the Agreed Framework whereby the North would halt its nuclear weapons program in exchange for energy and the construction of a light-water reactor courtesy of the international community.
Washington and Pyongyang proposed an inter-Korean summit, mindful of opposition from Seoul, which wanted a complete end to the North Korean nuclear weapons program. But Kim Il-sung suddenly died, and his son, Kim Jong-il, without holding a summit with the South, began negotiations with the U.S. and eventually signed the Geneva accords in October.
Kim Jong-il refused to talk with South Korea because he felt Seoul was not showing enough respect for the funeral of his father. Kim would only deal with Washington. The South tried in vain to initiate dialogue with the North, while U.S.-North Korean relations warmed. This lasted for six years until the first inter-Korean summit of 2000.
Before his death, Kim Jong-il reached a tentative agreement with the U.S. to temporarily halt uranium enrichment as well as nuclear and missile tests in exchange for food aid. North Korea also agreed to U.S. demands to hold two rounds of denuclearization talks with South Korea to improve ties that were strained by the North's sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan. Now Kim Jong-un is refusing to speak with South Korea while reaching an agreement with the U.S. according to the terms reached by his father. History seems to be repeating itself.
The most important thing for Kim Jong-un is to establish his grip on power amid the chaos created by the sudden death of his father. The 27-year-old must gain control over a million-strong army and a cadre of officials old enough to be his fathers and win the hearts and minds of North Korea's 25 million people. The dynastic succession is not as easy as it looks.
The biggest threat to Kim Jong-un is the powerful and affluent South. Around 30,000 North Korean defectors now live in South Korea, and many of them send money back to their families in the North and contact them as well. South Korean pop culture in the form of TV dramas and music is spreading clandestinely throughout North Korean society, and changes in the social attitudes of the people are clearly evident.
The botched currency reform two years ago faced strong public opposition and had to be abandoned. North Korean officials know that they cannot increase their control without blocking out influences from South Korea. For four years, Kim Jong-il established his trademark "songun" or military first ideology by halting inter-Korean dialogue and channeling the country's resources into armaments even as millions of North Koreans starved to death. Paradoxically, warming ties with the U.S. and worsening relations with South Korea is the result of the dilemma facing North Korea's political system.
The government will face a lot of criticism for letting North Korea talk to Washington while ignoring Seoul. And that criticism is likely to intensify ahead of the general elections in April and presidential election in December. But if the South frantically seeks dialogue with North Korea at this point, it would only stoke the North's ego. The more the government begs for talks with North Korea, the more Kim Jong-un will believe in the effectiveness of his strategy. It would be pathetic if Seoul-Pyongyang talks were seen as a mere sideshow to warming ties between North Korea and the U.S.
Inter-Korean dialogue is a means, not an end. One goal in dealing with the North is to manage the chaos and uncertainties posed by the power transfer there so that the lives of South Koreans are in less danger. Another goal is to get the North to scrap its nuclear weapons and to implement reforms. The best way to forecast the future is to create a framework for it. Inter-Korean dialogue is not the only tool that exists to achieve these goals. Seoul can use the U.S. and China as well as economic and cultural exchanges. It needs to overcome its knee-jerk fear of being left out and look at the variety of other means at its disposal.
By Yoon Duk-min, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security