Dialogue with N.Korea Needs Patience and Consistency

      June 13, 2013 14:04

      North Korea on Wednesday again severed a hotline at the border peace village of Panmunjom, only a week after reopening it and a day after abruptly canceling planned talks with South Korea amid wrangling about the rank of the chief delegates from the two sides.

      The North proposed to send Kang Ji-yong, a director at the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland, which is in charge of cross-border affairs, but demanded that Seoul send the unification minister, and pretended to be hugely offended when Seoul instead named a vice minister, who still outranked its own faceless apparatchik.

      A director at the committee is not even allowed to attend strategy and policy meetings convened by leader Kim Jong-un, so it is patently absurd for North Korea to demand that Seoul must send its unification minister. Pyongyang is perfectly aware that this flies in the face of international protocol, and would not even try such a stunt with China, the U.S. or even Japan. The Unification Ministry said Wednesday it has no plans to propose further talks to the North.

      A Cheong Wa Dae official said, "No matter what previous administrations did, talks from now on must be held under normal conditions and based on common sense." The public here broadly supports that position. They have grown weary of North Korea's constant childish histrionics, and for once nobody here is in any doubt who is to blame for the breakdown of dialogue.

      But the North Korean regime bases its very existence on these histrionics. Arm-twisting and unpredictable behavior are the key to survival. It has no other international leverage. If that is to change, South Korea must be bolder than ever before. It must insist on common sense and a modicum of courtesy, and be prepared to accept that perhaps no progress can be made in official inter-Korean dialogue during the entire tenure of President Park Geun-hye, or even any contact at all.

      That is what happened over the last five years. During that time North Korea sank the Navy corvette Cheonan and shelled Yeonpyeong Island, but the heavens did not fall. Seoul needs to be strong if the North is to be brought to its senses.

      The government also needs to do some serious thinking about its strategy in building trust with North Korea through dialogue and efforts to scrap the North's nuclear weapons. Even Chinese government officials utter scripted platitudes during talks that are open to the press, and speak frankly only in closed-door sessions. North Korean officials must face even tougher limitations on what they can say when they believe themselves to be watched by their leaders and the public.

      There are at the moment no venues where North and South Korean officials can speak their minds without having to worry about formalities. If such conditions can be created, North Korea may not feel under such pressure to act out.

      The North has in the past blatantly revealed the contents of a confidential meeting with South Korea, but that is a reality South Korea has to come to terms with. If closed-door dialogue is always condemned as "backroom dealing," it will only lead to further debacles like the one this week. Achieving a summit with all pomp and circumstance should be the least of the government's worries.

      Instead, Seoul should continue close-door negotiations with North Korea at the working level before official talks put a solemn imprimatur on any agreements reached that way. Patience is needed in judging progress in inter-Korean dialogue. East and West Germany held six summits. But it was the forth that was most successful, because an unprecedented flurry of active closed-door meetings took place at the time to prepare for it.

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