It is far more comforting to talk about talks than to discuss the dangers of war on the Korean Peninsula. Last year was full of tensions and confrontations between the North and South, which culminated in the sinking of the Cheonan ship by an alleged North Korean torpedo, an exchange of artillery fire over Yeonpyeong Island and an ensuing escalation of readiness for war.
The beginning of this year brings a new momentum for resuming talks with North Korea. Talks, if held, will be about avoiding provocations, keeping peace and stability, improving inter-Korean relations, and ultimately dismantling North Korea’s nuclear programs. We don’t know whether this rare momentum will be harnessed for a breakthrough, or if it will be left to wither away. However, this momentum did not come out of the blue.
Perhaps the tipping point from tension to talks was reached when the North chose not to fire back—contrary to its dire warnings of a nuclear war—in response to the December 20th live fire drills by South Korean forces. The South had nonetheless continued its intense military exercises to demonstrate its ability to retaliate against future provocations by the North. These drills caused concerns in Beijing and Washington that the South might be foolhardy in militarily confronting the unpredictable North.
A crack in Seoul’s posture appeared when President Lee Myung-bak made conflicting comments on North Korea during his year-end reports to the Ministries of Unification and Foreign Affairs. At this point Lee may have concluded that he had adequately addressed public calls for a stronger posture against North Korean provocation, but realized that resolute security alone would not be enough to resolve the North Korean issue.
However, some of Lee’s statements deserve further consideration: “There should not always be military confrontation between the North and South. We should also work for the settlement of peace through inter-Korean dialogue.” (Dec. 29 to the Unification Minister) “We should not be discussing unification by absorption. The North Korean nuclear issue should be resolved through the Six-Party Talks during the year 2011, because North Korea aims at becoming a ‘strong and prosperous nation’ in 2012… Judging from the Yeonpyeong incident, unification is a distant story.” (Dec. 29 to the Foreign Minister)
Even with the positive spin of these statements, the Lee government is still seen as shunning genuine dialogue with the North Korean regime. President Lee’s ministers and advisors are determined to wait for an eventual collapse of the Kim royal family and a “peaceful democratic unification,” for which Lee urges his people to work toward with neighboring countries China and Russia. The Unification Ministry said it plans to work “with the people in the North to precipitate the process of unification”, meaning to turn them against the Kim Jong Il regime. Given the strict surveillance system of North Korean society, few believe this strategy will work. George W. Bush had rhetorically tried to differentiate the North Korean people from their rulers, but that only produced an adverse impact on U.S. negotiations with the North Korean government…
…So the question then is: what do we negotiate for? There are some pragmatic views that even a limited settlement to freeze and contain Pyongyang’s program from expansion and proliferation would be worth trying. For example Ferial Saeed, a State Department official, wrote a paper to argue for the usefulness of “A Nuclear Pause” while she was assigned to the National Defense University last year,
Conservative skeptics and supporters of the Lee government want to discard the latest North Korean overtures as a typical peace offensive that follows provocative brinksmanship. They warn that the latest North Korean offer of unconditional talks is a calculated strategy that intends: (1) to portray the South as the party causing instability; (2) to drive a wedge between the South and the United States; (3) to exacerbate internal bickering in the South; (4) to extricate itself from the condemnation for its provocations; and possibly (5) to move on with its domestic agenda for the completion of succession and for the 100th birthday of its founder Kim Il Song in 2012,(which would be difficult if not impossible to achieve without improved relations with the South and economic assistance from the South).
The skeptics do not completely rule out the utility of dialogue. Nevertheless, they do not believe Seoul should respond to Pyongyang’s call, unless Pyongyang apologizes for the sinking of the Cheonan ship and the Yeonpyeong Island incident. In their view, North Korea should be punished, not rewarded with talks and assistance for its bad behavior. Yet, some of them argue that the Lee government must carry out a skillfully balanced, reenergized two-track policy of confrontation and dialogue.
Progressive critics of President Lee’s North Korea policy welcome Pyongyang’s offer for talks, as they believe: (1) dialogue can diffuse the tension and help prevent further deterioration of the security situation; (2) there has reemerged a loose international consensus that the North Korean issue should be resolved through dialogue; (3) the six-party talks may be resumed against or regardless of Seoul’s position—the government could be left out of the process of starting the talks by the powerful dynamics of super-powers’ interests; (4) Koreans on both sides must take an initiative in the resolution of their own issues to create the most favorable environment for international cooperation; and (5) the Lee government should stop its hostile policy—which has only brought the inter-Korean relationship to its lowest point in the past 20 years—and go back to the engagement policy of the past governments of Roh Tae Woo, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun…
…It is understandable that Washington does not want to undermine its strategic relations with its allies in South Korea and Japan over the issue of North Korean nuclear programs. Washington does not seem to have decided whether to keep or change its ineffective policy of waiting or “strategic patience.” The countries in the region do not wish to see a revival of the old Cold War divide between the camp of the United States and its two major allies and the opposing camp of China and North Korea, joined by Russia.
There are several bilateral issues between these countries, which complicate the multilateral task of dealing with North Korea. The issue of North Korea imposes a common challenge for the six parties concerned. Inter-Korean cooperation remains a prerequisite to any successful negotiation. In this context, the Obama administration should seriously consider some measures to nudge the Seoul government towards dialogue with the North. China appears to have done its part on North Korea.
Dialogue with the North Koreans is not an award for their bad behavior. And anyway, it is better to talk about talks than to talk about war on the Korean Peninsula.
* Tong Kim, visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies and adjunct professor at SAIS Johns Hopkins University
Also by Tong Kim: Obama Can Disarm Nuclear North Korea (23 Jan.2011 The Korea Times)