Renewing contacts with more vulnerable North

Renewing contacts with more vulnerable North
PHOTO: The Straits Times

It is likely that there will be another round of inter-Korean family reunions at the Mt. Geumgangsan resort and high-level political talks in Seoul or Pyongyang next month. But people who have lived through the often deceptive process of South-North relations and outside watchers of the Korean Peninsula must now have a disturbing sense of deja vu, ready for a new cycle of expectation and disappointment.

Seoul officials up to President Park Geun-hye appear buoyed after National Security chief Kim Kwan-jin and Unification Minister Hong Yong-pyo returned from their marathon negotiations with senior North Korean officials at Panmunjeom with a five-point accord, including the family reunion project, last week. Local commentators hailed it as a victory of President Park's consistent hard-line stance toward the North.

From Pyongyang, state media reported that Kim Jong-un called the agreement a feat that "turned misfortune into a blessing … and a pivotal chance to resolve acute military tension and improve cross-border relations." Thus, both the South and the North are moving to take fresh steps toward constructive development of their ties after seven years of complete freeze.

Up to 200 South Koreans will probably meet about the same number of their North Korean relatives in the mountain resort shortly after the Chuseok holiday. Yet, most of some 60,000 "refugees" from the North who still remain on the Red Cross list of applicants for the inter-Korean family reunion will have to wait indefinitely with slim hope of realising their dreams before they die. Only a little more than 2,000 people out of millions of North Korean natives in the South had the privilege of meeting their loved ones over 19 reunions since the first round 30 years ago.

Though extremely limited in scale, the reunion events with the dramatic sights of senile relatives wailing and embracing have represented the spells of thaw in the ever-fluctuating ties between the two Koreas. However, the explosion of one or two landmines in the Demilitarised Zone or a brief exchange of fire at the sensitive sea border in the West Sea, called NLL or the Northern Limit Line, can instantly rekindle tension between the two Koreas.

The anticipated renewal of serious dialogue with the North brings my memory back 42 years to the day when many were gripped by excitement with a genuine hope for a change in the division of the Korean nation. On the morning of July 4, 1972, I was sitting in a hall in the main office of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency in eastern Seoul with about 100 Korean and foreign journalists. "I made a trip to Pyongyang," then KCIA director Lee Hu-rak announced to the stunned audience.

The "July 4 Joint Statement," manifesting the three principles of independence, peace and national solidarity, charted the course of peaceful coexistence toward the goal of reunification. Two-track negotiations started, one for the humanitarian project of reuniting families displaced by the war and the other for political reconciliation which was entrusted to the South-North Coordinating Committee.

Large delegations travelled to Seoul and Pyongyang for the alternating Red Cross and Coordinating Committee meetings at monthly intervals until the middle of 1973. Then in August that year, opposition leader Kim Dae-jung was abducted from a Tokyo hotel to Seoul in what was determined as a KCIA plot, and Pyongyang lambasted the South's negotiating partner Lee Hu-rak as the mastermind. The South-North dialogue all but halted and the ruptured inter-Korean relations bore an assassination attempt at President Park Chung-hee in 1974 by a pro-Pyongyang Korean resident in Japan which resulted in the death of his wife.

In the meantime, both the South and the North rewrote their respective Constitutions to tighten internal control in their systems. A decade passed in rigid inter-Korean confrontation until the mid-1980s when new exchanges started with mutual visits by groups of separated families and entertainers. High-level governmental talks went on and off through the Roh Tae-woo administration, which produced the landmark South-North Basic Agreement with Pyongyang in 1991.

Kim Il-sung died in 1994 while Seoul's President Kim Young-sam was preparing for a first-ever inter-Korean summit with the dictator. Then we know what happened when presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun met Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007, respectively. President Lee Myung-bak wanted to hold yet another inter-Korean summit, which, however, did not materialise as the North demanded unacceptable conditions, according to his memoir.

Again, Seoul's officials as well as analysts harbour expectations that the initial talks for the reduction of tension extended from last week's Panmunjeom accord could lead to a meeting between President Park and Kim Jong-un for a breakthrough in overall relations. Yet, whoever would be endeavouring to arrange such a top-level contact should first be reminded that the primary and ultimate agenda item for a future inter-Korean summit should be ending North Korea's nuclear programme.

Anything can be discussed between the top leaders or the second-highest officials -- economic co-operation, humanitarian aid, loudspeaker broadcasts, leaflet balloons and so on -- but only when they are related to and contribute to resolving the nuclear issue. Here is the difference between South-North talks in 2015 and all previous inter-Korean negotiations. The North may take up the issue of altering the NLL to defuse tension in the West Sea, but it can never be considered as long as Pyongyang maintains its nuclear programme.

Southern negotiators need also to be equipped with the simple mathematics regarding North Korea: In terms of people's loyalty to the leadership, Kim Jong-il carried one-tenth of the amount his father Kim Il-sung enjoyed, and present ruler Kim Jong-un musters again one-tenth of the loyalty his father Jong-il had marshaled. Kim Jong-un must know it. This is the element of weakness that forced the young leader to back off in the latest confrontation with the South. Another element, of course, is the economy, which has crumpled to one-fortieth of the size of the South's, from a superiority until the early 1970s.

Kim Myong-sik, a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald, worked as Reuters correspondent in Seoul during the 1970s.

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