Reaching out to North Korea

Reaching out to North Korea
South Korean President Park Geun-hye stands in front of remains of the Berlin Wall

President Park Geun-hye unveiled last week a package of proposals to North Korea, which she hopes will help improve relations and boost her drive to achieve unification of the two Koreas.

The proposals, which Park outlined in a speech in Dresden, Germany, on Friday, were highlighted by three themes - resolution of humanitarian issues, assisting infrastructure development in the North and restoring integration of the two Koreas.

They included regular reunions of separated families, cooperation in the fields of agro-fisheries and forestry, expansion of people-to-people exchanges and establishment of an office for promoting exchanges and cooperation.

Park tried to make the address cap off her European visit that was geared to boost her pitch for unification, which now has become a prime theme of her presidency. In view of Park's obsession with reunification, it is not surprising that she offered the long list of what South Korea can do for the North.

But there were few groundbreaking proposals and some, such as those for an international peace park and linking the railways of the two Koreas with Russia's Trans-Siberian Railway, are nothing but repetition of past suggestions.

Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that the South Korean leader, who has built her presidency on adherence to "principles" to the degree that her critics accuse her of being "obstinate" and "uncompromising," offered generous assistance and cooperation programs to the North for the first time.

This indicates that she could be flexible in dealing with the North to foster her "vision for unification." In fact, Park did not put the North's abandonment of its nuclear weapons as a precondition for the various cooperation projects she proposed.

The question is whether the North will respond positively to Park's proposals. The prospects are not so bright. For one thing, the North Korean leadership has rarely responded positively to proposals publicly made by a South Korean leader, especially when they deal with assistance and economic cooperation.

Besides, the security situation and inter-Korean relations are not helpful. Tension is running high on the peninsula in the wake of the North's recent series of provocations, including test-firing missiles. The North has also resumed verbal attacks against Park, abandoning the proposal not to slander each other it made just two months ago.

The tension between North Korea and the international community, including the United Nations, is also set to rise. On Thursday, the UN Security Council condemned the North's recent test-firing of mid-range ballistic missiles, a clear violation of a UN resolution that prohibits Pyongyang from nuclear weapons tests and missile firing.

All things considered, it might not be easy to persuade the North to accept Park's proposals any time soon. Nevertheless, the Seoul government should keep endeavouring to bring the North to the negotiating table. Proposing government-level talks aimed at explaining details of Park's proposals to the North could be one such endeavour.

It would be better if such bilateral talks were complemented by the six-party talks on the North's nuclear weapons programs. South Korea, the US and Japan should accelerate follow-up steps on their leaders' agreement last week to reopen the nuclear talks that have been suspended since 2008.

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