::: KNSI : Korea National Strategy Institute :::
::: KNSI : Korea National Strategy Institute :::
       February 27 2021
North-South Korean talks are South Korea's strategic asset: Why the Lee Myung-bak administration .. by Bohyuk Suh
-North-South Talks Needed to Get in Step with U.S.-North Korean dialogue
-North-South Talks Will Enhance South Korea¡¯s Roles in the North Korean Nuclear Problem
-North-South Talks Beneficial to Economic Recovery
Ever since the Lee Myung-bak administration took the helm of affairs a year ago, talks between North and South Korea have stalled. The cat fight goes on even after the New Year: ¡°Stop playing the same old games to incite South-South conflict,¡± ¡°Raving mad South Korean rulers are stirring up North-South confrontation,¡± and so on. The North-South Korean summit agreement lies forgotten; the joys and sorrows of displaced people show no signs of diminishing, economic cooperation maintains its slender existence and South Korea¡¯s influencing power over the North Korean nuclear problem keeps getting weaker.

North-South Talks Needed to Get in Step with U.S.-North Korean dialogue

On the contrary, U.S.-North Korean relations show bright prospects. Pyongyang revealed its intention to improve its foreign relations in the New Year's Day joint editorial, without criticizing Washington. More importantly, the Obama administration wants to take a more diplomatic approach to North Korea by utilizing both the Six-Party Talks and bilateral talks. Also, while this has not been confirmed, it is possible that the Obama administration may suggest normalizing U.S.-North Korean relations to induce complete and verifiable dismantlement of North Korean nuclear programs. And the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not hide such expectations. On January 13, the North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that "we agreed upon the September 19 Joint Statement [of the Fourth Round of the Six-Party Talks] not to improve diplomatic relations through denuclearization, but to achieve denuclearization by normalizing of diplomatic relations."

It is notable that in the 1990s and the early 2000s, once U.S.-North Korean dialogue got on track, it developed regardless of the state of inter-Korean relations. Seoul should remember that U.S.-North Korean dialogue continued after the 1994 Geneva Agreement, while inter-Korean relations froze, and the talks went on after South Korea's Kim Dae-jung administration came into power in 1998, until the beginning of the Bush administration era. The South Korean government is deluding itself if it believes that economic difficulties and diplomatic isolation will eventually drive North Korea to the negotiation table (read "the North will have to bow down to the Lee Myung-bak administration"). The Kim Young-sam administration¡¯s actions left South Korea ostracized after the Geneva Agreement. Should the Lee Myung-bak administration repeat the same mistake, it will not simply be perceived as a political oversight of the current government, but probably have the effect of South Korea lagging in the changing order of the peninsula in the future. It is never to South Korea¡¯s advantage to have U.S.-North Korean talks develop while North-South Korean dialogue stalls.

North-South Talks Will Enhance South Korea¡¯s Roles in the North Korean Nuclear Problem

What North Korea wants most from the Six-Party Talks is to make Washington drop its hostile policy and get a binding security guarantee. It is North Korea¡¯s negotiation strategy toward the United States and the main reason why it has not completed the second phase (disablement of facilities and verification of North¡¯s nuclear declaration) of denuclearization and not entered the third stage of dismantlement yet. Therefore, the current government¡¯s policy toward North Korea- denuclearization first policy or suppressing North Korea- is neither appropriate nor does it have a realistic view. A serious problem in the Lee Myung-bak administration¡¯s North Korean policy is that it centers on the nuclear problem, leaving other important inter-Korean issues, such as military and political trust-building, economic cooperation and humanitarian issues off the table. Even if one might argue that the government¡¯s North Korean policy does not give prior importance to the nuclear issue, it is hard to deny that doors to North-South Korean talks are shut and North Korea is not the only one responsible for such consequences. Moreover, Seoul shows little effort to facilitate dialogue in between Six-Party Talks and enhance South Korea¡¯s roles by offering creative solutions for the North Korean nuclear problem. A typical example is the Six-Party talks held last December, when South Korea announced the talk¡¯s breakdown while the U.S. Chief Representative was giving a press conference. It shows that South Korea has opted for a hardline approach and gave up on playing an active role in the North Korea nuclear issue.

Resuming North-South Korean talks are necessary, along with fortifying the U.S.-South Korea alliance and building friendly relations with neighbors, to strengthen South Korea¡¯s role in resolving the North Korean nuclear problem and to respond actively to future developments in the Korean Peninsula. If the nuclear issue is only discussed in the Six-Party Talks (and possibly U.S.-North Korean talks) with no dialogue between the two Koreas, securing peace in the Korean Peninsula will be largely dependent upon outside force and South Korea¡¯s role will be greatly reduced. And if inter-Korean conflict persists, not only will it hinder the resolution of the nuclear problem, it will also perpetuate the division of the Korean Peninsula.

North-South Talks Beneficial to Economic Recovery

In economic terms, talks will help foster a mutually beneficial partnership between the two Koreas. The inter-Korean trade volume in 2008 managed to remain at the same level as the previous year, largely thanks to Kaesong Industrial Complex. Other economic cooperation projects have been suspended, and noncommercial transactions like humanitarian assistance have declined sharply. Considering that the economic effect generated by the Kaesong Industrial Complex from 2005 to 2007 was estimated to be three to four times the amount of investment, it is hard to assess last year¡¯s project as a positive one. No doubt the biggest accomplishment of the first stage Kaesong Industrial Complex project is the creation of a North-South Korean economic cooperation model of coexistence. Economic cooperation efforts like the Kaesong Industrial Complex also has positive political and social implications, such as smoothing North-South relations, settling peace on the Korean Peninsula, encouraging North Korea to embrace reform and openness, and improving North Korean¡¯s image of South Korea.

In his New Year¡¯s statement to the public, President Lee Myung-bak urged South and North Korea to ¡°move away from confrontation and conflict to a new era of mutual benefits and common prosperity,¡± which seems to be truer and timelier. But to make it really happen, it is not enough to just say the South is ¡°always ready to talk to North Korea and to cooperate as partners.¡± What is needed is a practical approach that provides Pyongyang with a justification to come back to the negotiation table in exchange for a tangible benefit for Seoul. However, judging from recent actions of the South Korean government, such as looking the other way when rightist NGOs distributed leaflets that attacked the North Korean regime or arguing that the North should ¡°stop playing the same old games to incite South-South conflict,¡± it is doubtful that the administration is really willing to engage in inter-Korean dialogue.

It has been criticized that the South Korean government has limited its focus solely on ways to tackle the economic crisis in the South by investing in construction and labor intensive projects. On the contrary, the Lee administration has held a positive attitude of extending and further developing the Kaesong industrial complex and other measures of economic cooperation with the North. If you put this two contradicting opinions together, the importance of North-South economic cooperation in overcoming the South Korean economic crisis and the meaning of coexistence between the two sides becomes understandable. Economic collaboration can contribute to the creation of revenue, employment and establish trust between North and South Korea. For South Korea, labor intensive industries that have lost its competitive power should be passed on to North Korea and combine it with technology and information intensive factors to maximize value added. The Lee Myung-bak administration should in the future, as it made clear, use North-South relations as a stepping-stone to ¡®coexistence¡¯ and pursue a creative and strategic approach.

With the new Obama administration in office, holding the vision of rebuilding international alliances and with North Korea¡¯s pro-active nuclear non-proliferation policy toward the U.S., the issue of denuclearization in the Korean peninsula is facing a turning point. For North Korea, who is trying to normalize relations with the U.S. and Japan through the denuclearization process, the next four years might stand as a favorable time indeed. In such circumstances, the South Korean variable can stand as secondary to the North, but leaving the relationship to aggravate will not help develop relations with the U.S. either. From South Korea¡¯s vantage point, it should promote pro-cyclical development from denuclearization, North Korea-U.S. relations to inter-Korean relations and eventually establish a peace regime in the Korean peninsula and initiate the grand strategy of advancing both Koreas into the state of ¡°de facto¡± unification.

So the current suspension of talks with the North is strategically not advantageous to South Korea. It should not wait until North Korea bows its head and proposes talks, but should actively head start and engage in leading North-South relations. Inter-Korean talks stand as a bridge to the harmonization role of South Korea in North Korea-U.S. talks, the increase of South Korea¡¯s role in the North Korean nuclear problem, overcoming the economic crisis and establishing trust between the two Koreas. The North-South Korean talks is a strategic asset only South Korea can possess. Holding complex significance, it should not be further wasted as a tool to clash with North Korea. Can the Minister of Unification designate initiate inter-Korean dialogue toward the road of ¡®mutual benefits and common prosperity¡¯?
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