North Korea policy
For all the debates and discussions during the last three years and a half since the start of the Lee Myung-bak government, it is still not clear how the President is trying to approach North Korea.
As a lame duck syndrome creeps in, as the pressure of domestic problems mounts, and given the intransigent ``principled” position of his policy, he might end up finishing his term without making any progress on the vital issues of denuclearization, forging a peace settlement and ultimately unification.
A year and a half left in office, any president would think of his legacy in terms of accomplishments. History illustrates the difficulty of a president to embark on a major program or to make a fundamental policy shift towards the end of his term, especially when the country is swept in domestic politics.
The governing Grand National Party (GNP) has already started showing policy differences ― for example on corporate tax reduction and college tuition cuts ― from the government, even acting independently of the President. The GNP will elect its new leadership in July in the midst of concerns of a bleak prospect of winning the general election for the National Assembly next April. Many believe that if the GNP loses the general election, it will foreshadow a loss in next year’s presidential election.
To the governing structure of three pillars ― the cabinet, the party and the Blue House, the GNP’s defeat in the by-election last April was an unexpected alarm, reflecting public disapproval of the government’s economic policy, which they all had thought was doing well.
While the economic policy helped Korea to adequately cope with the worldwide financial crisis and to precipitate growth, demonstrating encouraging indexes, the average person’s cost of living sharply increased without a commensurate increase in income. On top of inflation, a deepening polarization between the rich and the poor has emerged as a major political and social issue.
Under these circumstance, the opposition parties’ advocacy for greater ``universal welfare, including free school lunches, free medical care, free daycare, and cutting college tuitions by half, has become a centerpiece of policy debate for the GNP.
No governing party can continue to exist without the support of the voters. The GNP feels so endangered that it does not even accuse the opposition of appealing to populism.
The President seems to have lost his leadership in controlling the domestic agenda. Today he will meet with Chairman Sohn Hak-kyu of the opposition Democratic Party (DP), who requested the meeting, to discuss the ``problems for people’s livelihood” to alleviate the economic hardship of the average people. Sohn has predicted that an opposition presidential candidate can defeat a governing party candidate in a 51 to 49 ratio next year.
Some pundits argue that President Lee would not back down from his tough stance on the North, because that is the only thing, his right wing conservatives think, he is doing right. Otherwise, the President would have nothing to leave as his legacy. In fact, the rightist commentators urge him to stick to his policy of no dialogue unless and until the North Koreans apologize for the sinking of the navy ship Cheonan, make progress on denuclearization, and change for opening and reform.
Last week Lee said again that unification might come precipitously all of a sudden and the South should be prepared for it. Any precipitous unification would happen only by way of a collapse from within and a war from without. Any peaceful unification would have to undergo a long-term gradual process of engagement and cooperation.
Obviously, there are several indications that his government is still holding onto a dream of a North Korean collapse. We hear plenty of reports on the deteriorating economic problems under the regime of Kim Jong-il and his designated successor Kim Jong-un. There are speculations that the succession process might encounter trouble.
Kim Jong-un allegedly has failed to deliver results, as he is responsible for the failed currency reform, which further weakened the livelihood of the people. We hear the reports saying that the people in the North might revolt as did the people in the Middle East, and that the North Korean regime is importing riot control gear in anticipation of such an uprising.
Fortunately or unfortunately, we find no evidence to support these allegations. The evidence we have is that Kim Jong-il is trying to improve the economy through cooperation and assistance from China and possibly from Russia, while offsetting the impact of international sanctions. Yet, he wants to keep his independent position on the Korean issue. He is still healthy enough to control his country, although he was recently caught on television limping rather noticibily. The further evidence we have that North Korea is a nationalist monarchy is supported by an indoctrinated elite and an army of a million men and that the people still don’t know their hardship is due to a failing system.
Apparently, Seoul and Washington are struggling again to coordinate their approaches to resume the six-party talks. Resumption of the multilateral talks would mean a reconfirmation of Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearization by the stated goal of the 2005 Joint Statement. A precondition of inter-Korean talks is no longer practical as the North rejects talks with the South. To resume the six-party talks, we have reached the point where we should come up with a fresh formula that should delink the sticking points of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
The six-party talks, even if resumed, are unlikely to succeed in the denuclearization of North Korea. Few people believe that the North will ever give up its nuclear weapons. The talks’ immediate goal should be readjusted to the prevention of an increased nuclear arsenal in the North and the nonproliferation of its program to a third hand until such time when the North Koreans feel comfortable to negotiate their weapons away. It will take years to achieve a verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, if possible at all.
President Lee still can take positive steps towards denuclearization. The waiting game has only made the problem worse. To make a breakthrough, there is no substitute for dialogue. What’s your take?
Tong Kim is a research professor with the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He can be reached at email@example.com.