Seoul marks the dawn of a new era

Posted in Koreas | 19-Mar-08 | Author: Donald Kirk| Source: Asia Times

South Korea's President Lee Myung

SEOUL - South Korea is challenging North Korea on the nuclear issue and human rights in the first tests of President Lee Myung-bak's pledge to veer to the right from the left-leaning policies of reconciliation of the past decade.

He and members of his fledgling government are suddenly suggesting that North Korea can no longer count on the South to compromise on critical issues. The question now is whether the Sunshine policy as enunciated by Kim Dae-jung at the outset of his presidency in 1998 has been eclipsed by a tough new stance that could reverse the process of rapprochement.

Suh Jae-jean, director of North Korean studies at the Korea Institute for National Unification, believes economic need will still compel North Korea to abide by last year's agreements on giving up its nukes, but acknowledges Sunshine is fading.

Lee "uses a different language when it comes to North Korea", said Suh. "Sunshine was a Kim Dae-jung brand, and pragmatism is Lee Myung-bak's brand." While "Sunshine overlaps with the pragmatic approach", he observed, "the two have different aspects".

Lee himself said on Wednesday his government's "primary obligation is to prevent a war with North Korea" - a reference that suggested more than a little shift in emphasis from the conciliatory talk of Kim Dae-jung and Lee's immediate predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun.

In language that might be expected to set off alarm bells in Pyongyang, Lee repeated his call for "closer military alliance and cooperation with the US", along with completion of the South's military modernization program by 2020. Lee tied modernization to the economy, which he said has to grow by 7% a year rather than the current 4% or 5% to meet the cost of "defense power enhancement".

South Korea's shifting emphasis comes as the six-party process for getting North Korea to give up its nuclear program reaches what may be a make-or-break stage.

The South's newly installed foreign minister, Yu Myung-hwan, said six-party talks were "stalled by roadblocks", notably North Korea's reluctance to list all its nuclear activities, including a program for developing nukes with enriched uranium talks and aiding Syria on developing nukes. Yu added he still expected "quick resolution of the declaration issue", despite the fear that more delays would "undermine momentum".

Hopes were raised as the US nuclear envoy, Christopher Hill, prepared to meet his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan, in Geneva on Thursday. The two agreed to meet after Kim disappointed Hill by failing to show up for talks in Beijing the weekend after the New York Philharmonic Orchestra's performance in Pyongyang on February 25.

Lee has coupled his emphasis on defense with promises of economic rewards if the North cooperates. He has said he does not want to replace reconciliation with confrontation, but has urged the North "to stand on its own feet quickly" to become "a little better off". The Foreign Ministry reinforced this view with a promise to start implementing aid projects for North Korea "when denuclearization makes substantial progress".

So different are yesterday's Sunshine and today's pragmatism that the man whom Lee has named as unification minister raised the possibility that the government may hold back on aid if North Korea persists in stalling on disablement of it nuclear facilities and goes on delaying on producing a list of everything in its nuclear inventory.

A Unification Ministry official said Kah Ha-joong, named by Lee as unification minister, has said the government must weigh North Korea's nuclear programs and inter-Korean relations in evaluating requests for aid.

Suh, whose institute is an adjunct of the Unification Ministry, believes North Korea is so desperate for aid, and so anxious to get the US to remove economic sanctions and delete its name from the US State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, that the North has no choice but to cooperate.

"North Korea wants to normalize relations with the US as soon as possible," Suh told correspondents. He predicted North Korea would yield to demands for compliance with agreements reached at six-party talks by the end of this month in hopes the US will respond favorably before the US presidential campaign and election of a new president in November.

"The situation is so dire, North Korea cannot afford to wait for the next administration to come in to solve the problems," he said. "Economic logic determines political power. This stats quo cannot continue forever."

Against this view, tensions have arisen as South Korea shows signs of making good on Lee's promises to demand serious reciprocity from the North.

One symbolic case in point is the issue of playing the Republic of Korea's national anthem, and flying its flag, at a World Cup football qualifying match that was scheduled in Pyongyang on March 26.

North Korea suggested playing the folk anthem Arirang, beloved in both Koreas, instead of the anthems of either South or North Korea, and flying the neutral pan-Korean flag with the outline of the map of Korea, but South Korea rejected the idea.

Why go along, asked officials in the South, when the North Korean anthem has played, and the North Korean flag has been flown, at four North-South soccer matches in the South? With such courtesies guaranteed under the rules of the football international governing body, FIFA, it moved the venue to Shanghai, where the flags of both Koreas will fly to the strains of anthems of both Koreas.

The ruckus over flying the South Korean flag and playing the South Korean anthem for the first time in North Korea symbolizes much deeper issues. South Korean diplomats have publicly raised the topic of human rights in North Korea for the first time, calling on the North to improve conditions for its people. Park In-kook, deputy foreign minister, shocked a United Nations human rights forum in Geneva last week by demanding North Korea respond with "appropriate measures" to international concerns that human rights in the North have not "improved".

A North Korean diplomat countered with a blast at "irresponsible remarks" with "negative repercussions on inter-Korean relations". North Korean rhetoric has enlarged on that theme with statements denying the problem of human rights and attacks on South Korean conservatives and rightists.

Statements emanating from South and North Korea will not have much meaning, however, unless South Korea goes a few significant steps beyond rhetoric.

One test will be whether South Korea supports resolutions in the UN condemning human rights abuses in the North. South Korea in recent years has abstained from all votes on North Korean abuses in the UN for fear of setting the clock back on a wide range of agreements and talks, including those on getting the North to abandon its nukes.

South Korea's refusal to speak out on North Korea's human rights record has reinforced the view among critics of the Sunshine policy that the South would prefer to sacrifice the welfare of the vast majority of North Koreans on the altar of rapprochement with a regime guilty of terrible abuses against its people. Those days, however, may be over.

"The Lee government is going a different direction from the Roh Moo-hyun government," said Suh Jae-jean, perceiving "a high possibility the new government will vote for a UN resolution rather than vote against it or abstain".

Suh believes, however, that a vote in the UN may not be that big a deal, at least in terms of setting back reconciliation. "Human rights will not be a major issue that will affect North-South relations," he said, seeing the North's responses on the topic as "an effort to save face".

Just as important will be North Korea's response to signs of improving military ties between Washington and Seoul. South Korea appears to have been more enthusiastic than usual about annual exercises this month involving South Korean and American troops. The impression is the South Koreans this time were more cooperative than in recent years in working with the Americans militarily.

"We're very pleased with President Lee's emphasis on strengthening the US-Korean relationship," US ambassador Alexander Vershbow told a gathering of US business people on Monday. "A key aspect will be the global war on terrorism," including "curbing weapons of mass destruction".

Vershbow denied that talks were under way for South Korean participation in exercises under the aegis of the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) under which the US and a wide range of other nations have agreed to work together to stop shipments of weapons of mass destruction. South Korea so far has sent only observers to PSI exercises, fearing real support would impress Pyongyang as an aggressive act.

"PSI is a very worthwhile activity," was Vershbow's carefully modulated response to a question on a topic of extraordinary sensitivity. "It's important to understand each country can adjust participation as to what it believes is appropriate."

North Korea has shown its displeasure by cutting down group tours to Mount Kumkang and reducing freight traffic on the newly opened line to the industrial zone of Kaesong. Exchanges of religious, cultural and academic figures may also be reduced, and reunions of families divided by the Korean War may be postponed.

North Koreans, however, need all the tourism and industry they can get if they are ever to begin to raise living standards to levels promised by Lee in return for North Korean cooperation. One recent report suggests that North Korea's economy may be far worse off than previously imagined - 1% - yes, one one hundredth - that of South Korea's.

Lee promises to raise the average per capita gross domestic product of North Koreans to $3,000 a year - an incredible leap. How Lee responds to the North's inevitable request for a massive infusion of aid may provide the clearest insight to date about his resolve.

Meanwhile, the need for aid helps explain why "North Korea has not been critical of the Lee Myung-bak government", said Suh. The North's "extreme economic difficulty", he said, is why "North Korea will keep its promises."

Journalist Donald Kirk has been covering Korea - and the confrontation of forces in Northeast Asia - for more than 30 years.