Don't forget our principles
"What is Seoul's strategy toward North Korea?" a European diplomat asked. He meant to ask what was the ultimate purpose of South Korea's economic cooperation with the North. Are we helping the North Korean economy to overcome the current crisis and start on the road of rapid development? Or do we want to use economic cooperation as a catalyst to open the secluded nation and bring changes in its system?
This European dignitary is not the only one curious about the issue. Does Seoul want to make the Kim Jong-il regime more stable by helping the North Korean economy? Or will Seoul's involvement bring an end to autocratic rule? Even if the South Korean government is pursuing the latter, Seoul cannot openly say that its ultimate goal is to change North Korea's system. As long as an entity named North Korea exists, the government has to deal with Pyeongyang.
But the reaction of the Roh Moo-hyun administration and the ruling party to the approval of a North Korean human rights bill by the U.S. Congress leaves us with doubts about whether the government even has a strategy. The government might not be able to declare that it is pursuing systematic change in North Korea, but it doesn't need to react negatively toward the U.S. legislation either.
The government and the ruling party worry that the legislation will "provoke" Pyeongyang. According to Lew Seon-ho, who leads the Uri Party members at the National Assembly's Unification, Foreign Affairs and Trade Committee, the North Korean human rights act "irritates the pride of North Korea and could be considered as pressure related to the collapse of the system."
If the North Korean human rights act indeed provokes Pyeongyang, precisely what will happen? The opponents of the act claim that the inter-Korean relations would be frozen and Pyeongyang-Washington relations would be aggravated, resulting in a negative influence on the six-nation talks. If the law actually addresses the problem areas, we should support efforts to improve the human rights conditions of our fellow Koreans in the North.
Some insist that it is more effective to approach the human rights issue through quiet dialogue. And they are right in some ways. But we cannot expect Pyeongyang to voluntarily acknowledge the severe conditions there and start respecting the human rights of its people without any international pressure. Just as the South experienced under the authoritarian regimes, international pressure often make it possible to improve human rights conditions.
Others worry that the nuclear issue has gotten more complicated because the United States adopted the human rights act. But even before the Congress passed the bill, Pyeongyang had refused to give up nuclear weapons development.
North Korean leaders are not stupid enough to start a war because of the human rights act. Moreover, they know too well how helpful economic cooperation with the South is. Therefore, we don't have to be too careful not to provoke Pyeongyang and should instead exploit our edge in inter-Korean economic cooperation. Of course, when we link economic cooperation with a system change in the North, we cannot mechanically translate the demands of each side. In fact, as we pursue the strategy to connect the two issues, tactical flexibility will be required.
Our North Korean strategy should be designed to use our cooperation to help North Korean society develop into one where living a life as a human is allowed. The ultimate purpose of our strategy must reflect South Korea's values. If we turn away from the starvation and pain of North Koreans fearing Pyeongyang's rejection of inter-Korea talks, that is not a clever, realistic approach but a defeatist response based on a mistaken analysis of the situation.
Moreover, insisting that expressing our concerns about the human rights conditions in the North would threaten the system of North Korea and thus we should keep silent on the issue is like claiming that preservation of the Kim Jong-il regime is the ultimate purpose of South Korea's strategy. That is inconceivable. Our strategy toward North Korea is not to preserve the patrimonial autocracy in the North but to help improve the quality of life for fellow Koreans. We must not forget our principles.
* The writer, a former ambassador to the United States, is a professor emeritus at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.