The North Korean challengeNorth Korea appears to be changing.
First of all, its attitude toward South Koreans has become softer. Until recently, North Koreans acted in an offensive way toward South Koreans, but now more and more North Koreans are greeting South Koreans in a comparatively comfortable and normal manner.
Not only that, North Korea is also showing a more flexible attitude than before concerning North and South Korean matters. For example, its agreement to South Korean proposals to prevent accidental clashes in the Yellow Sea is one that should be noted since it was the first time that both sides agreed on an experiment aimed at strengthening the trust between the North and the South in the military field.
So, how then should we interpret this change in North Korea's attitude and approach toward the South and South Koreans?
To begin with, we cannot assume that the North has given up its basic strategy. There is absolutely no sign that there is any change in its belief that the communist revolution will arise in the South, and that the Korean Peninsula will be united under Communism as a result of it.
The North must be watching what is happening in the South nowadays and might be thinking that its strategy was right on the mark.
North Korea has always thought that South Korean and American relations are inversely proportional to North Korean and American relations and has acted accordingly. North Korea surely thinks that the uncooperative relationship betwe-en South Korea and the United States is on account of the South Korean belief that the inter-Korean relations are improving.
It claims that the tension between North Korea and the United States was not caused by North Korea's development of nuclear weapons but because the United States opposes the unification of North and South Korea. In addition, the North Koreans assume that such illogical views are spreading among the South Korean people.
The reason why North Korea is softer toward the South is because it thinks the illusion of an improved relationship between North and South Korea will make the relationship between South Korea and the United States worse. It actually results from the fact that a large number of South Koreans believe inter-Korean relations are improving, and there will be no war here.
Another reason for the softness of North Korea is that it needs economic help from other countries. It has tried to get economic help for the last few years from the United States, Europe and Japan, but no country other than South Korea was willing to help. North Korea probably wanted help from rich countries other than South Korea, but it had no choice but to accept the economic aid of the South.
There are reports that the North Korean economy has improved, but most of it is just the effect of aid, and the economic structure of North Korea does not seem to have actually improved. North Korea shouts "independence" and "juche," but it has an economic structure that forces it to depend on outside forces permanently.
It is true that North Korea has become softer toward South Korea in order to gain economic aid, but we can guess that the North thought long and hard about it before deciding to take such a position.
This is because economic aid from South Korea can turn into political poison that threatens the North Korean system. Therefore, it can be said that the North probably found a way to use inter-Korean contacts and approaches to its advantage strategically, while keeping a soft attitude toward the South.
It seems North Korea knows that the South Korean people, intellectuals in particular, have a soft spot when it comes to nationalism. South Koreans are mentally burned out from going through the processes of industrialization, democratization and globalization for the past 50 years, and although we need a mentally rational attitude, psychologically we actually dream of getting away from the dry world of rationalism and hiding in "the land of unification."
Our mind and spirit are already vulnerable to the stimulator called "nationalism." In addition to that, we hear the voice that promises us the world of infinite possibilities, where "there is nothing that can't be done, if we do it together." North Korea has taken up the challenge.
North Korea is acting softer not only because it wants financial aid, but also because it hopes to strategically make South Korean and American relations worse and get South Koreans drunk on the poisoned liquor called "nationalism."
North Korea has taken up this challenge, and we need to confront it. It is time for us to pay attention.
The writer, a former ambassador to the United States, is a professor emeritus at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.