Will Seoul engage North Korea soon? by Chung Min-uck


[Korea Times correspondent Chung Min-uck interviews CanKor Brain Trust member Victor Hsu, Director of International Aid and Education at the South Korean state-run Korea Development Institute (KDI), and Bernhard Seliger, a Seoul resident representative of the Hanns Seidel Foundation, a German organization active in Korea. The two experts applaud the new South Korean President’s “trustpolitik”, and point out that the Park Geun-hye government still has opportunities to carry out a fundamental shift from the current ever-escalating inter-Korean tension. –CanKor]

Trucks loaded with flour as relief aid to North Korea pass a checkpoint on a bridge over the Imjin River in the South Korean border city of Paju, Gyeonggi Province, in this Sept. 21, 2012, file photo. The Seoul government sent 500 tons of flour to the impoverished North in one of the lastest aid supplies under the previous Lee Myung-bak administration. (Photo by Korea Times)

Trucks loaded with flour as relief aid to North Korea pass a checkpoint on a bridge over the Imjin River in the South Korean border city of Paju, Gyeonggi Province, in this Sept. 21, 2012, file photo. The Seoul government sent 500 tons of flour to the impoverished North in one of the lastest aid supplies under the previous Lee Myung-bak administration. (Photo by Korea Times)

The government last week approved a shipment of humanitarian aid to North Korea, the first aid package approved under President Park Geun-hye, who took office on Feb. 25.

Under the approval, the Eugene Bell Foundation, a South Korean charity group, will ship tuberculosis medicine worth 678 million won (US $605,454) to eight tuberculosis clinics run by the South Korean group in North Korea as early as next month.

The latest gesture comes at a time when inter-Korean relations have hit rock bottom with the North threatening to use its nuclear weapons against South Korea and the United States, and in response, the two allies’ militaries signing a combined operational plan to raise deterrence against possible military threats by the North.

Although the unification ministry denied any political implications to the latest aid approval, referring to the move as being for “strictly humanitarian purposes,” foreign experts say such a symbolic gesture will help improve ties with the North.

“The amount is so little given the nature of the disease. It is a drop in the bucket,” said Victor Hsu, director of International Aid and Education at the state-run Korea Development Institute (KDI). “But the symbolic meaning I think is important. The symbolism of allowing the Eugene Bell Foundation to implement (aid shipments) is constructive in re-building inter-Korean relations.”

“I find it is not bad,” said Bernhard Seliger, a Seoul resident representative of the Hanns Seidel Foundation, a German organization active in Korea. “Although the monitoring might be incomplete, starting with something small-scale and private is necessary at this point when the North’s provocations don’t yet seem to be over and something bigger is coming.”

Bernhard Seliger (Photo by  Hanns Seidel Foundation)

Bernhard Seliger (Photo by Hanns Seidel Foundation)

Pyongyang has recently upped its war rhetoric on an almost daily basis in response to new United Nations sanctions imposed after it conducted a nuclear test in February and recent joint South Korea-U.S. military exercises which it denounced as preparations for invasion.

“Some sanctions are necessary but I think the Park government needs more engagement right now,” said Seliger. “Seoul should everyday make new offers as a gesture even though they are not taken by Pyongyang.”

To back their views, experts looked back to the cold war era where non-government channels served as a keystone in maintaining peace between opposing blocs.

“In the cold war days, even in the height of a war between the East and the West, there were exchanges, exchange visits between churches and NGOs just to keep the dialogue going, just to keep channels open, so that across the Iron Curtain, there would not be a total void in terms of relationship,” said Hsu. “If you don’t have open channels, you run the risk of misreading the other’s intentions, and there can be unintended consequences, and an accident might set the two sides on fire.”

The KDI professor further urged individuals in the non-governmental sector to play a key role at a time when inter-government talks have been halted.

The North cut off the inter-Korean military hotline at the border village of Panmunjom earlier this month in an angry gesture over the Seoul-Washington military drill.

“The non-governmental sector should not be affected by the government,” he said. “They should continue to do what they can to maintain conversations. Those are going to be helpful in the long run because they are keeping channels of communication open.”

The experts, at the same time, blamed Pyongyang for pushing Seoul to gradually lose ground for engaging in cooperation, by issuing military provocations and bellicose rhetoric.

“One thing the North does not understand well is that democracy is a two-level game,” Seliger said. “Not only is there the Park Geun-hye government in South Korea, there is public opinion and the parliament. We saw it in the first term of U.S. President Barack Obama that, despite his initial offers made, after North Korea launched a nuclear test in 2009 there was no more possibility for engagement simply because of the fact that the American people and politicians would not like it anymore.”

However, the experts pointed out that the Park government still has opportunities to carry out a fundamental shift from the current ever-escalating inter-Korean tension, if she stays with her original concept for a policy toward North Korea, “trustpolitik.”

“President Park would be wise to carry out her campaign pledges to re-open channels with the North and rebuild inter-Korean trust,” said John Delury, a Yonsei University assistant professor. “Washington does not seem ready to take the lead, but hopefully it will not actively impede an effort to stabilize and then start repairing inter-Korean relations. And she can look for support from Beijing, as Xi Jinping indicated in their recent conversation.”

Park recently requested Xi, her Chinese counterpart, to persuade North Korea to return to dialogue during a recent telephone conversation. Xi responded in a positive manner saying that the stability of the Korean Peninsula is also in the China’s national interests. Beijing is Pyongyang’s only remaining ally and its largest trading partner.

“The ball is in Madame Park’s court to catalyze a fundamental shift out of the current heated rhetoric and escalating tensions,” said Delury.

“If no more great incidents are coming, there will be a chance for President Park to basically return to her policy of trustpolitik,” said Seliger. “The idea is good. We need security obviously but we need to also make offers to the North.”

Park’s key North Korean policy of “trustpolitik,” or “The Korean Peninsula Trust-building Process,” calls for engagement through building mutual respect by keeping all former promises made between the two Koreas, which will hopefully lead to more stable relations.

Such efforts for engagement have yet to be launched following Pyongyang’s nuclear test in February and continuous verbal threats of more provocations since.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: