Inter-Korean Relations Unlikely to Move

first_imgAnalysis & Opinion Inter-Korean Relations Unlikely to Move AvatarKim Yong Hun Analysis & Opinion SHARE Much attention is being focused on the direction in which Kim Jong Eun will lead inter-Korean relations in his first months as leader, with 2012 a year in which he is set to be busy shoring up the stability of his regime. With officials from both sides of the DMZ ringing in the New Year with discussion of policy, it is possible to issue some speculation.Following North Korea’s annual Joint New Year’s Editorial, President Lee Myung Bak and Minister of Unification Ryu Yu Ik responded with some clarifications of their own on January 2nd. President Lee spoke of reducing mistrust through dialogue in his own New Year’s address, while minister Ryu refused to shelve expectations of progress in inter-Korean relations. From a South Korean standpoint, this seems to represent more-or-less a holding pattern.The South Korean stance also shows a keen desire to avoid any unnecessary incitement of the new leadership in the North. By putting aside any obvious references to the Cheonan or Yeonpyeong Island incidents and sticking to the point of needing to see genuine, credible change in North Korea, the South has sent another clear message that the days of an unbending ‘principled stance’ are over, and that ‘flexibility’ is still the watchword in 2012.One government official highlighted, “The government hopes for stability within North Korea, we are of the view that the transfer of power seems to have moved smoothly up until now following the death of Kim Jong Il. For the time being, we are maintaining our current policy and waiting for North Korea to come forward and enter dialogue.”However, North Korea seems to have other ideas, with its movements following the end of the mourning period suggesting that the South Korean government can expect more pressure to be heaped upon it in the coming months, not less. A statement from the National Defense Commission at the end of last year said rather bluntly that the country would not “associate” with the Lee Myung Bak administration, while the New Year’s Editorial promised no less bluntly to “crush their foolish military provocations and war scheming every step of the way.”Bluster aside; it is hard to imagine any actual progress being made in restarting official talks anyway unless there is some kind of material aid from the South. Economic aid is vital for the stability of the North Korean system, and as such North Korea has no reason to sit down at the table unless it can extract concessions.Looking for an administration more amenable to its aims, North Korea also has a strong incentive to make life difficult for South Korea’s conservative ruling Grand National Party ahead of this year’s general and presidential elections. With Lee Myung Bak in the final year of his tenure, North Korea will most likely look to avoid giving him any political victories, and focus on inciting whatever unrest it can in the South.Regarding this, Moon Soon Bo of Sejong Research Institute said, “The fact that North Korea was so vocal in its hostility to the limit placed upon condolences, as well as the respectful reception it gave to Mrs. Lee Hee Ho, says that they were sending some kind of message to the pro-North Korean faction in South Korea. They are intent on creating a front line of anti-Lee Myung Bak forces to make sure there are pro-North Korean candidates to contest the general and presidential elections and change South Korean policy.”“The Joint New Year’s Editorial was a similar attempt to kick-start some division within South Korea and turn the tide of political opinion in favor of pro-North Korean groups,” Moon continued, adding “The fact that they called for the withdrawal of U.S. Forces Korea for the first time in five years can also be seen in this context.”In essence, if anything signals the improbability of an imminent restart of official talks the best, it is the criticism North Korea has been heaping upon restrictions placed by the South Korean government on payment of condolences. After Kim Il Sung died in 1994, the fallout from South Korea’s non-response stalled inter-Korean relations for a period of time; the next contact did not come for more than a year, in June 1995, when an agreement to deliver grain to the North was reached. So, this year, South Korea attempted to avoid making the same mistake, expressing modest sympathy and then agreeing to allow both Lee Hee Ho, the widow of Kim Dae Jung, and Hyun Jeong Eun, the Hyundai Group chairwoman, to travel to Pyongyang. However, the fact is that there was always going to be something for North Korea to seize on for the purposes of criticizing the South.In summary, it is clear that North Korea under Kim Jong Eun has many more reasons to maintain a policy of hostile negativity than to involve itself in talks with the South. 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