Inter-Korean relations are taking a conciliatory turn after months of heightened tension following North Korea&’s launch of a long-range rocket in December and third nuclear test in February.
In a surprise move, Pyongyang proposed last Thursday talks between government officials to discuss diverse pending issues, including the normalisation of the suspended Gaeseong industrial complex and Mount Geumgang tours.
Seoul accepted the offer and proposed that the two sides hold ministerial-level talks in Seoul on 12 June.
The North&’s dialogue overture has raised expectations for improved inter-Korean relations. To be sure, it will ease tension on the Korean Peninsula. Yet it is premature to expect any breakthrough in cross-border relations.
Seoul&’s immediate interest lies in normalising the Gaeseong industrial park, which was suspended two months ago following the North&’s unilateral withdrawal of its workers. Yet, resuming its operation could prove harder than it sounds.
It is because Seoul cannot and should not reopen the complex as if nothing has happened. It needs to clarify such issues as who is responsible for the suspension of the park and who will compensate for the losses sustained by the South Korean companies.
More importantly, it needs to demand that Pyongyang offer strong assurances that it will abide by inter-Korean agreements and never again disrupt the operation of the complex.
If the North refuses to face the music, the hard-earned momentum for dialogue could dissolve quickly. Yet, if Pyongyang acknowledges its responsibility and offers assurances that it will clean up its act, the two sides could go beyond simply restarting the complex and promote its expansion.
Regarding the North&’s proposal to resume Mount Geumgang tours, Seoul should also demand that Pyongyang offer guarantees for the safety of tourists to the scenic mountain resort.
Even if the two sides manage to agree on Gaeseong and other issues, including the proposed reunion of families separated by the Korean War, a genuine reconciliation cannot be expected unless North Korea decides to renounce its nuclear programmes.
Pyongyang&’s four-point proposal has no mention of the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, still less the abandonment of its nuclear weapons. This suggests that the North has no willingness to change course.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has in fact repeatedly vowed to pursue a two-track strategy ~ promoting economic development and bolstering its nuclear arsenal simultaneously. But, as President Park Geun-hye pointed out, this strategy is a non-starter.As long as Kim sticks to nuclear weapons development, there is no way he can keep the economy from sinking. Nevertheless, he has been struggling to keep it afloat. One motivation behind the latest conciliatory gesture is probably his desire to prop it up with money from Seoul.
Yet Kim should realise that the North Korean economy is in a hopeless state that cannot last for long. If he wants to delay the day of reckoning, he should come forward and embark on a confidence-building process proposed by Park. He should be ready to turn the page in inter-Korean relations.
the korea herald/ann