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[Op-Ed] Principles of the New Unification Minister

Posted March. 05, 2009 09:24,   


The appointment of new Unification Minister Hyun In-taek signifies that the Lee administration’s North Korea policy is getting on the right track a year after its inauguration. The preparatory stage under Hyun’s predecessor Kim Ha-joong has ended and now is the time to test Seoul’s full-fledged policy toward Pyongyang. Hyun is known as the architect of President Lee’s “Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Openness” policy toward the North. This is why his first interview with domestic and foreign reporters drew keen interest.

Stressing the importance of the North’s denuclearization and bravely confronting the communist country’s human rights abuses, Hyun expressed a stance quite distinct from his predecessors. He said, “Pyongyang should abandon its nuclear ambition to improve inter-Korean relations and join the international community.” On Seoul’s request to Pyongyang to improve its human rights situation filed with the U.N. Human Rights Council Tuesday, he dismissed the North’s criticism. “The statement derived from the realization of the heartbroken situation in North Korea as our brethren and aimed at urging the North to respect universal human values,” he said. Hyun also demanded that Pyongyang stop disparaging President Lee.

North Korea policy over the past year has been characterized by defensive responses while coaxing Pyongyang after incidents such as the killing of a South Korean tourist in Mount Kumgang and the expulsion of South Koreans from the Kaesong industrial complex. Each administration blamed its predecessors for distorting inter-Korean relations. Hyun’s comments on the policy principles and standards for North Korea, however, signal a major departure from previous governments. Nevertheless, he called for dialogue with the impoverished country and its immediate return to the negotiating table with Seoul since President Lee promised to respect joint inter-Korean agreements.

This is the right choice. South Korea should stand firm on principles but also engage in constructive talks with the North. The denuclearization policy should be pursued through dialogue. Now the ball is in Pyongyang’s court. The North can choose mutual prosperity by accepting Hyun’s proposal or its demise after blindly going nuclear. Its old tactics will no longer work. The era of the North using brinkmanship to get its way with the South is over. As researcher Dong Yong-seung at Samsung Economic Research Institute said, North Korea should keep up with the changes in the inter-Korean environment.

Editorial Writer Bhang Hyeong-nam (hnbhang@donga.com)