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[Op-Ed] North Korea’s Tug-of-War

Posted January. 26, 2010 07:15,   


A relationship is often compared to playing tug-of-war with an elastic band. A person in love must occasionally take a few steps back to make his or her lover desperate. If too many backward steps are taken, however, the elastic band will snap. The band becomes loose if too many steps are taken forward. Until the incumbent administration took power, South Korea took too many steps forward while North Korea took too many steps back. The North, however, took full advantage of the bilateral relationship even as it ran away from its counterpart. Recent developments in inter-Korean ties are quite the contrary, however. Pyongyang is now the pursuer of a reluctant Seoul. Instead of sweet words, however, the North still uses threats such as “waging a holy war” or a “preemptive attack.”

North Korea has continued to stage a lonely struggle against its five counterparts in the six-way nuclear talks since its traditional allies China and Russia also support denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang has nothing to gain from the talks because it has to give up its nuclear program in exchange for economic benefits and a guarantee for its communist regime. Therefore, the North has sought bilateral talks with each of the five parties while avoiding the six-way talks. Unfortunately, Pyongyang has little to gain from Moscow, and Tokyo remains hostile because of the North’s past abductions of Japanese nationals. China could be the only reason the North still has wiggling room in the six-party talks. The Obama administration of the U.S. has made little compromises while urging the North to return to the six-way talks. So who can the North turn to? The South.

A North Korean delegation attended in Seoul last year the state funeral of former President Kim Dae-jung and met President Lee Myung-bak, but nothing seems to have changed. Pyongyang has recently suggested a third inter-Korean summit, joint inspections of overseas industrial complexes, resumption of tours to Kaesong and Mount Kumgang, and even a military dialogue on “passage, customs and communication issues.” In other words, Pyongyang has opened all the channels Seoul hoped it would. Reflecting its growing desperation, the North has unconditionally permitted members of a South Korean NGO to visit Pyongyang for humanitarian purposes. Yet to save face in the eyes of its people, the North’s powerful National Defense Commission has continued making empty threats against South Korea’s lukewarm response as a declaration of war.

Pyongyang’s approach to inter-Korean ties is alternating between hot and cold. It is desperate to hold a meeting with Seoul yet its military threatens to blow up the South Korean presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae. Such a mixed approach makes one wonder what the North’s true intentions are. Perhaps an irreconcilable difference exists between the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, which is worrying over food shortages, and the North Korean military, which wants to build a strong nation. Under these circumstances, South Korea must not be dragged into North Korea’s game. Instead, it should make Pyongyang realize that to earn love, it must give up something first.

Editorial Writer Lee Jeong-hoon (hoon@donga.com)