“Our job is to create a strategic space to induce North Korea’s cooperation,” said South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young in a Sunday meeting with businessmen from the four major conglomerates – Samsung, SK, LG, and Hyundai Motor -, stressing the importance of the government and the private sector working hand in hand to prepare for inter-Korean economic cooperation. Minister Lee also attended a parliament debate the same day, expressing his hope to install a Seoul-Pyongyang mission, a liaison office, and a mission of commerce in Kaesong, Sinuiju and the economic trade zone of Rason.
Minister Lee’s remarks of late are not only untoward but borderline bizarre. Despite the series of incidents committed by the North – the detonation of the inter-Korean liaison office and the killing of a fisheries official from the South, Mr. Lee is drumming up the importance of a time of cooperation for both Koreas. For the COVID-19 vaccines that have yet to be secured, Lee said “the true virtue of sharing comes in bad times,” and now he has taken to gather the leaders of South Korean conglomerates to coax them into pursuing economic cooperation with the North, a highly anachronistic behavior.
Lee’s rationale is also a strange logical compilation of puzzles of self-serving optimism. He claimed that the presidential election in the U.S. is opening up a door to a new political landscape and the space of opportunity must be filled up with the time of the two Koreas. Contrary to the observations on a commonsensical and objective level, he equates the shift of power in Washington with a “space of opportunity.” The unification minister further argued that there is a high chance that the U.S. will make a more flexible approach and the North will focus on the economy in the future. The effective translation of his remarks is that Seoul must step up to coax Pyongyang when Washington is too preoccupied with its own agendas to pay attention to the North.
But Pyongyang has closed its border shut to stave off the coronavirus in the fear of losing its people at the expense of opening up. Even if North Korea does reciprocate, Seoul’s headlong pursuit of cooperating with the North won’t come across as ideal to U.S. President-elect Biden, who values teamwork among allies.
The low-key stance that Seoul has taken on has so far been considered as a desperate measure to prevent North Korean provocations. In fact, the Unification Ministry is practically designed to mollify the North, so such practices have been condoned albeit unpalatably. But the series of steps that Minister Lee has taken recently, which appears to have been hatched from his fantasy, are poised to haunt our businessmen too. Anxiety and excessiveness are bound to prove irritable.