Is This a Turning Point?
Today, Lee Myung Bak was inaugurated as president of South Korea. Tomorrow the New York Philharmonic will play Pyongyang. In the background, nuclear negotiators from the six parties to the Six-Party Talks are scrambling to salvage the February 13 agreement. Is this just another false hope in a long string of false hopes or are we due for an actual breakthrough? The world’s eyes are turned towards the Korean peninsula and the time seems ripe. Or not.
With the sunshine policy now officially over, expect a slightly cooler attitude from the South. While Lee is not expected to take a hard-line, he is expected to be more pragmatic in his approach with the North, demanding more reciprocity and give-and-take. Gone will be the “uri minjok ggiri” excuses for no-strings-attached pandering. Gone will be the days when atrocities and human rights violations are hidden from public view. Gone will be the days when South Korean officials go to great lengths to not upset the Dear Leader up north. Writing on the new president’s North Korea policy, Korea Times notes:
In an interview with Newsweek, he said that South and North Korea “cannot seek joint prosperity and unification if the North keeps its nuclear weapons.” In an interview with Newsweek magazine Sunday, Lee said that he will not hold an inter-Korean summit just for the summit’s sake or domestic political reasons. Though he will not shut down the Gaeseong Industrial Complex in North Korea, he made clear that the complex will not be expanded if North Korea fails to make progress on denuclearization. “If North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, we can’t seek unification (with North Korea),” Lee said.
As for the New York Philharmonic’s upcoming performance, we shouldn’t be too quick to overestimate the impact it will have, warns Donald Kirk, writing in the Christian Science Monitor. Condoleezza Rice, visiting Seoul to attend Lee’s inauguration, echoes these sentiments:
“Everybody knows what needs to happen,” she said at a news conference Friday, referring to North Korea’s obligation to disclose in full its nuclear programs as part of six-nation agreements. She said it was a “good thing” that the New York Philharmonic would perform in Pyongyang next week, and that she hopes this will have a positive effect, but added she will not overestimate the impact. “The North Korean regime is still the North Korean regime,” she said, “and so I don’t think we should get carried away with what listening to Dvorak is going to do in North Korea.”
Rice, by the way, will not attend the philharmonic’s performance, telling reporters that such an action would not be “useful at this time.”
While Rice won’t be attending, Hyun Jeong Eun, widow of Chung Mong Hun—the former Hyundai chairman who committed suicide after it came to light that he financed the 2000 inter-Korean summit with a $500 million “donation” to KJI—will be in attendance. According to Donald Kirk, via CSM:
Ms. Hyun’s presence underlines the economic aspect of North-South reconciliation. “I am moved to go to Pyongyang and see the New York Philharmonic perform,” she says. “I hope that in the future relations between the two Koreas will create harmony that is like the beautiful harmony that is characteristic of the world-famous New York Philharmonic,” she adds
The relationship between North and South has drastically changed over the past ten years. As Professor Choe Wan Kyu correctly points out, North Korea is seen as both an “object of discord and confrontation instead of engagement and cooperation…[and] it is an object of engagement and cooperation, instead of conflict.” In all the hoopla over the sunshine policy, it’s been easy to forget that North and South Korea are still at war. General Bell, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, reminds us of the threat factor in a recent interview with the Chosun Ilbo:
“First and foremost, I’m worried… about the conventional threat that the North Korean military poses to South Korea.” Bell said, “What worries me is that North Korea is a ‘military first’ country where all their resources and their focus goes into the maintenance of the military apparatus.” He continued, “This is a very large military, over a million men under arms in a very small country of only 22 million people. That means… [at] any time 5% of the whole country, regardless of age, [is] serving on active duty.”
Finally, within North Korea itself, as North Korean Economy Watch points out, details are coming to light about whether a widely reported anti-corruption purge is just a “good old fashioned purge” or an excuse to change policy. The head of the United Front Department is in the cross hairs, reports both the DailyNK and the Korea Times. KT notes that UFD Head Jung Woon Eup and others are being investigated for embezzeling $20 million in bribes related to the Kaesong Complex:
North Korean authorities have been investigating the chief of a North Korean committee in charge of inter-Korean economic cooperation for months after seizing $20 million from his house, a report said Friday. Quoting an unidentified Chinese source informed on North Korean affairs, the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper said Pyongyang authorities are intensifying their investigation into Jung Woon-eop and 80 other officials of the committee over where the money came from. South Korean experts on North Korea hinted that the money came from bribes paid by South Korean firms that are operating or want to operate in the joint industrial complex in the North’s border city of Gaeseong, according to the newspaper.
DailyNKnotes that due to the high-level organs involved in the investigation, there may be more than meets the eye. In fact, Kim Jong Il himself is behind the investigation:
The fact that the Guidance Department is involved in the current investigation may be a sign that Kim Jong Il is trying to rebuild the party so that he can change the focus of policy from the military to economic matters. Kim Jong Il has already created a militarily powerful country by acquiring nuclear weapons. Now he wishes to improve other areas.
So, is this a turning point? I’d say the question is not whether things are changing, but which way they are changing. Perhaps now North Korea will have some incentive to cooperate. With aid lifelines in jeopardy, China hungrily eyeing North Korean resources, and international patience wearing thin, North Korean leaders are most certainly doing some soul searching right now.