[Editorial] Mutual flexibility

  • Published : Sept 20, 2011 - 21:01
  • Updated : Sept 20, 2011 - 21:01

North Korea’s party and state media these days are churning out “commentaries” that call for a thaw in relations between the two Koreas. The wording is so earnest and enthusiastic that one cannot but wonder that some tectonic changes might be taking place in the North, at least in the editorial departments of the official newspapers and websites.

The “Uri Minjok Kkiri (Our Nation Together)” website had an article which was titled “We cannot delay improvement of inter-Korean relations any longer” last Friday. It said: “Improving the relations between the North and the South is vitally important for the future destiny of the (Korean) nation. ... North-South relations should be shifted from distrust and confrontation to trust and reconciliation ...”

The Rodong Sinmun, the Workers’ Party organ, urged Seoul to lift its hard-line stance taken toward the North since May last year following the sinking of the Cheonan and return to dialogue. “The only way to improve North-South relations is to respect and implement the joint declarations of the June 15, 2000 and Oct. 4, 2007 inter-Korean summits,” the newspaper said.

For whatever strategic goals shown to them by the party, North Korean editors conveniently forgot the arguments they had made only a few months ago. Upon the breakup of private contacts between emissaries from Seoul and Pyongyang to discuss arranging a third inter-Korean summit meeting in May, the North Korean official media had declared that there would be no more dialogue, either official or unofficial, with the South. Pyongyang mouthpieces even “disclosed” that Seoul officials tried to bribe their Northern counterparts with cash.

It is not hard to conjecture what is behind the fresh North Korean media campaign. The Pyongyang leadership, first of all, must regard Seoul’s new Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik as a pragmatist or a possible accommodationist in contrast to his predecessor Hyun In-taek. They interpret President Lee Myung-bak’s appointment of Yu, one of his close confidants, as heralding a shift in Seoul’s North Korea policy.

Yu, a former geography professor at Seoul National University who served most recently as ambassador to Beijing, did not disappoint the North. He said he would open channels of dialogue with North Korea while “creating conditions for dialogue and untying knots” in relations with the North. On the first day in his new job, he met seven religious leaders who are scheduled to visit Pyongyang on Wednesday. It is the Unification Ministry’s first permission to a group of civic personalities since the general travel ban following the Cheonan incident.

Coincidentally, South and North Korean representatives will meet in Beijing on Wednesday for their second dialogue in two months to discuss the resumption of the six-party denuclearization talks. The Beijing meeting between vice foreign ministers of the two Koreas is considered a preliminary step to pave the way for North Korea’s direct talks with the United States, yet it may be seen as a positive development in inter-Korean ties.

However, if a new phase of dialogue is to open, the problem is that there is little room for Seoul to withdraw from its very basic demands to the North. Seoul’s rock-hard position that it shares with Washington is that North Korea should give up its uranium enrichment program, accept inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and announce a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. On top of these, Seoul cannot go into a meaningful dialogue until Pyongyang apologizes for the attacks in the West Sea last year.

Conspicuously missing since last month was North Korea’s personal attack on President Lee. Its words were so vulgar that South Korean media were unable to print them. North Koreans seem to be exercising certain flexibility for a new peace offensive toward the South. Seoul authorities, including the new unification minister, could exhibit their own “flexible methodologies” toward the North as Minister Yu indicated, but they should wait until the North shows genuine signs of change, least of all admitting its guilt in the West Sea attacks.