Seoul proposes talks with North

By Shin Hyon-hee
  • Published : Jul 16, 2012 - 18:05
  • Updated : Jul 17, 2012 - 10:50

Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik(Chung Hee-cho/Korea Herald)

Unification Minister Yu optimistic on N.K. stability, signs of openness

Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik proposed unconditional talks with North Korea to discuss reunions of separated families, tours to Mount Geumgang and other stalled cross-border projects.

In an interview with The Korea Herald, he expressed cautious optimism about the prospect of the reclusive country opening up to the outside world under new leader Kim Jong-un, though the signs are still meager.

“I want to deliver my proposal to have dialogue, ease tension, raise the mood of peace and work together to deal with difficulties faced by the North,” Yu said.

“The most urgent agendum is the reunion of separated families. We have no time to lose as most of them are very old ... and many have already passed away,” he added.

The North’s budding leadership rejected his previous proposal for dialogue in February. Kim Jong-un took power after his father Kim Jong-il died in December 2011.

Yu said Kim now appears to have stabilized his power base and it is time for the North to come forward for dialogue.

“Six months have passed. Once the North has made the power transition and overcome the difficulties … the North should accept my proposal for dialogue, working-level discussions,” he said.

He said the South has no intention to threaten and destabilize the regime.

“We are leaving the door of dialogue and the window of opportunities open. I do not attach any preconditions, even over the issues of the North’s apology for its attacks on Cheonan and Yeonpyeongdo and the security guarantee for (tourists to) Mount Geumgang. We can solve them through dialogue,” he said.

The tour program, run jointly by Seoul-based Hyundai Group and Pyongyang, was halted after a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean solider at the resort in July 2008.

Family reunions were last held in October 2010 amid sour relations following the North’s sinking of the warship. After the reunions, the North’s artillery firing on the border island of Yeonpyeongdo in the West Sea, bringing the total death from both incidents to 50. The communist state denies its responsibility in both.

In February, Yu proposed working-level meetings for the long-lost relatives across the border and cooperation for disease and pest control for ailing trees in the impoverished country. He made the offer after Pyongyang and Washington clinched a deal for food aid and halting the North’s nuclear and missile activities, which was invalidated by the North’s rocket launch in April.

“All the previous offers for dialogue by the South Korean government are still valid. If the North makes another proposal by its necessity, I’ll gladly accept it,” he said.

“As for the (Geumgang) tour, a working-level meeting can be held immediately if a North Korean official in a responsible position ensures the safety of South Korean travelers.”

Pyongyang has sent a barrage of verbal threats against President Lee Myung-bak, the Seoul government and conservative news organizations.

He said such behavior does not help serve the North’s interests.

The prospect for a summit between leaders Lee and Kim is unclear, he said, because Seoul is not interested in making a political event.

A former geography professor, the 62-year-old minister was sworn-in in September. He is a former ambassador to China and chief of staff to Lee, plus known for a more pragmatic and flexible stance toward Pyongyang than his predecessor, Hyun In-taek.

Yu assessed that six months after it took off, the new Kim regime appears to be consolidating power and political stability.

Optimism is growing toward moderate reform in the closed society. The young, Swiss-educated Kim has stressed economic development and mentioned global trends.

Pyongyang and Beijing are expanding trade and jointly developing special economic zones in border regions. The North’s state media early this month released footage of a concert for Kim featuring Walt Disney characters.

Yu urged Kim to put such signs into practice to revive the moribund economy and better feed his people.

“It’s good to see and listen to the North’s recent news reports such as about the joint investment with China and musical performances mimicking foreign ones. But that should be put into practice and translated into action. A scene of performers (dressing as Mickey Mouse) may not bring about a sweeping reform,” he said.

“We’ll actively help if it opens up, look after the people and adopt international norms. That’s in line with our goal for unification from a humanitarian standpoint.”

He called for the North to make a good choice, warning that a bad choice would yield consequences.

Touching on the autocratic regime’s nuclear weapons, Yu said it has two critical vulnerabilities that could erode its power base ― the populace’s economic difficulty and international isolation.

“Although the North has seemingly secured some stability, in a modern state, power means more than force. It needs the support of the people. And these days no country can exist in isolation,” he said.

Late last year, Yu initiated a drive to set up a 50 trillion won ($43.7 billion) fund by 2030 to help pay for the eventual reunification between the two Koreas.

With the so-called “Unification Jar,” he hopes to heighten public awareness at home and abroad. Individual Koreans can make contributions, while the government plans to set aside money such as from budget leftovers.

“The jars are an emblem of the government’s task of securing finances for unification. They will help South Koreans strengthen confidence themselves, deliver hope to North Koreans and show off our resolve to other countries such as China, Japan and Russia,” the minister said.

By Shin Hyon-hee (


<관련 한글 기사>

류우익 北과 “조건 없는” 대화 재개 제안

류우익 통일부 장관은 이산가족 상봉과 금강산 관광 등 중단된 남북교류 사업을 논의하기 위한 “조건 없는” 대화 재개를 북한에 제안했다.

류 장관은 본지와의 인터뷰를 통해 “제일 급한 것은 이산가족이 만나는 것”으로 “(이산가족의 고령화로) 시간을 지체할 수가 없다”며 “심지어 천안함, 연평도 도발에 대한 사과 문제, 금강산 관광객의 신변안전 문제도 대화를 통해 해결하자. 전제조건을 걸어 놓고 그런 게 해결 안되면 안 만나겠다는 것이 아니고 대화를 통해서 해결하자”라고 밝혔다.

정부는 지난 2월 미국의 대북 영양지원과 북한의 핵실험 유예 합의에 앞서 산림청을 통한 고구려 고분 주변 병충해 방제와 대한적십자사를 통한 이산가족 교류 재개를 위한 실무협의를 제의했지만 북측의 거절로 인해 무산된 바 있다.

지난 2000~2007년 활발했던 이산가족 교류는 2008년 이명박 정부 출범 이후 2010년 10월까지 간간이 이어지다 11월 북한의 연평도 포격 이후 전면 중단됐다.

또한 2008년 7월 관광객 고(故) 박왕자씨의 피격사망으로 금강산 관광이 중단된 이후 막대한 매출 손실을 입은 현대아산은 관광 재개를 지속적으로 요청해왔다.

류 장관은 “(금강산 관광) 재개의 가장 중요한 조건은 어떠한 경우에도 대한민국 관광객의 신변을 안전하게 보장하는 것”이라며 “책임 있는 북한 관리가 그것을 보장한다면 바로 실무회담에 들어갈 수 있다”고 말했다.

더불어 “기존의 대한민국 정부, 통일부가 제안한 모든 대화 제의는 유효하다”며 “또 북측의 필요에 의해 다른 제의를 해 온다면 기꺼이 받겠다”고 말했다. 또한 남북간 “흔들리지 않는 대화 채널”의 중요성을 강조하며 “대화를 하고 긴장을 완화하고 평화를 높이고 북한의 어려운 형편을 도와나가자”고 말했다.

그러나 남북 정상회담 추진설에 대해서는 “지금은 정치적 이벤트를 만드는 것이 아니고 (남북관계를) 실질적으로 개선하고 해결하는 노력이 필요하다”며 “고위급 대화까지 갈 수 있으면 우리가 상당히 일을 할 수 있을 것”이라고 밝혔다.

이와 함께 류 장관은 출범 6개월을 맞은 김정은 정권의 대외개방 전망에 대해 조심스럽게 낙관했다.

그는 김정은 위원장이 “지난 6개월 동안 권력을 승계하고 외형상으로 여러 가지 어려움을 극복"한 것으로 보이며 "이제 한국이 제의한 대화, 실무협의를 통해 실천 가능한 것부터 신뢰를 쌓아가야 한다”고 말했다.

그러나 “북한이 어려운 여건에서 권력을 승계하고 대화에 나오는 만큼 안정되는 데 시간이 걸릴 것이며 어려움이 있을 것이란 점을 당연히 이해한다”며 “나쁜 길을 선택하지 않도록 우리도 용기를 주고 대화의 문, 기회의 창을 열어두겠다”고 덧붙였다. (코리아헤럴드)