With South Korea seeing its ties with China and Japan sour recently, North Korea is actively reaching out to the two neighboring powers. The North has also been responding to moves made by Russia since Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in May. It is also seen to be trying to activate contacts with the U.S. mainly through a dialogue channel in New York.
Pyongyang’s moves to improve relationships with the four major powers come amid signs of the impoverished regime taking a course toward economic reform under its young new leader Kim Jong-un, who took over following the death of his father Kim Jong-il in December.
The North rejected a recent proposal from the South to resume the reunion of separated families, revealing its intention to keep Seoul on the sideline while going on the diplomatic offensive. It may hope that Seoul’s strained ties with Beijing and Tokyo will give it more leverage in cutting deals with them.
South Korea, however, appears to have little feeling of being sidelined. In his Liberation Day speech Wednesday, President Lee Myung-bak made no dramatic offer to Pyongyang, reiterating that his administration “will carefully watch for possible changes” in the rigid regime.
North Korea certainly has limits on what it draws from the neighboring powers unless it gives up its nuclear weapons program and takes other measures toward serious reform.
China and North Korea agreed to accelerate projects to develop special economic zones in the North during a Beijing visit early this week by Jang Song-thaek, the uncle and key guardian of Kim Jong-un. But it is not assured that China will offer full-scale economic assistance as requested by North Korea.
Putin’s approach toward Pyongyang is eventually aimed at building a pipeline transporting Russian gas to the South through the North, making Seoul’s inclusion necessary for pushing through the project.
Japan may be more tempted into strengthening leverage over South Korea in their territorial and historical disputes by moving toward the establishment of diplomatic ties with North Korea. But the first government-level talks between the two sides in four years are set to bump into many obstacles including the issue of Japanese abductees taken to North Korea.
The U.S. has made it clear that Pyongyang’s commitment to abandon its nuclear programs is a prerequisite for full economic and diplomatic benefits. In the election year, President Barack Obama’s administration will not be ready to reach any compromise with North Korea, which could invite criticism from the camp of Republican rival contender Mitt Romney.
Though Pyongyang’s ongoing initiatives to improve external relations are likely to bring about limited results, they should not be grounds for Seoul’s complacency with inflexible adherence to principles of reciprocity. Our eventual sights in dealing with inter-Korean relations should be put on unification in a peaceful way acceptable to neighboring powers.
From this perspective, South Korea needs to work out a framework for long-term approaches in order not to be swayed disproportionately by individual events between the two sides. North Korea is certainly to blame for deteriorating inter-Korean ties with a series of provocative acts during Lee’s five-year presidency that ends in February. But it also may not be too harsh an evaluation to say his approach based on simple principles of reciprocity and lacking long-term vision has plummeted relations between the two sides lower than could have otherwise been shored up.