President Park Geun-hye will in all probability refer to inter-Korean relations, a key issue of concern to South Koreans, when she holds a news conference on Monday. The news conference, the first since her inauguration 10 months ago, comes after Kim Jong-un, the young, brash and ruthless leader of North Korea, offered to improve inter-Korean relations in his New Year message.
In his message, Kim said it was time to put an end to what he called pointless slandering and other acts detrimental to inter-Korean reconciliation and unity. He added that those desiring inter-Korean reunification, no matter who they might be, would pay little attention to what had happened in the past and push for an improvement in North and South Korean relations.
But it would be Kim who is to blame, rather than Park, should she express any skepticism to his proposal. How could she forget a nuclear test conducted by Pyongyang shortly before her inauguration in late February 2013, the closure of a South Korean-operated industrial complex in the North Korean border town of Gaeseong in April and Kim’s numerous threats of hostility against the South?
The Kim regime engaged in all these provocative acts, ignoring Park’s proposal to launch a three-stage process of building trust on the Korean Peninsula ― the unconditional provision of humanitarian aid for the impoverished North, the launch of low-cost projects in the North, such as the forestation of denuded areas, and finally making huge infrastructure investments in a denuclearized North Korea.
When it was broadcast on television on Jan. 1, Kim’s message was greeted with skepticism in the South. The Park administration called Kim’s sincerity into question, recalling that his 2013 New Year message, similar in content, had been followed by a nuclear test and other security threats.
Just last month, he also made a warlike remark during his tour of a military unit. He told the military to be prepared for a war that could be launched “without being advertized in advance.”
If it does not want to be deceived by any chance, South Korea has no choice but to heighten vigilance in the months ahead.
There is another good reason why South Korea needs to keep its guard up, instead of rushing to embrace Kim’s offer to improve inter-Korean relations. Kim, who had his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, executed last month to tighten his grip on power, may be tempted to launch unprovoked military action and, by doing so, rally North Koreans behind him.
As she has often committed herself in the past, she will have to continue to make a principled approach to inter-Korean relations ― withholding assistance to the North unless it is reciprocated by an action designed to de-escalate tension. Of course, humanitarian aid should be an exception, as she promised.
Yet, her administration will have to keep a channel of dialogue open. It also needs to keep reminding North Korea what benefits it can draw from the South once it proves it is committed to peace. One suitable occasion to do so will be her news conference.