Seoul hardens line amid N.K. peace offensive

By Shin Hyon-hee

Park administration remains aloof while trumpeting unification, N.K. uncertainty

  • Published : Jan 20, 2014 - 19:45
  • Updated : Jan 20, 2014 - 19:45
South Korea appears to be hardening its stance against North Korea as the Kim Jong-un regime steps up its peace offensive, which Seoul sees as an attempt to build rationale for a possible military provocation.

The communist country’s propaganda machine has been churning out articles and editorials calling for efforts to improve inter-Korean relations in line with its leader’s New Year address. Last week it offered reconciliation through the cessation of slander and military drills with the U.S.

Unfazed by the South’s rebuff the following day, the North pledged to undertake “practical behavior” first to demonstrate its steadfast resolve to realize its “crucial proposal.”

But Seoul remained aloof, warning Pyongyang against misleading public opinion with groundless claims and calling for action toward denuclearization to prove its sincerity.

In an unusual move, President Park Geun-hye instructed her foreign and defense policy aides to maintain an airtight security posture during her visit to India on Saturday.

“Please make the best efforts to ensure a thorough, tight security posture against any North Korean provocations especially when North Korea is engaged in such a propaganda barrage,” a Cheong Wa Dae official quoted her as saying.

“Our historical experiences tell us about a pattern of North Korea committing military provocations against the South after waging this kind of deceptive peace offensive,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

The toughened stance apparently reflects Park’s displeasure with Pyongyang’s rejection of her offer of talks early this month to arrange reunions of separated families for the upcoming Lunar New Year holidays, made in her own New Year speech.

The North’s last-minute cancellation last September of what would have been the first family reunion in more than three years enraged the Blue House, which responded with notably stringent criticism, calling the decision “inhumane.”

The mood has been frosty since the Dec. 12 execution of Jang Song-thaek, Kim’s powerful uncle who was deemed relatively more reform-minded and closer aligned to China, which has spoken against the North’s nuclear armament. Outside the reclusive country, his shocking downfall rekindled concerns over instability within the fledgling regime.

Then unification suddenly emerged as the centerpiece of Park’s second-year presidency, with strong backing from major conservative newspapers. In her New Year address, the leader said unification would provide a “windfall” for all Koreans and an opportunity for the nation to take a great leap forward.

National Intelligence Service director Nam Jae-joon reportedly told his staff that by 2015, the peninsula will have been integrated under the “free system of the Republic of Korea.” During his trip to Washington early this month, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se agreed with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to intensify policy coordination on the growing uncertainty of North Korea, possibly later involving China and other members of the six-nation denuclearization talks.

The government-wide drive seems to be shaping into a fresh ruling ideology, a drastic shift from Park’s “trust-building process” policy. The much-trumpeted initiative was designed to reengage Pyongyang while deterring its saber rattling by gradually forging trust through small projects, which would then lead to greater collaboration.

The six-party talks, meanwhile, lost vigor once again after gathering momentum for the first meeting in about five years up until early December.

“The unification campaign may help raise public awareness at home but could give a wrong signal to the North that we’re seeking unification by absorption,” a Seoul official said on condition of anonymity.

“And the bigger problem is that no one, including the president herself, says how to go about it. It will most likely be confined to another political slogan.”

A North Korea expert also expressed concerns about the Park administration’s rigidity and lack of a consistent, long-term strategy.

“If it took the overture as a mask to develop logic for an attack, it should have crushed that logic and steered North Koreans toward the path to dialogue, not pushed them to the edge of a provocation by completely killing the offer,” the expert said, requesting anonymity.

“It would have been a far wiser approach to make counterproposals, such as asking (them) to send a delegation to observe the South Korea-U.S. military drills or hold working- or high-level talks between military officials to defuse tension in the West Sea.”

By Shin Hyon-hee (