Seventeen years after a peace declaration between the leaders, inter-Korean relations face grim prospects amid the North’s evolving nuclear threats and perpetual tension that have even made sheer friendship events far-fetched.
Thursday marks the anniversary of a watershed summit and joint declaration of then-President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000.
The event sowed the seed of cross-border rapprochement through humanitarian and economic cooperation such as reunions of families separated by the Korean War. In 2007, Roh Moo-hyun held a summit and issued a more comprehensive Oct. 4 peace declaration with the late strongman, inheriting the spirit of the 2000 event and his predecessor’s Sunshine policy calling for engagement with the isolated, poverty-stricken neighbor.
In following through on the declaration, separate committees were set up in the two Koreas. They hosted back-to-back celebratory events in Seoul and Pyongyang between 2003 and 2008, inviting high-ranking government officials as guests and both countries’ artists as performers.
The annual festivals, however, hit a snag under the two successive conservative administrations here, led by Lee Myung-bak and then Park Geun-hye. In the wake of a series of nuclear and missile tests, and the North’s 2010 attacks on a South Korean corvette and border island, inter-Korean exchanges grew increasingly scarce and then virtually ground to a halt.
Following a near 10-year letup, the inauguration of President Moon Jae-in -- a close friend and top staffer to Roh -- appeared to cast a bright light over the June 15 project, humanitarian events and the protracted impasse in the relationship.
On June 1, the Unification Ministry gave the green light to the South Korean committee’s request to reach out to its North Korean counterpart for this year’s joint celebration. It has also approved a multitude of civic groups’ plans to provide humanitarian aid and resume religious exchanges.
But it was Pyongyang that gave the cold shoulder to the upbeat mood. The June 15 committee failed to secure a response from the North and decided to hold the event on its own in Seoul. The regime also rejected the aid offer, with an official demanding in an interview with AFP in Pyongyang that Seoul first return home 13 defectors before any humanitarian program restarts.
One day ahead of the anniversary, the North’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea responsible for cross-border relations urged Seoul to take steps to defuse military tension before seeking a reconciliation.
The committee also slammed the Moon administration’s pledge to pursue sanctions and engagement as a “foolish, disgraceful act” and “clear self-deception.”
“If South Korea truly desires peace they should not recklessly take issue with our self-defensive nuclear power, which is the firmest and most realistic guarantee for peace on the peninsula, but take measures to shut out the US’ aggressive, hostile blind act,” it said in a statement on Wednesday.
Experts say that in pursuing a thaw, the Moon leadership, too, should take into account not only souring public sentiment toward the unruly neighbor at home but also changes within the North especially since the death of Kim Jong-il and succession of Kim Jong-un in 2011.
“North Korea is not as willing to recover the inter-Korean relationship as it did in 2000 since it’s leaning toward paving its own path with the development of nuclear weapons and missiles,” Lee Woo-young, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies told The Korea Herald.
While the South Korean June 15 committee is likely to be given another chance to reinitiate the joint ceremony next year, it would be difficult to receive a positive response from the North, he predicted.
“It is important to reconnect a cross-border hotline and win the approval of South Korean citizens before carrying out future joint projects,” the professor said.
Dong Yong-seung, a senior analyst at Good Farmers, a non-governmental organization working to boost agriculture in the North, pointed to the economic improvements there in recent years for which the young ruler is taking credit.
“North Korea has undergone a lot of changes (under Kim Jong-un). … Many of its citizens take pride as a member of a nuclear weapons state and are willing to trade some level of economic inconvenience for it,” Dong said at a symposium hosted by the Peace Foundation in Seoul on Tuesday.
“North Korea is a de facto nuclear state, but it maintains a defensive stance against the South which is apparently intended to seek a peaceful co-existence between the two Koreas and build the foundation to maintain the current system.”
Despite the current strains, Seoul officials retain cautious optimism for future relations with Pyongyang.
Unification Minister nominee Cho Myoung-gyun, who was a top secretary to Roh and played a key role in the 2007 summit, on Tuesday called for a restart of the inter-Korean Kaesong industrial complex shut down last year in punishment for the North’s nuclear and missile test. He also did not out the possibility of a summit between Moon and Kim, calling it “one of the issues to pursue if necessary in working out inter-Korean relations.”
Though the joint celebration failed to materialize, the Moon administration appears keen to give its blessing to the June 15 event in Seoul by dispatching Vice Unification Minister Chun Hae-sung who is scheduled to deliver a congratulatory message.
At a separate seminar on Wednesday, Chun said the nascent government will forge a fresh initiative building on the two landmark declarations.
“The new administration plans to solve North Korea‘s nuclear issues and map out a new vision for peace of the peninsula and shared prosperity based on the spirit of the June 15 Joint Declaration and Oct. 4 Declaration,” Chun said at a seminar hosted by Rep. Kim Han-jung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea.
“Under this difficult situation facing the peninsula, we need to revive the spirit of inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation which the June 15 declaration symbolizes, and overcome the reality where the implementation of inter-Korean agreements were stalled and North Korea policy becomes a source of political conflicts according to government changes.”
By Jung Min-kyung (firstname.lastname@example.org