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‘Koreas must take lead in defusing tensions’

Former unification minister urges Lee government to seek ‘exit strategy’ from standoff

So as not to lose the initiative to other regional powers in solving issues on the peninsula, South Korea must restore trust with the rival North and work on resuming the stalled multinational talks aimed at denuclearizing the growingly provocative state, a former unification minister here said.

Before the Lee Myung-bak administration in Seoul finishes its five-year term in early 2012, it “must seek an exit strategy to make peace with North Korea,” Park Jae-kyu, currently president of Kyungnam University, told The Korea Herald.

With the Korean Peninsula increasingly becoming “an arena of American and Chinese hegemony,” the two Koreas may lose the initiatives they achieved over the past decade should conflicts continue without dialogue, Park added.

“I worry that we may repeat the mistakes in our history, forgetting this is a Korean problem,” he said.

The comments by the 66-year-old former minister come as tensions continue to run high between the two Koreas after Pyongyang conducted two deadly attacks against Seoul in March and November last year.

As South Korea remains firmly against an immediate resumption of the six-party denuclearization talks, which it views as a reward for Pyongyang, China and the U.S. ― the two largest states involved in the talks ― have been escalating discussions.

South Korea has long feared the scenario of being left on the sidelines in the debate over the North Korean nuclear program, which is closely linked to its national interests. Viewing the U.S. as its most influential dialogue partner, North Korea has often demanded one-on-one talks with Washington, snubbing Seoul in the process.
Park Jae-kyu
Park Jae-kyu

Park, a leading North Korean specialist who played a crucial role in organizing the first-ever inter-Korean summit between the late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in 2000, poorly graded the incumbent administration’s North Korean policy.

“It would be difficult for me to give a high score, as confrontation and distrust between the two Koreas persist,” he said. “The government has shown a lack of flexibility and optimism in dealing with Pyongyang, harming the trust-building between the two Koreas.”

Park headed the Unification Ministry ― which oversees affairs with North Korea ― between 1999 and 2001 under the liberal Kim government which focused on engaging the reclusive Pyongyang.

Since taking office in 2008, incumbent President Lee has sought hardline policies toward the North, claiming his two predecessors had been “too soft” to effectively control the unpredictable rival.

As the conservative government in Seoul remains reluctant toward an early resumption of the stalled six-nation dialogue ― involving the two Koreas, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia ― calls have been growing on the need of restarting talks to defuse tensions.

Although the South Korean government has repeatedly said it has never completely abandoned the dialogue card, it is hardly in position to immediately accept talks with the North, which continues to deny having torpedoed Seoul’s warship in March and blames the November artillery shelling on Seoul’s preemptive provocation.

The stalled talks, the last round of which were held in 2008, will not only restart negotiations on disarming Pyongyang, but also secure outside aid for the impoverished state.

While noting the sensitive situation the South Korean government lies in, the former minister emphasized the importance of dialogue.

“I can’t think of any past foreign policy case where pressure to isolate an opponent actually worked. Dialogue is needed,” said Park. “To prevent North Korea’s recent provocations from going overlooked due to a premature resumption of dialogue, the government should first work on restoring inter-Korean trust, possibly with assistance from the U.S. as well as China.”

Park also called “unsubstantial” the current Seoul-Washington-Tokyo cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s growing belligerence.

“Russia makes moves under consideration of its own interests as does China,” Park said, noting the difficulty Seoul faces in winning cooperation by the two dialogue partners in reining in Pyongyang.

While the U.S. and Japan have been together with South Korea in forming a joint deterrence against the North and condemning it for the attacks last year, China and Russia have been less supportive, putting more emphasis on immediately resuming the aid-for-denuclearization talks.

Beijing, in particular, has been largely uncooperative to the international calls, apparently giving more weight to the benefits coming from its traditional ties with Pyongyang.

“Because of the mutual interests that North Korea and China share, it is unlikely that China would change its basic policy,” said Park. “The best we can do is to highlight the responsibility and the constructive roles China can play in solving the problem of North Korea.”

“The key to resolving the current situation lies with how successful the administration will be in implementing its North Korea policy from this point forward,” he added.

Park, who also served as the presidential advisor on Korean unification affairs for 2006-2008, also helped establish the Institute for Far Eastern Studies and the Graduate University of North Korean Studies.

In 2009, he received the special jury prize by the French Foundation Chirac for four decades his devotion on the Korean Peninsula. He also won the 2002 Order of Service Merit Blue Stripes by the Korean government and an Honorary Award from the U.S. Congress in 2009, recognized for similar efforts.

By Shin Hae-in (
Korea Herald daum