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[Editorial] N. Korea and change

After the ouster of autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, pro-democracy uprisings are rapidly spreading in North Africa and the Middle East, with bloodshed reported in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria and Djibouti. The world community is now directing attention to countries in other continents under dictatorships, with many hoping to see similar popular protests will bring changes to the fates of the oppressed people. North Korea and Myanmar (Burma) are the top candidates.

People here are anxious about how North Koreans would react when they are informed of what is happening in the faraway region. Some civic groups are gearing up campaigns to encourage the people in the North to rise up against the Kim Jong-il regime, flying helium-filled balloons containing leaflets with news on the ouster of Egypt’s Mubarak who is well-known in the North.

The South Korean government, however, does not seem to have much expectation on the effect the wave of pro-democracy movements will have on North Korea. President Lee Myung-bak said that “North Korea has a good chance for change this year,” but he did not mean a bottom-up change through any popular protest in the other half of the peninsula. He was suggesting new opportunities in relations with South Korea.

The president mentioned a “two-track approach” toward Pyongyang during his conversation with reporters on Sunday. He said our people want a resolute response to any provocation (from the North) on one hand while hoping for dialogue with the North to discuss peace. He gave a strong indication that “the good chance” for the North this year could be an inter-Korean summit. Since the beginning of the year, Pyongyang has called for direct talks through diverse channels but not summit talks.

Through a summit or otherwise, President Lee should rather tell Pyongyang that there really are two possible courses of change facing North Korea: Change will be forced upon it by the people as it has been overseas unless the North’s leadership makes a top-down reform for economic openness and freedom. Kim Jong-il will beg Seoul’s help if he understands this.