Traveling North in Korea
October 1, 2008
As Christopher Hill traveled north from Seoul this week to try to rescue the snarled nuclear agreement with North Korea, another notable journey was taking place from Bongha, a village in the far south of Korea, up to Seoul. Former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun made his first return trip to the South Korean capital since leaving office in February. He came north to celebrate his momentous journey from Seoul to Pyongyang for a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that took place exactly one year ago. What a difference a year makes.
On October 2, 2007, President Roh and his entourage traveled by auto caravan through the streets of Seoul, up the Freedom Highway along the Han River to the DMZ dividing South and North. He and his wife stepped out of their car and walked across the line that has divided the peninsula for more than sixty years. In Pyongyang, Roh had two days of meetings with Kim Jong Il and they signed a “Declaration on the Advancement of South-North Korean Relations, Peace and Prosperity.” That agreement — which built upon the June 15, 2000 agreement at the first summit between former President Kim Dae Jung and the North Korean leader — detailed a number of ambitious joint economic projects and other steps to speed up cooperation and reconciliation between the two sides.
However, before implementation could advance very far a new, more conservative and more cautious government was elected in South Korea. Under new President Lee Myung-bak South-North relations have quickly deteriorated to their lowest level in a decade. The Lee government refused to endorse the October 4, 2007 summit agreement signed by Roh and staked out what was termed a more reciprocal and more pragmatic policy toward the North. In its usual bombastic style, the North reacted with verbal attacks on President Lee and severed official contact between the two sides. And when it seemed things could not get worse, there came the shooting death of a South Korean tourist by a North Korean soldier near the Mt. Kumgang Tourist Resort in the North, which resulted in the suspension from this iconic project of the engagement period.
Also, the progress in the Six-party Talks aimed at the denuclearization of North Korea, which had provided a favorable context for the 2007 summit, bogged down early this year. North Korea, claiming that the U.S. had reneged on the agreement to remove the North from the list of terrorism-supporting countries, recently took steps to reverse the steps it had taken to disable the nuclear reactor facilities at Yongbyon. And so we arrive at this point one year later, with Hill traveling north for a last-ditch effort to put the agreement with the North back on track before the end of the Bush administration.
Hill has been caught in the crosswinds of the Bush administration’s inconsistent policy toward the North and North Korea’s own foot-dragging. After being released to conduct bilateral negotiations with the North on the side of the Six-party Talks, and bringing North Korea so close to disabling its plutonium-producing facilities, Hill recently ran into the return to a harder line in Washington that demanded stronger verification controls on the agreement with the North. It now seems that Hill has been given a bit of slack to work with in Pyongyang to try to put the agreement back together. But it is not clear yet what kind of reception his compromise proposal will receive.
No doubt President Roh received a warmer reception in Seoul than Hill received in Pyongyang, but there were parallels in the two missions. President Roh traveled north to Seoul to try to put South-North Korea relations back on the track of sunshine and engagement. At a gala reception at the Hilton Hotel, surrounded by former cabinet members, staff and supporters, he challenged the new government in a speech titled “North Korea Policy Requires Fundamental Changes.” He defended his own policy toward the North and called for a new way of thinking about the problems of division and reunification. “It is time now to designate peace as the ultimate value and a genuine goal of North Korea policy independent of the reunification process.” He emphasized trust-building as critical. “Some may argue that North Korea is not a trustworthy counterpart and that it is nonsense to discuss trust with an unreliable party. On the other hand, our counterpart may want to argue the same, which will lead to mutual distrust. If this cycle goes on, nothing can be done.” President Roh also commented on the Korea-U.S. military alliance which came under some strains during his presidency, and which President Lee has pledged to make the central pillar of his policy. According to President Roh, “The Korea-U.S. alliance initially aimed at deterrence of North Korea. This goal remains valid in the present time.” However, “(n)ow is the time for inter-Korea dialogue. (I)t may not help to emphasize to the fullest extent rhetorical phrases concerning the Korea-U.S. alliance to deter North Korea.”
It is not clear how successful President Roh’s mission to Seoul will be. He received a hero’s welcome from his old comrades-in-arms. However, the only representative of the current government to attend this major speech by the former president was the Vice Minister of the recently downgraded Ministry of Unification. His attendance came only after a debate within the administration, aired through the media, about whether to send anyone at all. But there are signs of a slight softening of the Lee government’s stance. President Lee has made several formal statements indicating that he is ready for talks at any time with the North. There is discussion of unconditional food aid to the North through the World Food Programme. And the South has accepted the North’s proposal for direct military talks in Panmunjom later this week.
The next few weeks will tell if these two trips to the north”one from Seoul to Pyongyang, and the other from Bongha to Seoul”will yield any long-lasting results. One aims to change the dynamics in the U.S.-North Korea negotiations while the other is intended to push South Korea back toward the peaceful engagement policy of the last ten years. Some movement in both directions is necessary if we are to see real progress toward long-term peace on the Korean peninsula.
Edward Reed is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Korea. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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