With North Korea severing all communications with South Korea and ratcheting up hostile rhetoric against both Seoul and Washington, there are growing concerns that inter-Korean relations could once again become confrontational.
But ex-unification ministers downplayed those concerns and remained optimistic, calling for patience, flexibility and consistency in dealing with North Korea.
“There were many similar times like this in the past. Inter-Korean relations are influenced by US-North Korea relations, and are a continuation of advancement, retreat, achievement and setback,” said Lim Dong-won, former director of national intelligence and unification minister during the Kim Dae-jung administration (1998-2003). “We should never give up, but persist with patience, consistency and flexibility. And when the opportunity arrives, grasp it and move forward again.”
Lim stressed that vitalizing inter-Korean ties could improve US-North Korean relations, and ultimately achieve denuclearization. “South and North Korea should cooperate and lead four-way peace talks (between the two Koreas, the US and China) to change the armistice status to a peace regime.”
The former minister was speaking at an event hosted by the National Unification Advisory Council on Thursday in Seoul, to mark the 20th anniversary of the June 15 South-North Joint Declaration -- the outcome of the historic meeting in 2000 between then-South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Lim, who was Kim Dae-jung’s point man on North Korea and a key architect of his “Sunshine Policy” of engagement, said the first-ever summit in 2000 was a watershed moment that paved the way for peace and unification between the two Koreas over the past 20 years and for the summits in 2007 and 2018.
“The most important result from the first inter-Korean summit is that the South and North agreed on how to achieve peace and unification,” Lim said, recalling his visit to Pyongyang accompanying President Kim at the time. “The first step to unification (remains the same) -- through social, economic and cultural unification and creating a ‘de facto unification’ ahead of political unification.”
Jeong Se-hyun, executive vice chair of the NUAC and former unification minister in 2002-2004, echoed a similar view, likening the ups and downs of relations to four seasons.
“Winter comes, but it also means spring will arrive. The North will one day appear again, acting like nothing had happened,” he said.
Jeong added that the North’s recent hard-line stance is not just about anger over Seoul failing to stop defector groups from sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets. It reflects the regime’s grim domestic situation and economy amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“With North Korea set to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party (in October), it needs some kind of results,” he said. “It is possible the North will resume communication around or before this time.”
Jeong said it’s not right to react immediately to North Korea, and that Seoul should be patient and continue to do what it has to do -- such as continuing to discuss matters with the US, including the lifting of sanctions and inter-Korean issues. Also, Seoul should continue to honor two inter-Korean agreements signed in 2018, the Panmunjom Declaration in April and Comprehensive Military Agreement in September.
On Thursday, North Korea continued to lash out at Seoul, and also at Washington, telling it to stop meddling in inter-Korean affairs, two days after it called the South an “enemy” and cut off all inter-Korean communication lines.
The North’s mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun said Pyongyang has an “iron will” to take revenge against South Korean officials over the anti-regime leaflets, even at the risk of putting inter-Korean relations in “total bankruptcy.”
The Tongil Voice, a North Korean propaganda radio broadcast, openly criticized South Korean President Moon Jae-in, saying the North trusted Moon to be different from past leaders in the South. “It looks like he is worse than his predecessors,” it said.
The broadcast also warned that South Korea would suffer its most painful nightmare from now on.
After Washington expressed its disappointment with Pyongyang for ceasing communication with Seoul, the North urged the US to stay out of inter-Korean affairs and said its meddling could affect the upcoming US presidential election.
“If the US pokes its nose into others’ affairs with careless remarks, far from minding its internal affairs, at a time when its political situation is in the worst-ever confusion, it may encounter an unpleasant thing hard to deal with,” Kwon Jong Gun, director general for US affairs at North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, said through the Korea Central News Agency.
“The US had better hold its tongue and mind its internal affairs first if it doesn’t want to experience a hair-raiser. It would be good not only for the US interests but also for the easy holding of its upcoming presidential election,” he added.
By Ahn Sung-mi (firstname.lastname@example.org