During his live New Year’s address on Jan. 1, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said that he would work actively to improve inter-Korean relations. The day before, on Dec. 31, President Park Geun-hye submitted a column to a daily newspaper in which she said she would work to upgrade the trust-building process for the Korean peninsula. On this occasion, we want to express our hope that the authorities from both South and North will make a proactive effort to improve inter-Korean relations.
Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address was calibrated to maintain stability both inside and outside of North Korea following the purge of Jang Song-thaek. Even while Kim said that “the black clouds of nuclear war aimed at the North are always hovering overhead,” he refrained from any provocative remarks about strengthening the North’s nuclear or missile capability or any overt criticism of the outside world. The emphasis on agricultural innovation and on the monolithic system seemed aimed at calming unrest in popular opinion. The remarks about improving relations between North and South make sense in the same context. However, during his New Year’s address, Kim went no further than saying that a mood was created for improving inter-Korean relations. If the North truly wants to improve ties, it must take action that is more concrete. That could start with resuming the reunions for divided families around the Lunar New Year.
Park reaffirmed her standard position when she said she would create a sustainable peace through inter-Korean dialogue, exchange, and cooperation. She also said she would continue to provide humanitarian aid to the North. But there was a lack of specific details in Park’s remarks, too. In particular, Park should be a little more flexible in the area of humanitarian aid. Her remark that Seoul will actively support the North’s economic development if it takes genuine action to show a clear commitment to denuclearization was regrettable in the sense that it is basically the same as the former Lee Myung-bak administration’s Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Openness policy. It is true that inter-Korean relations cannot be separated from the nuclear issue, but inter-Korean relations shouldn‘t be subordinated to the nuclear issue.
After reaching a nadir during the spring of 2013, inter-Korean relations appeared to be warming in the summer. But they became strained again in Sept. 2013 and have remained that way until now. In addition, business at the Kaesong Industrial Complex is barely scraping by. Elements of uncertainty remain, including the struggle for power inside North Korea and public sentiment around the world, which favors putting pressure on the North.
Key figures inside the South Korean government also seem to take strained relations with Pyongyang for granted as they whip up fear about the threat to national security. One example is the prediction that North Korea will carry out a provocation between January and March. Such an attitude is problematic, considering that it makes it more likely for the appearance of unpredictable variables in inter-Korean relations while increasing the difficulty of solving the issues currently affecting the Korean peninsula. Guessing what the results might be is easy if we look back on the five years of the previous administration.
We hope that the South Korean government will not just ask for change from Pyongyang but will also take a leading role in setting policy toward the North. We must not forget the fact that an improvement in inter-Korean relations is the basis for resolving all current issues affecting the Korean peninsula, including the nuclear issue.
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