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     Apr 1, 2011

Lee's summit gamble on North Korea
By Sunny Lee

BEIJING - With South Korean media turning on under pressure President Lee Myung-bak as the country marks one year since the sinking of the corvette Cheonan, a headline-grabbing summit with the North Korea's Dear Leader would offer a potentially fast route to easing tensions.

South Korean media outlets for days made headlines over the tragedy, in which 46 sailors died and for which North Korea has been blamed, piling the pressure on Lee.

Lee has been widely praised for his economic achievements since taking charge in 2008. South Korea, the world's 14th largest economy, became the first country among the Organization for

Economic Cooperation and Development to make its way out of the economic meltdown.

Last year, the South Korean economy expanded by 6.2%, an impressive feat for a "developed country", although South Koreans themselves still feel shy of using that term as a recently industrialized country. The world recognized it by giving Seoul the right to host the Group of 20 meetings of global leaders at the end of last year.

However, Lee has had setbacks too - and on North Korea too, the country with the biggest "outside influence" on South Korea.

Although last year's two tragedies of the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling on the South's Yeonpyeong Island could be conveniently blamed on North Korea's provocations - and South Korean polls show people's support for Lee's hardline approach to North Korea - deep down in his heart, Lee may feel that his presidential legacy is drifting. He is due to stand down in February 2013.

A deterioration of inter-Korean relations is not a simple matter in South Korea - a quarter of the population have family members in the North. While most South Koreans hate North Korea, many of them have sympathy toward their naughty northern neighbor. This has always been a useful political tool in South Korean politics.

Lee may already have qualms about how history will remember him. Besides, his immediate two predecessor, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, held summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, in 2000 and 2007, respectively.

Kim Jong-il is a rare commodity in international politics. Very few outside world leaders actually have had a chance to meet him personally. When they did, they made instant international headlines, just like former US president Bill Clinton, who visited Pyongyang in a rescue mission to secure the release of two American journalists.

The Dear Leader's health is also failing. Lee may not want Clinton's photo-op with Kim Jong-il to become the last picture Kim takes with a top foreign leader. That's why the speculation over a possible inter-Korean summit doesn't die easily, despite the fact that inter-Korean ties are their lowest point since the Korean War in the early 1950s. The two Koreas even came close to war last November over the North's shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.

"My understanding is that North Korea is very much interested in a summit," said Shin Gi-wook, director of The Walter H Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, in a phone interview. "The South has some interest. But the Lee Myung-bak administration's stance is that it won't make it an occasion to provide massive economic aid to the North, as seen in the two previous liberal administrations. So, Lee can meet with Kim Jong-il, but Lee won't promise Kim ahead of the summit how much aid the South will provide to the North."

Lee Su-seok of the Institute for National Security Strategy, a state think-tank in Seoul, is more pessimistic. "I know there are some expectations for a summit. But I don't think the timing is right. The Lee government is maintaining the position that the North should first apologize for the sinking of the Cheonan."

Analysts believe Pyongyang attaches a cardinal importance to keeping face and is unlikely to offer an apology. With that, some expect that the current inter-Korean tension and deadlock will continue. Others believe Lee will find a way to persuade his hardline domestic constituency to accept a summit.

Nobody in South Korea claims to able to read Lee's intentions. What makes predicting the summit difficult is that inter-Korean relations have a track record of unpredictability, with plenty of mutual mistrust and suspicion. For example, the late North's leader and founder of the nation, Kim Il-sung, once launched a charm offensive toward the South while at the same time dispatching a team of special forces to the South in a failed attempt to assassinate the South's then president Park Chung-hee.

"I think we should wait and see for a while to see where things go from here," said Yang Moo-jin, an expert on North Korea at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies. "A summit may be possible. But the real problem is that the Lee Myung-bak administration lacks a will to take advantage of the summit diplomacy to improve the inter-Korean relationship. In fact, Lee's repeated mentioning of his willingness to meet with Kim Jong-il may be just a lip service for domestic audience. If he is really interested in exploring such a possibility, he would have formed a task team to do research. So, I think the idea for the summit is very elusive."

In fact, some observers see Lee as the South Korean version of George W Bush, the former US president. Just like Bush, Lee is a fundamentalist Christian and tends to see Kim Jong-il as an evil man, they said. According to this perspective, Lee doesn't see North Korea as a dialogue partner, but a target for collapse. They argue that Lee is religiously driven and harbors hatred toward North Korea.

The WikiLeaks diplomatic cables showed that the Lee administration was comfortable with its current hardline posture toward North Korea and was likely to maintain that posture until Lee stepped down.

Paik Hak-soon, a long-time North Korea watcher at the Sejong Institute, a think tank in Seoul, believes Lee is playing domestic politics with his frequent mentioning of the summit, while in fact, Lee prefers not to engage North Korea, hoping it will collapse either by worsening food crisis or domestic upheaval, as seen in the Middle East. "If you are serious about holding a summit, you work behind the scenes until you make official announcement. So far, the Lee administration leaked the news to the media to give the impression that it was also working for the summit. It's all lip service for domestic consumption to save face. Lee is actually thinking about the collapse of North Korea."

Moon Chung-in, a political science professor at Yonsei University, who had the rare experience of participating in both of the inter-Korean summits as a negotiation coach for the South's presidents, characterizes Lee as a "practical" person who could hold a summit if he wanted. The real challenge, says Moon, is South Korea's conservative camp - Lee's main political constituency - that wants Lee to continue to take hardline posture toward North Korea.

"The current inter-Korean relations deadlock is very serious. The issue of the Cheonan, for example, won't be resolved through military talks. It would take a summit to find a solution. Lee Myung-bak and Kim Jong-il, as top decision-makers, should talk to each other face to face. That would work. I think Lee still has time. But the problem is his conservative domestic audience. So, it won't be an easy task," said Moon.

Sunny Lee (sleethenational@gmail.com) is a Seoul-born columnist and journalist; he has degrees from the US and China.

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