BEIJING - South Korean President
Lee Myung-bak's decision to keep on hardline
Unification Minister Hyun In-taek in the latest
cabinet reshuffle indicates that Lee will maintain
the hardball approach he has taken towards the
North until his term ends in 2013.
had widely predicted that Lee would sack Hyun and
replace him with Yoo Woo-ik, former ambassador to
China and one of Lee's closest aides. However, it
seems Lee was concerned that Hyun stepping down
would send a wrong signal to the North at a time
of high tensions.
Hyun is the primary
architect of Lee's current North Korean policy. He
is the driving force behind South Korea's
continuing insistence that Pyongyang must
apologize for two provocations last year
before it can receive food
aid and inter-Korean diplomacy can resume.
It was pledges to be tougher on North
Korea that helped Lee gain power in 2007. The
public was fed up with the liberal posture of the
previous two administrations, which are referred
to as "a lost decade" in North Korea policy by
Lee has made a complete
about-turn from the "Sunshine" policy of the Kim
Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. He has
demanded reciprocity, refusing to engage with
North Korea until this happens. This stance has
earned great support in the wake of the
Cheonan sinking last March and the shelling
of Yeonpyeong island in November.
while some analysts praise Lee's strong approach
for restoring national dignity, others describe it
as a zero-sum game that will not earn him a place
in history books. South Korean presidents are
permitted only one five-year term, and
presidential polls are due in December 2012.
"When it started, Lee's approach was
clearly a reflection of the conservative support
base that elected him to office. There were
segments of the population that opposed the
policy. In some ways it was a very radical change
... But after the Cheonan sinking and the
Yeonpyeong shelling, Lee's policy has found a much
larger support base," said Hahm Chaibong, director
of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.
Bruce Klingner, a former senior US Central
Intelligence Agency analyst on North Korea,
agrees. "Lee was successful in sending a message
to North Korea that there are penalties for
violating international law and United Nations
resolutions. And North Korea could not expect
continued handouts when it slaughters South Korean
citizens," said Klingner, who is now with the
Heritage Foundation think-tank.
seen as different from previous South Korean
presidents as he has not pursued a
photo-opportunity with the North Korean leadership
to sculpt a presidential legacy. This was a
temptation that previous South Korean presidents
found too hard to resist.
Every past South
Korean president - regardless of whether he was
from a conservative, military or progressive
government - tried to hold a summit with North
Korean leaders, mainly for domestic political
However, not everyone sees virtue in
Lee's North Korean policy. Paik Hak-soon, an
analyst of North Korea for over two decades and
now with South Korean think-tank the Sejong
Institute, believes that the biggest problem with
Lee's North Korean policy is that it is
"Lee has been maintaining a
consistent and principled policy based on this
unrealistic idea that North Korea is bound to
collapse sooner or later. This has been Lee's
hidden agenda behind his hardline posture toward
North Korea. Even now, he holds out that if the
international community pushes North Korea just a
bit more, it can collapse.
president Kim Young-sam liked to compare North
Korea to an airplane set on a crash course. Lee is
also waiting for the airplane to fall. As a
result, the reality is that inter-Korean relations
have deteriorated," said Paik.
Pinkston of the International Crisis Group says
Lee's North Korean policy has had its "ups and
downs". "North Korea is very difficult to deal
with. It is very difficult to come up with a fully
satisfactory policy," noted Pinkston. Having said
that, Pinkston also points out that there may have
been a "lost opportunity" in the Lee
"Even from the beginning
of the presidential transition, there may have
been some sour feelings from North Korea toward
the Lee government, which considered eliminating
the Unification Ministry and relegating North
Korean affairs to 'normal' relations. There were a
lot of symbolic things done that may have
antagonized North Korea from the very beginning.
That was unnecessary," said Pinkston.
While the Lee administration has
maintained a principled attitude toward North
Korea, which is in essence a consistent line,
analysts noticed that North Korean has slowly
developed different behavioral patterns. Earlier
this year, North Korea mounted a massive charm
offensive toward the South. But recently, the
upbeat, unsolicited and unrewarded wooing faded
out. Over the weekend, the North's propaganda web
site, uriminzokkiri.com, called the Lee
administration a "traitor clan" that instigates
If the Lee
government badly wants to see the collapse of
North Korea, the North equally wants to see the
"passing" of the current leadership in Seoul.
"North Korea would probably feel that it would be
worthless or futile to attempt to strike a deal
with the Lee administration. They are more likely
to wait," said Pinkston.
North Korean food shortage situation has become a
divisive issue affecting relations between South
Korea and the United States. This week, a
Christian organization from Seoul sent multiple
truck loads of food through China's gateway city
to North Korea, Dandong. This was against South
Korean law, which since last May has prohibited
any contact with the North.
The food issue
has also put Seoul at odds with the United
Nations, which recently released food aid to North
Korea's most vulnerable 3.5 million people on
humanitarian grounds. "We made an assessment. And
we found there were needs. So, we subsequently
responded by launching an emergency operation of
food donations to the most vulnerable group who
are children, women in pregnancy and the elderly
in North Korea's northeastern provinces. That's
it. We don't engage in political discussions, on
which we don't have an opinion," said World Food
Program spokesperson Nanna Skau, who is based in
While Seoul is prepared to bunker
down over the food issue, Washington is torn
between mounting pressure from humanitarian
organizations that support food aid for the North
and loyalty to its East Asian ally.
Klingner at the Heritage Foundation
believes there is clearly a need for food aid, but
he disowns that the issue is purely humanitarian.
"Contrary to widespread perception that food aid
is completely divorced from policy objectives, the
reality is that it always has policy
considerations. Food aid is a finite resource. And
when a government or an organization or an
individual decides on which recipient it should go
to, any number of factors can go into that.
Against this backdrop, how could the UN provide
food aid to North Korea when North Korea
repeatedly violates UN resolutions?"
call for thinking outside the box. On Wednesday,
distancing itself from the conservative pack,
South Korea's usually conservative JoongAng Ilbo
newspaper surprisingly indicated support for
resuming food aid, arguing that factoring
political calculations into food provision
reflected a Cold War mindset.
government needs to approach the issue from a
fresh and strategic perspective by embracing the
North as a partner for our common future [with
unification in mind]. Food aid can serve as a
stepping stone," its editorial said.
food issue could become a more telling factor, but
it's too early to predict how history will
remember Lee's presidency.
Paik at the
Sejong Institute is pessimistic. "Lee will be
remembered as an anomaly among South Korean
presidents. He will be remembered as a president
who withheld communication with North Korea and
instead pursued a hidden agenda that desired the
collapse of North Korea. A president should
exercise a leadership that transforms war into
peace, from tension to stability. Lee didn't do
Shen Dingli, the executive dean of
Fudan University's Institute of International
Studies in Shanghai, said the potential
achievements of Lee's adherence to the hardline
approach are limited, especially on Seoul's
efforts to persuade the North to give up nuclear
weapons. "A harsh policy won't make North Korea
abandon its nuclear weapons," said Shen, adding
that Lee had "failed to create a better
alternative" to the Roh administration.
The JoongAng Ilbo newspaper's chief
editorial writer, Kim Jin-kook, argued in his
column this week that while North Korea should be
blamed for its provocative behavior and
intractableness, the Lee administration was also
playing an easy and predictable policy game.
According to Kim, South Korea could learn
a lesson from American diplomat Henry Kissinger.
"Hyun In-taek maintains the principle that North
Korea should change first. It's easy to stick to
pre-set rules, but we need the creativity of
Kissinger. He went beyond the habits of patterns
and brought about change. We can also chart a new
course [in inter-Korean relations]."
at Asan believes Lee has already charted a new
path in inter-Korean relations and that now the
task is to safeguard it, for example, by resisting
the temptation to hold a summit.
understandable that every South Korean president
wants to be remembered as a president who made a
breakthrough in inter-Korean relations. But the
records show that this approach only 'spoiled'
North Korea. I think it's very good and healthy
that we actually may have a president who finishes
his term without making an overt attempt to hold a
summit with North Korea, in the past this has only
offered North Korea unwarranted leverage over
South Korean politics."
Lee (email@example.com) is a
Seoul-born columnist and journalist; he has
degrees from the US and China.
(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online
(Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please
contact us about sales, syndication and