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     Sep 1, 2011

Grand bargaining reloaded?
By Bernhard Seliger

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

This week finally saw the replacement of South Korea's Unification Minister Hyun In-taek by Yu Woo-ik, a close confidant of President Lee Myung-Bak and a former ambassador to China.

In the years since he took office in 2009, there have been numerous rumors that his demission was imminent, due to the alleged hardline stance of the former professor of Korea University.
Two different criticisms were mounted against him. The stronger critics held Hyun, implicitly or explicitly, responsible for the

gradual break-down of inter-Korean relations since 2008. Others, including many ruling Grand National Party members and in particular party chief Hong Joon-pyo, while omitting to blame the inter-Korean ice age on him, criticized him for simply being not successful with his hardline stance and called for a new approach.

The first, more comprehensive criticism ignores the history of North Korean provocations throughout the past three years, starting with the shooting of an innocent tourist at Mount Geumgang in 2008, an abduction of an employee of Hyundai Asan in the inter-Korean business complex in Gaesong and then the deadly attacks on the South Korean corvette Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea (West Sea of Korea) in 2011.

This violent recent history of inter-Korean relations was accompanied by an equally aggressive military policy, with the second nuclear test of 2009, missile tests and numerous outrageous threats to South Korea and the world community, including a verbal withdrawal from the armistice agreement of 1953 that was struck at the end of the Korean War.

Those who disregard these causes of chilly inter-Korean relations are mainly followers of the politics of late president Roh Moo-hyun, who developed his vision of peaceful inter-Korean relations based on generous and unconditional aid in full regard of the nuclear and weapons of mass destruction armament of North Korea, including its first-ever nuclear test in 2006.

Only a hefty dose of ignorance of reality can explain such a stance. No wonder that it has been accompanied and applauded by Pyongyang media, that used to call Hyun In-taek routinely "human scum" or "traitor".

But, what about the second criticism, namely, that Hyun's North Korea policy simply was not successful? This argument deserves consideration. Were not people-to-people contacts the greatest achievement of the "Sunshine" policy? And, was this not clearly superior to the current stalemate, where Seoul helplessly has to accept that conditions of renewed nuclear talks are set by others and that North Korea quite successfully continues its policy towards the neighboring states of China and Russia?

However, think twice before calling the South Korean policy unsuccessful. First, in the field of people-to-people contacts, the more glamorous unification meetings, peace festivals and "jointly-we-achieve-unification" events might have stopped. But at the same time, slowly the number of North Koreans working in Gaesong climbed to a record number of 47,000 workers.

And, while the aforementioned meetings were largely attended by a carefully pre-selected small North Korean elite, these 47.000 workers are exposed, day-by-day, month-by-month, to modern South Korean management and production methods. While admittedly this sounds duller than lofty visions of peace and unity, the impact on the mindset of this truly large number, which by sheer size cannot be composed only by loyalists to the regime in a more narrow sense, might be much greater than expected.

There is another consideration to be taken into account, and that is time. South Korean politics, due to the one-time-presidency, is extremely short-term oriented. If a policy is not successful within a current presidency, it is deemed unsuccessful. This was the curse of the "Sunshine" policy with its many positive features: to make it work, late president Roh in the end had to accept completely unrealistic terms to come to any agreement with the North, in a quite obvious maneuver to reap the benefits of rapprochement before the election of late 2007. And it is, ironically, likewise the problem for the current so-called hardline stance, the real impact of which might only be visible in a couple of years.

When in Germany the enthusiastic ostpolitik of Social-Democratic chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt in 1981 was substituted by a more somber, reciprocity-oriented policy of the new Christian-Democratic chancellor Helmut Kohl, a measurement of its achievements after three or four years could well also have resulted in an assessment that many things got worse, but none better.

That this policy, in conjunction with the hardline stance of Ronald Reagan's United States policy, contributed to the downfall of Eastern European socialist regimes, nobody would have forecast. And today, with hindsight, as well the merits of rapprochement as those of a hardline, firm stance are considered as stepping stones for transformation and unification in Germany.

In this sense, it can be hoped that the replacement of unification minister Hyun does not result in a complete policy reversal, in a kind of desperate, short-term attempt to cater to alleged voter sentiments ahead of presidential elections in 2012, but that principles as well as offers for rapprochement are deserving of reasonable attention in a balanced way.

The new minister-appointee, Yu Woo-ik, has worked already for Lee's presidential campaign, and also worked as chief of staff on policy guidelines, including those for policy on North Korea.

As an ambassador in Beijing, he maintained a discrete channel of communication with Pyongyang. This might put him in a position to combine principled policy and flexibility. Whether this would be enough to escape from short-termism in policy is quite another matter.

Dr Bernhard Seliger is resident representative of Hanns-Seidel-Foundation Korea, carrying out capacity-building projects in North Korea since 2003. Among his latest books is The Survival of North Korea, McFarland (Jefferson, NC) 2011, co-edited with Suk-Hi Kim and Terence Roehring. You can reach the author at: bjseliger@yahoo.de

(Copyright 2011 Bernhard Seliger.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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