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The two Koreas: Talking peace, with menace

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In Brief

‘We are ready to meet anyone, anytime, and anywhere … We propose discontinuing to heap slanders and calumnies on each other and refraining from any act of provoking each other.’

This is not the kind of language we are used to hearing from Pyongyang lately. Yet that was the offer apparently made on 5 January — but by whom, exactly? The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) referred to a joint meeting of the ‘government, political parties and organisations.’ None of the latter were named. That seems a bit vague.


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And the addressee? ‘We courteously propose having wide-ranging dialogue and negotiations with the political parties and organisations of south Korea, including its authorities.’ Putting it that way posits the ROK government as just one interlocutor among many: A long-standing trope in the North’s tactics to delegitimise South Korea. That pushes all the wrong buttons.

But a few sentences later: ‘We call for an unconditional and early opening of talks between the authorities having real power and responsibility, in particular.’ That’s more like it. But it would sound more serious, and more sincere, if the DPRK government addressed the ROK government directly, respectfully and by name. None of this weaselling about ‘authorities’ and that sneaky lower case ‘south Korea.’

So it’s not surprising that Seoul’s response has been tepid. Two days later, Vice Unification Minister Um Jong-sik commented: ‘In both format and content, I believe it is difficult to see [the DPRK statement] as a formal proposal for talks.’ He called for a ‘respectful attitude … For dialogue to take place, it must be guaranteed that it can be constructive and beneficial.’

Guaranteed? In advance? That’s asking a lot. The format of the Northern message may raise hackles in Seoul, but its content — unconditional talks — if sincere (a big if) is timely. After the Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyeong shelling, 2011 finds the peninsula a dangerous place. No one knows what anyone will do next, how the other will react, or what their game plan is.

The generalisation is deliberate. It does not connote moral equivalence. Unlike a surprisingly numerous and vocal ‘North flank guard’, who always manage to find some excuse for Kim Jong-il, in my judgment the North is the prime problem and the clear aggressor. Yeonpyeong in particular is unambiguous, and was unprovoked.

But South Korea is not helping. From Pyongyang we expect opacity: To be unpredictable and unbiddable is a key weapon in its arsenal. No one really knows what mix of internal (meaning Kim Jong-eun’s succession) and external policy goals is driving its current turn to militancy.

From Seoul we expect better. The ROK is a major global economy; in 2010 the world’s seventh-largest exporter. Markets are volatile; like citizens, they crave stability and security.

President Lee Myung-bak’s position is unenviable. But what does he want? Does he have a goal, and a strategy? The signals from Seoul are no less mixed than those out of Pyongyang.

On a good day, Lee still talks of talks, too. In his New Year address on January 3, he said: ‘I remind the North that the path toward peace is yet open. The door for dialogue is still open.’

Yet he added a condition: ‘Nuclear weapons and military adventurism must be discarded.’ Adventurism, fine. Seoul has every right to insist on no more direct aggression against it.

But denuclearisation? That is the end-point of a very long road, wearily trodden for 20 years. To make it a precondition for talks is unrealistic. Yet this has been Lee’s constant refrain.

He continued: ‘From now on, we need …  peace and reunification policies based on solid national security … [and to] make endeavours to engage our North Korean brethren in the long journey toward freedom and prosperity.’ That may sound anodyne. It is anything but.

Brethren? Here too Leonard Cohen’s question — ‘Who is it whom I address?’ — is essential. Lee Myung-bak is surely not feeling fraternal towards Kim Jong-il. Has he given up on him completely? This sounds to me like a call for regime change. Nor is it an isolated remark.

Last month, on December 9, Lee was in messianic mode: ‘I feel that reunification is drawing near.’ He added that Seoul has a responsibility to achieve reunification as soon as possible, so that 23 million North Korean people may live with the right to happiness.

Again, the Cohen question. It’s not clear if unification adventism is a message anyone on the peninsula truly wants to hear. No way are South Koreans prepared for such a momentous apocalypse.

And North Koreans? My fear is that the Kims will read this as confirming that Lee Myung-bak would like to see them gone, and has no serious will to engage them on any terms they could accept. Having given Lee two nasty jabs and got away with it, why not do it again?

One can only hope they grasp in Pyongyang how democracies work, because that would be third time unlucky. If the KPA strikes again, it would be politically all but impossible now for the South not to retaliate forcibly. Finding a way to do that, which did not risk escalation into all-out conflict, would be extraordinarily difficult. No doubt even now Seoul’s military planners are trying to figure out a suitably finite, targeted riposte to any future provocation.

We can argue endlessly about how to defang Pyongyang. Nothing works. A cornered rat will bite. It is not wise for any government in Seoul to send the Kims the message that they have no options short of what they would deem surrender. What then have they got to lose?

Yet the peninsula’s weather is ever-changeable. Lee has barely two years left in office. As 2012’s elections draw nearer, some in the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) are getting nervous that being seen as too hard-line will not play well at the polls. And for all we know, behind the bluster there may be secret North-South talks going on, as in the past. I hope so.

Looking ahead to the elections, currently the GNP and popular front-runner is Lee’s rival Park Geun-hye, daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee (1961-79). No less conservative overall than Lee, Park at least knows the foe first-hand. Back in 2002 she dined à deux with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. (How their two dads must have rolled in their graves!)

So icy winter may yet yield to a new Korean spring. But right now, things are jittery. That is the North’s fault — but it is not wholly Pyongyang’s doing. Seoul needs to sort its signals out, too. Frankly, I haven’t a clue what Lee Myung-bak seriously wants or expects of the North.

More importantly, I don’t think Kim Jong-il does either. Yet he too emits mixed messages. How did Kim see out the old year? By visiting a crack tank division, the Seoul Ryukyongsu 105 Guards — so named because it was the first KPA unit to power into the Southern capital when Kim Il-sung invaded the South in June 1950. What signal was that supposed to send?

Aidan Foster-Carter is an honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University and a freelance consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean affairs. A regular visitor to the peninsula, he has followed North Korea for over 40 years. An earlier version of this article first appeared here at Asia Times Online.

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