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[Viewpoint] It’s dialogue time with the North

According to a source, North Korea sent a draft of a letter expressing ‘sincere regret’ over the Cheonan sinking to the Korean embassy in the U.S.
Oct 18,2010
North Korea’s heir-apparent Kim Jong-un is not half the man his grandfather was when he was young. But he is the spitting image of the founder of the world’s most repressive and reclusive nation.

Kim Jong-il, the ailing leader who is desperately trying to keep the state crown within his own family, brought the cult of personality onto an absolutely unprecedented level by choosing his father’s look-alike to succeed him.

Kim Jong-un may never be another Kim Il Sung, but his eager father obviously realized that his chubby, sharp-eyed youngest son resembles his old man. The hype over the new leader-in-waiting is essentially puffing him up as a reincarnation of his granddad. Propagandists are portraying the younger Kim as a boy wonder, born to leadership by inheriting all the superior genes of his father and grandfather.

North Koreans may be under a spell seeing the beloved image of their founding father in TV appearances by the newly appointed young general. Moreover, despite pretty intense international ridicule, North Korea’s most important ally, China, gave a symbolic endorsement to the third-generation power succession by sending a porcelain dish engraved with the words: “May the long tradition of bilateral friendship extend over the generations.”

That gift suggests China approves Kim’s strategy of reinforcing his son’s power through loyal family members, like Jong-un’s aunt Kim Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Song-thaek, along with key party and military loyalists.

Despite international ridicule, the North Korean leadership is now set to be handed to Kim Jong-un after Kim Jong-il leaves the scene.

So far, the South Korean government is waiting to see how the enigmatic, post-Kim Jong-il era unfolds. It can hardly give aid, or pursue dialogue, such as the six-party talks, with North Korea in such a peculiar state. But one thing is clear in the fog: North Korea desires better relations with South Korea.

According to a source familiar with North Korean affairs, the North’s United Nations representative sent a draft of a letter in May expressing “sincere regret” over the Cheonan sinking to the Korean embassy in the U.S., in a conciliatory gesture to end the dispute over the attack on a South Korean naval corvette.

The immediate response to the letter was negative, considering the uproar in South Korea over the sinking that killed 46 sailors in March. North Korea, however, went on to suggest a foreign vice-ministerial meeting over the affair in a third country. It then sent home abducted South Korean fishermen and proposed a meeting between families divided during the Korean War. And although it ended without constructive results, the two countries held a military meeting.

This series of gestures from North Korea were motivated more out of desperation to seek aid from South Korea to ease the hardship of its impoverished population as the result of a bout of summer floods rather than from goodwill.

Aid from China only covers minimum energy and food requirements to help North Koreans get by day-to-day. Charity shipments from overseas stopped after North Korea walked away from six-party negotiations to end its nuclear weapons program. And Washington, with which Pyongyang desires full diplomatic relations, demands to settle its issues with Seoul first.

North Korea’s incumbent leader Kim Jong-il is well aware that his son’s rule cannot go smoothly without breaking the impasse with South Korea.

If North Korea can accomplish its highly publicized goal of creating a strong nation by 2012, credit will go to the young heir. The two pillars that can form the foundation for a strong nation are military power, backed by nuclear weapons and missiles, and the restoration of the shattered economy.

But Kim Jong-un cannot gain legitimacy solely through his resemblance to his grandfather and military strength. He can only get it when North Koreans are well fed and start to feel content. Only when North Koreans are saved from hunger can they sincerely accept the grandson as a legitimate leader worthy of the Kim blood line.

The latest Workers’ Party meeting announced the post-Kim Jong-il leadership structure. It is probably fortunate for South Korea that Jang Song-thaek, who has firsthand knowledge of the immense gap in the two economies after his tour to South Korean industrial facilities in 2002, was promoted as caretaker of the younger Kim.

He is likely to play regent to the young, new leader. Seoul will be without a dialogue partner in North Korea for some time if Kim Jong-il’s health deteriorates further. President Lee Myung-bak must pursue a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations by suggesting dialogue during the first half of the next year while the elder Kim still wields power and before the South Korean president becomes a lame duck ahead of the presidential election campaign.

We may not be happy with the third-generation power succession in North Korea, but that does not mean we can ignore North Korea. We cannot dismiss the North Korea issue at a time when the region is sailing toward an abyss because of China’s rapid surge in power. This issue cannot be regarded as a mere bilateral issue.

The times call for a more aggressive and strategic approach from our own leadership.


*The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Young-hie