North Korea Foxes the South Yet Again

North Korea has again stunned the South and put its leaders on the back foot, not with a military attack but with the revelation of heretofore secret attempts at negotiations by the South at the same time the Lee government was presenting a tough face to the world.

The North Korea on June 1 disclosed a secret South Korean proposal to hold a series of three presidential summits over the next year, delivered in Beijing by officials from President Lee Myung Bak's office, South Korea's intelligence service and the unification ministry. Apparently, according to Reuters, the north's representatives "told them to go back to Seoul at once."

Given the need for absolute secrecy about a politically sensitive project, the North's disclosure of the attempts to initiate inter-Korean summits is regarded as very unusual and could well be a sly move by the North to lure the south into a propaganda trap. Certainly what the North Korean allegations have done is to provoke broad resentment from both South Korea's right and left and probably provoke reaction in China, the US, Japan and Russia as well.

Whether North Korea's assertions about the proposals were valid, the secret approach to negotiations for summit meetings by Lee's government consequently crumbled. Lee has extended the offer of a summit several times, on condition that the North apologize for the sinking of the South Korean gunship Cheonan and the shelling of an island off the South Korean coast. Lee also invited Kim Jong-il to attend a nuclear summit along with some 50 other world leaders in Seoul next year.

As usual, the North has kept the South on a string, sounding momentarily positive at the beginning of the year by saying it wanted to ease tensions, only to pull back at the last minute and once again deliver an attack. Inter-Korean relations have grown directionless, like a yacht without a rudder.

The offer of secret negotiations also sticks a new roadblock in front of the two countries' patrons, the US and China, which have been urging steps to restart long-stalled six-party talks over the peninsula between the two Koreas, China, the United States, Japan and Russia.

From the conservatives' perspective, the North's assertions over the secret talks offer a good excuse to argue that the Lee government should go through with its threat to cut off hundreds of millions of dollars in aid that South Korea has annually offered the poverty-stricken North. At least before the revelations, President Lee had been acclaimed as having been remarkably consistent in his much-debated tough North Korea policy. The hawks now feel betrayed.

Conversely, the liberals who have called for Lee to revamp his give-no-quarter policy and to resume the stalled six-party talks unconditionally are busy blaming his government's amateurish negotiations for the disclosure. As strong proponents of inter-Korean summits, the progressives have sought to cloak brotherhood and peace with the legitimacy of mutual prosperity and reconciliations. The doves feel disappointed with the aborted negotiations.

Some moderates cautiously have noted the North Korean propensity to shoot itself in the foot in describing and developing its policy against South Korea, even though the revelations were fundamentally designed to damage the hawkish Lee government politically. In their eyes, the North's behavior was extremely clumsy and gauche. It has not only poisoned the atmosphere but also fueled allegations that the North wants to influence domestic politics in the South, with general elections scheduled for April and December presidential elections, both in 2012.

Whatever the reasons, the fact is that North Korea has a bad hand in the poker game of inter-Korean summit meeting as it broke a cardinal rule of keeping secret the details of the attempts at negotiations. When President Lee announced in Berlin on May 9 that he would invite the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to the Security Summit Meeting to be held in Seoul on March 26-27, 2012, people on the street suspected that there would be clandestine contacts between the two countries. Polls have left little doubt that such contacts are needed to ease the tensions on the peninsula.

Liberals and moderates alike want the North not to close the door to additional negotiations. The Lee government also seemed to expect the already-broken contacts to be as low-key as possible for fear that the North's additional disclosures could dampen the relationship completely. So the disclosures could end in a ‘storm in a teacup,' unless Pyongyang seeks to cause the current situation to deteriorate further.

Against the background of the revelations, it is hard to predict whether the North's attempt at a different gambit will succeed. Given that analysts try to judge the North's disclosures by its previous behavior, it seems premature for Seoul to dash the prospects that Pyongyang is ready to burn the no-return bridge with regard to the summit meeting. While the need for new strategies is largely motivated by urgency to demonstrate the Kim government's determined volitions of establishing a ‘Strong and Prosperous Nation,' the intentions for the disclosure lie in the reflective nature of bluffing or stakes-raising in which psychological effects loom so large.

Some 41months in from his election, a self-styled conservative president with big ideas and ambitions as a facilitator of stability on the Korean peninsula -- NOT as a peacemaker -- finds himself with no valued negotiations, no significant relationship with North Korea, no traction with the liberals, and no strategy to achieve a breakthrough. In the end, the best thing Lee can do now is to try to keep the negotiations alive. The ball is still in his court, where the North has firmly put it

Lee Byong-Chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul and a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.