South Korea President’s North Korea Policy Backfires

Five months is a blip in the 55-year history of the military confrontation between North and South Korea, but for South Korean President Lee Myung Bak, who came to office in February promising new thinking in the policy on the North, it was evidently far too long for his patience.

On July 11, within days of the anniversary of the 1953 armistice agreement that halted the shooting war on the Korean peninsula, he surprised the nation by declaring his readiness to engage the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il in a new series of talks. In doing so, he was reversing his campaign pledge to suspend economic aid until the North gave up its nuclear weapons program. Even before it had done so, he was proposing a resumption of “full dialogue,” saying he would honor agreements of his liberal, leftwing predecessors – former presidents Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun – for launching a series of high-profile economic aid projects such as building a shipyard in the North.

A policy catapult and political acrobatics it was, stunning many conservative supporters in his own backyard. In the North, however, his conciliatory shift further hardened Kim’s unbending stance. For months, the North’s state-owned media have been leveling withering attacks on Lee, calling him a “traitor to the Korean nation” and a “sycophant” of the United States.

Little wonder then that Lee had little time to savor the impact of his peace initiatives. Several hours before his speech, at 4:50 on the morning of 11 July, a North Korean guard watching the Kumgang Mountain resort just north of the Demilitarized Zone shot dead a South Korean tourist strolling on the beach. It was a cold-blooded murder, as she was an unarmed 53-year-old housewife who apparently had inadvertently strayed into the restricted security zone. The shooting bore every indication of a callous North Korean military behavior: “The South Korean tourist,” it announced, “defied warning and trespassed into the military off-limit area. We fired a warning shot and ordered her to halt but she refused.”

But the statement raised a number of questions all crying for closer examination. Pak Wang Ja, the victim, died from two bullet wounds on her chest and buttocks, fired from close range. The North Korean guard ignored the usual rule of arresting such trespassing tourists and handing them over to the South Korean side. The agreement covering civilian tourists stipulates detention and handover, not firing of weapons. Nor could the North Korean claim of firing a warning shot be proven: people in the area had heard two shots, not three.

Some analysts were inclined to take the North Korean statement as truthful, saying there was no reason for the North to antagonize the South, in view of tourism’s obvious benefits of bringing precious foreign exchange revenue to the impoverished North. Under a 1998 agreement with the Pyongyang regime, the South’s Hyundai business group launched the project to promote peaceful contacts as well as provide hard currency sources. Indeed, the North was earning an estimated US$30 million a year from this source.

If that income now appears in danger, with the South temporarily suspending tourism in the area, it appears doubtful if it will force the North to apologize and moderate its hostile behavior. Indeed in Seoul, critics of President Lee were suspicious that the whole incident might have been staged by Pyongyang for the purpose of jacking up the tension. The North has a plenty of history of resorting to such foolhardy adventures in the past, including the axe murders of US soldiers at the Panmunjom Demilitarized Zone in 1976.

Analysts here raised suspicions over the timing. It coincided with President Lee’s speech in the National Assembly, an event pre-announced early on. They said it could have been engineered by the North’s hard-line military establishment ever critical of rapprochement with the South. Kim has often in the past indicated that his control over the military was limited. He officially rules on the army-first doctrine of the military determining the North’s security policy.

For all that, it’s doubtful if the Lee administration will stop the tourism project. The brunt of the pressure will be felt, if anything happened, by the Hyundai group, which is running the project. Likewise, it would be hard for Seoul to reconsider the Kaesong Industrial Park project as any slowdown there could hit South Korean investors using cheap North Korean labor.

Thus Seoul’s demand for a joint investigation of the shooting incident, as well as for an apology for the killing of an innocent tourist, is likely to be ignored. Instead, the North is pushing for an apology from the South, threatening suspension of economic projects including tourism. As for Lee’s proposal for resumption of dialogue, the North’s ruling Communist Party spurned it, saying “It’s not worth a single deliberation.”

Foreign exchange earnings are vital for the cash-strapped North, but it’s doubtful if it will moderate its behavior and respond to talks because of economic needs. For one thing, the North has recently found a new benefactor that can easily replace South Korea -- the US. In Beijing recently, the North agreed to a round of verification process on its nuclear facilities in exchange for the US taking it off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. The North has agreed to dismantle its Yongbyon nuclear facilities with the five nations negotiating the disarmament deal -- the US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea -- in exchange for economic aid equivalent to a million tons of fuel. (The overall cost of this deal has increased now that the global oil price has doubled) On top of that, the Bush administration has begun delivering half a million tons of food as incentives to help avert the North’s imminent famine.

Even so, it still leaves Kim in possession of the uranium-based bomb program that has not even been up for formal negotiations. All this can leave Kim sufficiently confident to spurn any goodwill to Seoul.

If this calculation is correct, President Lee can expect a considerable period of discomfort in his relations with Pyongyang. Not only will his policy of engagement suffer more setbacks, he can expect military tensions to be exacerbated in the coming months. Lee can only expect improvement in the North-South relations at the political cost of reversing his campaign pledge to keep the North isolated, while Kim Jong Il can add pressure by jacking up tensions. To get himself out of this dilemma, commentators here suggest using China’s role rather than dealing direct with Kim.

Domestically, the leftwing opposition’s campaign against the imports of US beef has shaken Lee’s first few months in office, keeping him distracted from the economic reform agenda. The opposition Democratic Party has used the public’s exaggerated fear over the mad cow disease to shake the public’s confidence in the government’s commitment to carry out deregulation and state-sector rationalization, which would have weakened the leftwing power in the unions.

Now the shooting incident, causing new concern over the future of uneasy relations with the North, is bringing the Lee administration new pressure from its conservative support base for dealing firmly with Kim. He can ignore this pressure only at his own peril.