South Korea presses diplomatic offensive with North

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From Stripes.com
Noga Ami-rav/Stars and Stripes

South Korea presses diplomatic offensive with North

by: Ashley Rowland and Yoo Kyong Chang | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: February 07, 2015

SEOUL, South Korea — Even as the U.S. and South Korea prepare for their annual spring war games, a diplomatic offensive is taking place as Seoul presses for talks with the North and outlines steps it hopes will lead to reunification.

Last week, South Korea announced a series of measures it plans to undertake this year to increase cooperation with the North and lay the groundwork for the two Koreas to reunite. The measures include events to mark the 70th anniversary of the Korean peninsula’s liberation from Japanese rule, increased class time on “unification education” and trial runs of an inter-Korean and trans-continental railway.

President Park Geun-hye also has urged the North to agree to reunions around the Feb. 19 Lunar New Year’s holiday for family members separated since the 1950-53 Korean War.

While reunification is one of Park’s signature policy initiatives, some experts question whether her call for the first inter-Korean summit since 2007 is aimed more at Pyongyang or at South Korean voters.

Kim Joon Hyung, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University in Pohang, said Park’s focus on reunification as she enters her third year in office may be designed to counteract her declining approval rating and growing lame-duck status. South Korean presidents serve only a single five-year term.

“People here are very interested in reunification, so her appeals for reunification may be welcomed,” he said, adding that he expects Park’s calls for dialogue to go nowhere.

There are big questions about how a peaceful reunification could occur without major concessions by both sides. The two countries have drifted apart for the past 60 years, and their political and economic systems are almost polar opposites.

Asked whether the North’s vision for reunification is the same as the South’s, a Ministry of Unification spokesperson said, “We can’t grasp what North Korea wants.”

Yang Mu-jin, a political science professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, thinks Pyongyang is considering dialogue with Seoul not to leverage aid or gain official recognition as a nuclear power, as some have speculated, but in hopes of using talks as a stepping stone to improve relations with other players in the region — including China and the U.S. — which would help stabilize Kim’s rule.

Ultimately, Yang doesn’t expect inter-Korean talks to take place, because neither side — a North Korea that claims to want unity under its own brand of communism, and a South Korea that wants to reunify under a liberal democratic system — can budge from its position.

Meanwhile, the joint Foal Eagle and Key Resolve exercises are scheduled to begin in early March. The U.S. and South Korea call them defensive in nature, but the North blasts them acts of war and typically levies a barrage of threats at the two countries during that period.

During last year’s exercises, the North conducted several rocket and ballistic missile launches, and the two Koreas fired hundreds of shells across their disputed maritime border. In 2013, a series of North Korean threats during the spring exercises heightened tensions to the point that the U.S. flew nuclear-capable B-52s over the peninsula on a practice mission. The U.S. beefed up its missile defense systems and conducted other shows of force that included F-22 fighters and a nuclear attack sub, while South Korea warned it would respond with force to even a small provocation

Earlier this month, the North offered to halt its nuclear testing in exchange for cancellation of the drills, an offer that analysts say the allies almost certainly will reject and which Washington called a veiled threat.

Still, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who succeeded his father and grandfather, has left the door open for a possible summit, floating the idea in his annual New Year’s address.

“I think the North is pretty serious, but they don’t want to look like they’re being taken to the cleaners or pushed there,” said David Garretson, a professor of international relations at the University of Maryland University College in Seoul, who said backchannel discussions on a summit may be taking place.

He noted that the South Korean government has pushed activist groups to stop launches of balloons carrying anti-North Korean materials, including DVDs, over the border, a particular irritant to Pyongyang.

Pyongyang’s apparent willingness to consider talks may be tied to the third anniversary last month of Kim Jong Il’s death, a symbolic marker that may have freed his son to create his own policy agenda rather than follow in his footsteps.

“He can reach out on his own without insulting his father in terms of his death,” Garretson said. “Basically, he can take his own initiatives and do his own thing, which is related to the fact that he’s got pretty solid control right now.”

Pyongyang said recently it wants reunification this year, though it has not offered details. On Sunday, the North called for the South to create conditions for dialogue, claiming the upcoming joint exercises and launching of anti-Kim leaflets across the Demilitarized Zone were hampering things, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News.

The National Defense Commission statement, posted on the North’s official Korean Central News Agency’s website, warned that it would “resolutely punish” the South if Seoul did not did not give in to the North’s conditions for talks.

Also on Sunday, a KCNA statement criticized President Barack Obama for saying the North’s government would someday collapse.

“The recent wild remarks made by Obama are nothing but a poor grumble of a loser driven into a tight corner in the all-out stand-off with the DPRK,” Yonhap quoted KCNA as saying.

rowland.ashley@stripes.com
Twitter: @Rowland_Stripes

chang.yookyong@stripes.com