1997 to Mark Watershed for Inter-Korean Ties
Korea Times 97-01-02 19:03:32

1997 is expected to be another tough year for South Korea in its efforts to work out joint steps with the United States to cope with North Korea apparently seeking two conflicting goals of alleviating its economic hardship and solidifying the foundation of the current Kim Jong-il regime.

As to the outlook for inter-Korean relations, observers' opinions are mixed as North Korea's current situation is as volatile as a troubled aircraft, equipped with a gigantic amount of explosives. Just like an aircraft coming down in a densely populated area, the North's explosion is the last thing Seoul and Washington want to see. Many think a war-devastated South Korea would be worse than the continued division of the Korean peninsula.

Optimists expect that the improvement of inter-Korean relations, following North Korea's apology over the Sept. 18 submarine incursion, will lead to brisk exchanges between the rival states and, possibly, an inter-Korean summit.

If realized, the unprecedented summit will help reshape inter-Korean relations along with the proposed four-party peace talks, aimed at replacing the Korean Armistice Agreement with a peace agreement.

As Seoul, Pyongyang and Washington agreed to hold three-way meetings, represented by assistant minister-level officials, late this month, this year will witness full-blown debates of diverse formulas suggested to guarantee peace and security on the Korean peninsula.

But, in every step, close alliance between Seoul and Washington is required because North Korea still wants to shun South Korea while improving ties with the United States, Japan and other Western countries.

On the sidelines of the ``joint briefing'' on the four-party talks, U.S. and North Korean officials will resume long-awaited high-level meetings to discuss ways to improve their ties. Already, Washington and Pyongyang started setting the date for their talks to discuss the non-proliferation of missiles and the repatriation of U.S. soldiers missing in action during the 1950-53 Korean War.

Furthermore, Washington will additionally lift economic sanctions against North Korea and seek to open a liaison office in Pyongyang, as agreed upon in the ``agreed framework,'' created in 1994 in Geneva.

Basically, the two countries agreed that any peace gestures from Seoul and Washington will be taken step by step in response to North Korea's actions towards South Korea and the United States. However, North Korea, which aims to drive a wedge between the two allies, is not an easy counterpart under any circumstances.

North Korea is likely to further resist South Korea's blueprint for the four-party talks. Foreign Minister Yoo Chong-ha hoped in an early-end interview that Seoul and Pyongyang will eventually become the sole parties directly involved in finding solutions to Korean issues while the United States and China will take part only in the initial stages of the four-party talks.

In the meantime, an inter-Korean summit meeting will count on whether de facto leader Kim Jong-il takes over two official titles _ general secretary of the North Korean Workers' Party and state president. Some officials believe that it is likely Kim will be enthroned around July 8, which marks the third anniversary of his father's death.

Inter-Korean rapprochement, if agreed upon by leaders of South and North Korea will delay North Korea's collapse because Pyongyang is able to win outside help from Seoul and Western countries.

Meanwhile, pessimists believe that South Korea will remain reluctant to offer a large-scale aid to North Korea and maintain confrontational approaches in dealing with North Korean issues, thus making it impossible to win the hearts of North Korean policymakers.

The Kim Young-sam administration provided Pyongyang with grain aid worth $200 million in 1995, only to face humiliating defeat in the ensuing local autonomy elections.

South Korea's economic outlook for this year is gloomy, which will make it difficult for the government to initiate a large-scale aid to North Korea due to public opinions.

An international reactor consortium, called the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), will also find it difficult to push ahead with the five-billion-dollar project due to procedural and budgetary problems.

North Korea and KEDO will not face troubles in signing protocols on the transfer of reactor site and services to implement the reactor supply contract because they have already reached an agreement to do this in principle.

On the other hand, the time for a ground-breaking ceremony is approaching, but the three major contributors _ Seoul, Tokyo and Washington, have not set aside funds for it.

They have not yet concluded how to share the heavy financial burden among themselves.

Lengthy negotiations between KEDO and the Korea Electric Power Corp.(KEPCO), designated as the prime contractor, are also required before a commercial contract can be signed.

Without any urgent blood transfusion, North Korea will continue to slide into further economic dislocation.

Whether an explosion or an implosion is involved, it heightens the possibility for the Korean unification. Some observers believe that the North's collapse will not automatically lead to the Korean unification as long as Seoul fails to adroitly engage in multidimensional diplomacy with its neighboring powers.

Seoul requires the United States to act as its backer as well as a regional ba ancer for the next decade, but it is not in a position to blindly follow diplomatic initiatives sought by Washington.

Seoul's anxiety was fully reflected when a crisis hit the Taiwan Straits. Although requested by Washington to denounce Beijing's missile exercises, Seoul, unready for this new environment, was at loss for a considerable time because it felt it is impossible to outrightly assail the rising giant with which it has brisk trade ties and burgeoning political exchanges.

This instance was surely a good lesson for Seoul's policymakers. However, it is another question whether Seoul worked out new diplomatic strategies in line with the fast changing environment.

Under any circumstances, most political observers agree that Seoul is not in a position to risk its friendly ties with the United States. At the same time, its failure in wooing support from Beijing, Moscow and Tokyo in the unification process, which was already started, while keeping Washington in its side will perpetuate the division of the Korean peninsula.

At the same time, the Korean unification, like the German unification, will depend much on outside factors. Until a proper environment for the Korean unification is created, the Seoul government will have to resort to patience and flexibility in seeking it.

Already, a large number of younger generation Koreans have become apolitical and prefer a stable life to the turbulence the Korean unification could bring in its path.