September 27, 2007

September 27, 2007 | Commentary on Asia

Korean Summit High-Risk Gambit?

The inter-Korean summit provides an opportunity to further international goals of reducing North Korea's military threat and strengthening regional stability.

If President Roh Moo-hyun presses North Korea for tangible progress toward denuclearization, then the summit would be a useful adjunct to the six-party talks.

If not handled properly, however, the meeting could instead undermine multilateral efforts to pressure Pyongyang to divest itself of its nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, preliminary indications have not been encouraging.

Seoul's agreement to hold an inter-Korean summit is premature because North Korea has not progressed sufficiently in its denuclearization commitments to justify a reward. Moreover, Seoul again appears overly eager to provide concessions even before the meeting takes place.

Cheong Wa Dae is allegedly drawing up plans for a $20 billion package of new economic initiatives, and it postponed the Hwarang military exercise in order to create ``a more positive atmosphere.'' Additionally, Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung infuriated the South Korean military by offering a redrawing of the Northern Limit Line, which serves as the Koreas' maritime boundary.

The postponed summit for early October provides an opportunity to temper Roh's overzealousness and allows for a calmer and more reasoned preparation of Seoul's strategy delineating its objectives, inducements, and _ most importantly _ the requirements for North Korean reciprocal action.

The Bush administration should counsel Roh that unilateral, uncoordinated diplomacy benefits Pyongyang to the detriment of the international community and risks straining Seoul's bilateral relationship with Washington.

South Korea informed the U.S. only a few hours prior to the announcement, signaling that Seoul is freelancing on peninsular issues and not coordinating with its key ally.

South Korean officials had assured Washington that its engagement efforts would remain ``one step behind the six-party talks process,'' but they now appear to be many steps ahead. U.S. officials have privately commented that restraining Seoul from getting too far ahead of its allies is a concern and a challenge.

President Roh's typically high-stakes political maneuver appears to be designed towards securing a personal legacy and altering South Korea's political landscape, which currently favors the conservative opposition's presidential candidate.

A summit could shift the vote by several percentage points _ a significant move if the election proves close. According to some polls, up to 25 percent of the electorate remains undecided.

The perception of progress conveyed by a Roh-Kim summit could increase pressure on Washington to prematurely normalize relations with Pyongyang and remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism before it has fulfilled its obligations under the six-party talks' Beijing agreement.

Seoul announced that the two Koreas' leaders will hold serious discussions on establishing a permanent peace regime on the peninsula to serve as a ``stepping stone for the establishment of a peace framework on the Korean Peninsula.'' Washington should remind its ally that a peace treaty must be negotiated by all the relevant parties, including the U.S.

The testy exchange between Roh and Bush during an APEC press conference on Sept. 7 shows the degree of division between the two countries over the requirements for a peace treaty.

Bush reiterated the U.S. position that a peace treaty remains contingent on full North Korean denuclearization. Roh, instead, favors a more conciliatory approach in the hope that it will induce changes in North Korean behavior. Roh is likely to push for a South-North Korean peace declaration during the Pyongyang summit as an interim step toward a four-party peace treaty.

Even before declaring a formal end to the Korean War, however, both sides should address the threat that North Korea's conventional forces pose to South Korea.

This could be accomplished by thinning out North Korea's massive array of artillery and maneuver units close to the demilitarized zone and by implementing other confidence and security building measures.

But Roh's tactics risk backfiring with a South Korean electorate that has become more skeptical of North Korea since Pyongyang's missile and nuclear tests last year.

Public opinion polls show that while support for engaging North Korea remains high, South Koreans want greater reciprocity from Pyongyang. A lack of tangible concessions would play into the prevalent perception that Roh is engaged in a self-serving political gambit.

President Roh should shift the focus of the summit away from more South Korean largesse and instead emphasize the principles of conditionality, reciprocity, transparency and accountability. Specifically, Roh should:

  • Stipulate that any new economic aid hinges on North Korea completing its denuclearization commitments.
  • Demand Pyongyang immediately release the 560 South Korean prisoners of war and 480 post-war abductees that Seoul believes remain alive in North Korean captivity.
  • Call on North Korea to match the announced unilateral troop reductions by U.S. and South Korean military forces.
  • Advocate both Koreas implement a series of confidence and security building measures to increase military transparency and reduce the potential for conflict.

Seoul has provided billions of dollars of aid to North Korea during the past decade while achieving pitifully little change in Pyongyang's political or economic system nor a moderating of its belligerent behavior, as evidenced by its missile and nuclear tests last year. The South Korean populace should demand more from Pyongyang and expect nothing less from Seoul.

Bruce Klingner is senior research fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Bruce Klingner Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in the Korea Times