North Korea's biggest cheerleaders

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 June, 2005, 12:00am

South Korean leaders seem more excited about kowtowing to Pyongyang than co-ordinating policy with the US. That is the impression one gets from the fuss that Seoul is making over the fifth anniversary today of the only inter-Korean summit when then president Kim Dae-jung met North Korea's Kim Jong-il.

Seoul is so thrilled about the celebrations in Pyongyang that it has permitted the leader of a banned student organisation to attend as part of a delegation that includes 300 'civilians' - that is, supposedly ordinary citizens not on the government payroll. And then, for good measure, South Korea's Unification Minister Chung Dong-young is leading an entourage of 40 officials, who are taking part in the festivities in the run-up to ministerial-level talks next week in Seoul. For days, South Korea has staged conferences and seminars, touting the anniversary as if it were, in itself, a serious step towards inter-Korean reconciliation.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, just back from meeting his US counterpart, George W. Bush, says he is sure North Korea will return to talks on its nuclear weapons - and he is ready to sweeten the pot with what he claims will be an important offer in the context of 'flexible dialogue'. Undoubtedly, it will guarantee the North billions of dollars in aid, to be doled out as Pyongyang scales down and then abandons its nuclear weapons. No doubt, Mr Roh discussed the offer with Mr Bush, but it is highly doubtful that the American president is at all excited about the idea. The most noteworthy aspect of the US summit may be that neither man appeared to close the gap in the outlook of their respective administrations.

Mr Bush, surrounded by conservatives, and Mr Roh, advised by liberals and leftists, may be thankful that they emerged from their meeting without any overt signs of an argument. They both were able to call for further six-party talks on the North's nuclear issue, even though Mr Roh acknowledged a couple of 'minor differences'.

South Korea's policy-makers seem more than willing to return to the pursuit of reconciliation while mouthing familiar complaints about Washington's 'hard line'. Lim Dong-won, who formulated the 'sunshine policy' during Kim Dae-jung's presidency, has repeatedly railed against what he still sees as Washington's commitment to 'regime change' in North Korea. He, along with Mr Kim, believes in the notion of 'give and take' - that is, the US should make significant concessions, including bilateral negotiations and a commitment to massive aid, in return for the North's abandonment of its nuclear weapons.

South Koreans, as they join their northern counterparts in the elaborate celebrations, will be acting as cheerleaders not just for North-South reconciliation, but for Pyongyang's relentless efforts to draw away Seoul from Washington. It seems incredible that South Korean leaders should be ready to play into the hands of North Korean strategists, led by Kim Jong-il, after the North's negotiators have assiduously avoided serious talks.

It is quite possible, as Mr Roh said after returning from Washington, that North Korea will return for the first round of six-party talks in a year. The most likely reason is that China has held out the promise of a visit by President Hu Jintao

, provided the North returns to negotiations. Talk is no doubt preferable to fighting, but there is no sign that North Korea will agree to anything - or that it will live up to any agreement.

South Korea makes matters infinitely worse by enthusiastically endorsing North Korean propaganda. As long as Pyongyang is sure of such support from Seoul, all it has to do is agree to talk yet again - and see how much it can extort without really giving up much of anything.

Donald Kirk is the author of two books and numerous articles on Korea for newspapers, magazines and journals