Bracing for a sea change in policy on Pyongyang

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2007, 12:00am


Related topics

For an indication of what is at stake in tomorrow's South Korean presidential election, just consider the progress involving North Korea over the past year.

The door to the world's last Stalinist state is creaking open.

Pyongyang is taking the first steps to implement an international deal to denuclearise, and in October leader Kim Jong-il met South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun - the first such exchange between leaders of the enemy states in seven years.

Regular cross-border trains have just started running and, in a little-noticed move, North Korean technocrats visited Wall Street last month to glean ideas on how to start reforming the world's most isolated economy.

Enter favoured presidential campaigner Lee Myung-bak, the dynamic former mayor of Seoul. The conservative Mr Lee is tipped to win comfortably in a field of 10. He vows to forge a hard-headed new era of relations with the North after the more softly, softly approach of Mr Roh.

Mr Roh returned from his better-than-expected mission to Pyongyang warning of the need to avoid inciting northern suspicions that the South wanted to 'reform' the North; by contrast, Mr Lee is demanding reciprocity in any link with the North. He has pledged to review all co-operative efforts launched by Mr Roh during his five-year term.

Mr Lee has also tied initiatives to North Korea first meeting its obligations under the six-party agreement struck by China, the US, Russia, Japan and the two Koreas, which promises a new era of peace if the North declares and destroys its complete nuclear weapons programme and stockpiles.

Mr Lee is also seeking to put human rights back on the agenda.

'What we are seeing is a definite sea change in approach,' said one foreign envoy close to the six-party deal. 'Mr Lee is making it very clear that Pyongyang is going to have to do its bit if the ultimate goal of reunification is going to have any meaning ... there will be no more one-way streets.

'The real question is: how will Chairman Kim react?'

Yet Mr Lee is also giving himself room to manoeuvre. The former head of Hyundai Construction is, after all, known for his practical streak - even enshrining the 'diplomacy of pragmatism' in his formal foreign-policy platform. This means he will not shut the door on ties with Pyongyang but will try to get more out of them by driving a harder bargain.

'We stand ready to assist North Korea in its road to self-initiated openness,' he has claimed.

A more hard-headed approach is expected to find favour with the South's large industrial groups. Now more independent than in the past, the chaebol have struggled to find suitable, workable investments across the fortified border.

As a long-term inducement, for example, Mr Lee has held out the prospect of international support to help North Korea's gross domestic product per capita reach US$3,000 in the next decade - a huge leap for a bankrupt nation on the brink of famine and lumbered with a crippled industrial sector.

One of the first signs of tangible results may be seen in the Kaesong industrial zone, just north of the border.

There, South Korean firms hire North Korean workers in an effort once touted as a long-term solution to Seoul's struggle to find cheap skilled labour.

Bureaucracy and infrastructure problems have dogged progress and just 17,000 workers are employed at Kaesong - a far cry from the 100,000 target for this year.

Government officials in Seoul bracing themselves for a shift in tactics acknowledge that Mr Lee's approach is likely to find wide favour but say results will be needed, given the public's deep-seated desire for eventual reunification.