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Lee Myung-bak Government and North Korea: First Two Years


Korea, Today and Tomorrow

February 25th this year marked the second anniversary of the inauguration of President Lee Myung-bak in South Korea. Many experts agree that the Lee government has raised South Korea’s international profile through active diplomacy over the past two years. Apart from the positive evaluation, however, they note that the current government has seen little progress in its relations with North Korea. Inter-Korean ties worsened dramatically during the first year of the Lee administration, as all official inter-Korean exchanges, other than the Gaeseong industrial park project, were suspended in the wake of the shooting death of a South Korean tourist at the North’s Mt. Geumgang resort in July 2008. Outside the Korean Peninsula, the six-party nuclear talks have long been deadlocked, and North Korea’s long-range rocket launch and its second nuclear test have further isolated it from the international community. The diplomatic situation on the Korean Peninsula hasn’t been always unstable, though. North Korea began sending conciliatory gestures to South Korea and the United States in August of last year, as inter-Korean relations appeared to be entering an “adjustment” phase. Professor Kim Geun-sik from Kyungnam University explains that South and North Korea have been sounding out each other on their respective intentions over the last two years.

Inter-Korean ties suffered a conflict in the initial stage of the Lee Myung-bak government but the two Koreas are now in the process of getting back to dialogue. In a major shift from the ten-year rule of the previous liberal governments in South Korea, the conservative Lee government came to power with a toughened North Korea policy, to which North Korea responded angrily. In brief, the last two years have been a transition period during which the two Koreas have become accustomed to one another. North Korea seems to have figured out what Seoul’s policies are like and is ready to approach relations with South Korea in line with them. The Seoul government, for its part, is making a renewed attempt to improve inter-Korean ties, which have just begun to normalize.

The key vision of the Lee Myung-bak government’s North Korea policy is dubbed “Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Openness.” Under the formula, South Korea would offer comprehensive aid to North Korea to bring its per capita income to 3,000 U.S. dollars within the next ten years if the North gives up its nuclear program and opens up its society. That is, South Korea directly links the North’s denuclearization with progress in inter-Korean ties. Unlike the previous governments, the Lee administration has remained firm in its principle that inter-Korean economic cooperation can be expanded only when the nuclear issue makes progress, and maintains that Seoul won’t provide assistance to the North unconditionally even in the case of humanitarian aid. South-North relations could make a fresh start or come to a prolonged standstill. Experts predict the fate of inter-Korean relations may be determined this year, the third year of the Lee government.

After sustaining a conflict, South and North Korea are now seeking dialogue little by little, although they are still in confrontation with one another. We have to watch whether the two Koreas establish new relations that would be mutually acceptable this year, when the Lee government enters the third year of its five-year term. We’re also interested in whether the six-party nuclear talks will reconvene to make progress on the nuclear issue, and if so, whether the positive development can propel inter-Korean ties forward. More importantly, we have to see if another inter-Korean summit, of which the two sides are apparently making behind-the-scenes contacts, can produce any positive outcome this year. All these comprise important factors to affect inter-Korea ties this year.

Many experts say an inter-Korean summit is emerging as a key factor to influence the diplomatic climate in the region. But it won’t be easy to actually realize the summit. South Korea hopes that the North will accept its so-called “grand bargain” initiative, which is a one-time package deal if North Korea dismantles its nuclear programs. The government also seeks to resolve the issues of South Korean prisoners of war and kidnapping victims who are still being held in the North by connecting both issues to Seoul’s humanitarian aid for North Korea. However, Pyongyang still insists on its previous position that it will discuss the nuclear issue solely with the United States, while engaging in inter-Korean exchanges in other areas. Either South or North must show some flexibility in order to materialize an inter-Korean summit and create a new paradigm for bilateral relations. Professor Kim continues to explain.

It depends on how hard both sides try to realize a summit. Of late, Seoul and Pyongyang seem to have neared an agreement on the need to hold a summit. Still, there seems to be a lack of understanding about their respective demands. North Korea has been fairly flexible toward Seoul since the latter half of last year. For bilateral ties to bear fruit, the Lee Myung-bak government needs to respond to the North’s conciliatory overtures positively and accept its olive branch, even while maintaining a firm stance. It’s important for Seoul to show a more mature attitude to renew relations with North Korea and advance them further.

Meanwhile, the government has expressed a strong commitment to promoting a new peace system in the region as part of its North Korea policy this year. In January, Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said that there would be a critical turning point in efforts to end the nuclear crisis this year and that Seoul would work to formulate detailed plans for a new peace system on the Korean Peninsula. The proposed peace initiative is viewed as a more realistic version of the “Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Openness.” Under the new initiative, South Korea will seek an international cooperative program to ensure economic development in North Korea, should the North show determination to dismantle its nuclear programs or take relevant actions. Professor Kim calls for the government to be more committed to inter-Korean joint cooperation programs, including the Mt. Geumgang tour business, before the North’s denuclearization.

The government needs to be more active in dealing with North Korea. While engaging in working-level contacts with North Korea to discuss humanitarian aid and joint programs, such as South Korean tours to the North’s Mt. Geumgang and the Gaeseong industrial park business, the government still repeats its previous position. It’s time for the Lee government to show a more flexible and open attitude, but not to break its principles, in order to produce tangible results that improve relations with North Korea. Seoul must restore dialogue channels with North Korea so it can actively get involved in regional security issues and lead discussions when the six-party nuclear talks resume. This is one of the tasks the Lee government should contend with.

South and North Korea have endured a long stalemate for the last two years. We hope the two sides will be able to achieve a breakthrough for a major development in bilateral relations this year through dialogue and negotiations.

[Interview] Former N. Korean Defector Opens Online Shopping Mall
A marketplace in Seoul is humming with activity, with the weekend approaching. While lots of people are enjoying shopping, Park Ye-jin, a 35-year-old former North Korean defector, looks serious. The young businesswoman is conducting market research before releasing a new product. She opened an Internet shopping mall called “Raccoon Bag” on December 1st, 2009, with the help of a Seoul City project designed to help young people start their own businesses. Let’s meet Ms. Park.

It’s a shopping mall dealing in bags. I came up with a raccoon character to create this online mall. Raccoons live in both South and North Korea. The raccoon character here represents South and North Korean people who are not allowed to visit the other side of the border, although they’re brothers and sisters of the same blood. I applied for a youth startup project offered by Seoul City, and I was lucky to pass the screening. Seoul City provided me with an office, Internet facilities, office appliances and even a modest amount of aid money, on a monthly basis. Thanks to the city, I’ve been able to run the online shopping mall in favorable business conditions.

Yejin’s hometown is Cheongjin in North Korea. She set foot in South Korea in 2003 when she was 28 years old. She recalls being so curious about the outside world that she ventured into China. At first, she thought her stay there would be only temporary, but it turned out she crossed the line of no return. After arriving in South Korea, she did whatever she could in order to adjust to South Korean society; she worked as a teacher at a daycare center, as an office assistant at a travel agency, and a waitress. It was quite challenging for her to live in a radically different society all alone. But she never stopped pursuing her career. She learned how to use the Internet and applied for the Seoul City startup project. So then, why did she choose to sell bags, among other items, at an online shopping mall?

I’m fond of shopping malls, and I purchased a variety of goods at Internet shopping malls. I had wanted to start a shopping business since I came to South Korea. So I continued to study what I wanted to learn. Years later, I organized a questionnaire myself to gauge consumer trends. I handed out the questionnaires to people around me and passers-by in apartment complexes and near universities and churches. As a result, I figured out bags were the product that many consumers most wanted to buy or receive as a gift. So I chose bags as my business item.

Yejin used to embroider Oriental designs in North Korea. Her mother was also a skilled embroiderer. Apparently she’s inherited her mother’s talent. Yejin is confident that she’s good at embroidery and design. She hopes to make use of her talent, and plans to introduce bags of her own design. Her online shopping mall hasn’t produced much profit thus far. But sales figures may not be very important for her, since she already gained confidence that she could do something here in South Korea in the course of developing a character and opening a shopping mall.

From time to time, however, she feels that running a business in a capitalist economy is beyond her capacity. But through this work, she cherishes a bigger dream, which encourages her to keep up with her business. With her elderly parents in North Korea in mind, she hopes to set up a welfare center for elderly people in order to look after poor and lonely senior citizens.

My dream is to establish a welfare center for older people. In North Korea, senior citizens have nowhere to go. And I think many elderly people in South Korea are in a similar situation. I’d like to set up a welfare center where all of the necessary services are available so senior citizens can spend their latter years in comfort and happiness. I also have a goal of developing my “Raccoon Bags” as a top-quality brand comparable to premium goods with decades of tradition. Other than bags, I’m planning on making clothes, accessories and shoes under the same brand.

Like many other young people, Yejin is sometimes worried about an uncertain future. But she never gives up on her passion for success. Her future looks bright, as she’s filled with hopes and dreams.

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