Park Jae-kyu, a former unification minister, says he is prudent about his choice of words and how they are being translated into English when it comes to inter-Korean issues. He claims he still receives attention from relevant officials here and abroad even after stepping down as Seoul's point-man on Pyongyang in 1999.
Under such circumstance, Park, now the president of Kyungnam University, did not hesitate to say that "we should not be too disappointed" after vice-ministerial talks between the South and North Korea ended without any breakthroughs, Saturday.
The two sides failed to narrow their differences over the South's suspended tour program to the Mount Geumgang resort in the North.
"Mutual compromise is possible if we make an effort. The two Koreas must work to return to the negotiation table, to seek a second round of talks soon, because it is important for both sides to do so," he said in an interview with The Korea Times at his office in Samcheong-dong, Seoul.
He added Seoul may be able to create "the dynamics for change," pointing out that both President Park Geun-hye and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sought for bilateral talks in their respective New Year's address.
He urged the Park administration to implement a "two-track strategy" of facilitating dialogue with the Kim regime while seeking to settle North Korea's military threats, including its nuclear and ballistic missile program.
According to him, next year will be the last chance for Seoul to promote a summit with Pyongyang as President Park will enter the fourth year of her five-year presidency.
"Both Koreas are in the middle of transformation, so to speak. President Park has passed the halfway point in her presidency, while First Chairman Kim is expected to introduce his own internal and external policies at the Seventh Congress of the Korean Workers' Party next spring," the Kyungnam University president said.
"In this light North Korea is likely to promote a bilateral summit with South Korea and one with China, casting these events as a sign of the regime's stability and using them as opportunities to introduce a new wave of changes in its system."
In relation to Kim Jong-un's reign of terror since he seized power in December 2011, Park speculated there will not be any more large-scale purges and the untested leader will instead focus on stabilizing the authoritarian regime.
"Purges were inevitable. But according to my understanding, Kim Jong-un has now stabilized his regime, so it is likely that he will begin to unroll policies aimed at strengthening internal solidarity," Park said.
He was skeptical that Pyongyang may carry out its fourth nuclear test after conducting three tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013, saying such provocation would hamper soft landing of the Kim regime.
Q&A with Park Jae-kyu
Q: How would you evaluate the Park Geun-hye administration's policy toward North Korea over the last three years?
A: It is important to remember that when President Park Geun-hye took office inter-Korean relations were already in a state of aggravation due to armed provocations by North Korea and the policy of the predecessor Lee Myung-bak administration. The Lee administration's ‘Vision 3000' policy sought for North Korea to first abandon its nuclear program and open up in exchange for massive economic assistance from South Korea. Under the Park government, political confrontations between the two Koreas were further intensified when Pyongyang misunderstood the intentions behind Seoul's ‘trust politics,' the Dresden declaration, and establishment of a presidential committee for unification preparation.
So far, we have witnessed irregular reunions of separated families and partial exchanges in the social and cultural areas. Nevertheless, due to a lack of flexibility and magnanimity in its policy, the South Korean government has failed to lead North Korea toward a path of dialogue and exchanges.
Subsequently, a number of substantial issues — including curbing North Korea's nuclear ambitions, establishment of a Korean peace regime, and expansion of cooperation and exchanges between the two Koreas — still remain unresolved.
After a long suspension, high-level inter-Korean talks took place on Dec. 11 and 12 in accordance with the inter-Korean Aug. 25 agreement. Considering the timing and the current status of inter-Korean relations, I believe these talks can help to establish an important channel of dialogue between Seoul and Pyongyang.
Prior to this high-level meeting, we expected Seoul to be especially concerned with the humanitarian issue of regularizing the reunions of separate families, and North Korea to be most interested in reopening the Mount Geumgang tour project in some form. Vice-ministerial talks were held at the Gaeseong Industrial Complex. Various issues were raised. The main issues of interested were identified. The North emphasized that progress be made simultaneously on the issues of family reunions and resumption of Mount Geumgang tourism. But the two sides expressed a clear difference in opinions. So this recent round of talks ended inconclusively, without a clear breakthrough.
What both sides must understand is that for the future development, each side needs to be flexible to achieve their interests. They must find a mutual compromise on core issues. If they can do that, then progress can be made. Each side must recognize the issue of greatest interest of the other side right now — family reunions and the Mount Geumgang tourism. If these talks had achieved a tangible outcome, then later signals could have been sent that the North would be willing to work on other issues of concern.
However, no joint statement was issued. Nevertheless we should not be too disappointed. Critical opinions were expressed and confirmed by the meeting. Mutual compromise is possible if we make an effort. The two Koreas must work to return to the negotiation table, to seek a second round of talks soon, because it is important for both sides to do so. To make progress, in its policy toward North Korea, Seoul should seriously consider applying a ‘two-track' strategy. For internal reasons, North Korea seeks bilateral talks. With a strategic approach, we may be able to create the dynamics for change. With little more than two years left in power, the Park administration should shift its North Korea policy to accommodate a ‘two-track' strategy of promoting cooperation and engagement with Pyongyang while making its best efforts to resolve the nuclear, missile and other security issues.
Q: When you consider the current status of inter-Korean relations and political environment surrounding the Korean peninsula, how do you see the prospect for an inter-Korean summit?
A: Though belated, an inter-Korean summit — which never came about during the Lee administration — needs to be held.
A summit meeting is a ‘big card' that could restore mutual trust between the two Koreas and thus improve inter-Korean relations. It should be held without any preconditions. All pending issues should be discussed with candor and open-mindedness.
If the two Koreas want to normalize inter-Korean relations and create a breakthrough by resolving nuclear and other controversial and pending issues, then a bilateral summit must be held.
The last chance for the Park administration to promote a summit meeting with the North would be next year — that is, 2016.
Early in 2015 President Park and First Chairman Kim Jong-un, respectively, hinted at the possibility of holding a summit. This suggests that neither party is opposed to the idea. Of course, further high-level talks will be needed to prepare for such an event. If future talks prove productive, and if Seoul shifts to a two-track strategy to make things happen, then a summit will be needed to cement an improvement in relations.
For the summit's success, both sides will have to demonstrate flexibility. By that I mean they will have to drop any difficult preconditions that either side would consider as nonstarters. Both Koreas are in the middle of transformation, so to speak. President Park has passed the halfway point in her presidency, while First Chairman Kim is expected to introduce his own internal and external policies at the Seventh Congress of the Korean Workers' Party next spring. In this light North Korea is likely to promote a bilateral summit with South Korea and one with China, casting these events as a sign of the regime's stability and using them as opportunities to introduce a new wave of changes in its system.
Q: What do you suggest the government do to effectively manage inter-Korean relations over the next two years? What kinds of strategy or policy do you recommend?
A: As long as Pyongyang misinterprets Seoul's North Korea policy as a policy of promoting national unification via unilateral absorption or merging of two systems and doubts our sincerity, it would be difficult for the two Koreas to expand bilateral exchanges and cooperation. To avoid any possible misunderstanding, the government needs to convey clearly to Pyongyang the intentions behind its North Korea policy. In future talks, the government must explain its intentions clearly to the North Koreans, thereby turning the occasion into an opportunity to create mutual trust between the two Koreas.
The two sides must remain open-minded and have frank discussions that cover all pending issues if they are to come up with new ways to introduce fundamental changes in inter-Korean relations. They should then prepare the next round of inter-Korean summit with a strategy to resolve fundamental pending issues through bold decisions their leaders will make in the summit.
In light of the need for economic rehabilitation and stabilization of its regime, North Korea needs to increase its stability by improving relations with the outside world and promoting cooperation with other countries. Otherwise, it will face serious troubles. Being clearly aware of this, Pyongyang is likely to take a different approach toward holding an inter-Korean summit this time. North Korea needs to introduce crucial changes and make a breakthrough in the year 2016 in order to consolidate its regime and lay foundations for economic rehabilitation.
We should develop and promote a strategy to deal with North Korea's transformations or induce Pyongyang to take a path toward that direction. We must keep in mind that North Korea is in a situation where expanding external cooperation is inevitable. And, it has to do so through substantial changes in its relations with the outside world, including its relations with the United States, China, and South Korea.
Q: Kim Jong-un's leadership has been called a ‘reign of terror.' How would you compare North Korea under Kim Jong-un with the country under his father, Kim Jong-il? What do you think the young leader can do to improve his regime's stability in the long run?
A: First Chairman Kim Jong-un's rise to the most powerful position in the country came about somewhat prematurely. Although he was announced as the successor and assumed power after his father's sudden death in 2011, Kim Jong-un had not yet received sufficient training as heir. Accordingly, his regime was launched while his power base was hardly consolidated.
Over the last four years he has replaced many top officials and carried out a generational shift among the personnel of the party, government, and military. Through the reshuffling of power elites and restructuring of the ruling apparatus, he has focused on consolidating his power. Kim Jong-un has conducted this overhaul in decisive manner via purge, dismissal, and replacement of senior leaders. Some people argue that the rapidity of this overhaul has weakened North Korea's internal solidarity; on the contrary, it rather seems to have contributed to an increase in stability.
In every political transition the replacement of power elites is a common phenomenon before the new regime is consolidated. So far, the North Korean regime seems to have little problem with its stability.
As suggested during the 70th anniversary of the (North) Korean Workers' Party on Oct. 10, North Korea plans to focus more on ordinary people and improving their living standard. It has been announced that a Party congress will be convened next May — the seventh such congress but the first in 36 years. It would seem that through the holding of this congress the regime wants to demonstrate its stability to the world and officially declare the opening of the Kim Jong-un era.
Purges were inevitable. But according to my understanding, Kim Jong-un has now stabilized his regime, so it is likely that he will begin to unroll policies aimed at strengthening internal solidarity. I do not think we will see any more large-scale purges. Yet we have seen in other cases (such as during Kim Jong-il's reign), reshuffling or dismissal of ancillaries does occur. We may see supplementary purges down the road, but it's not likely to be anything massive. Instead, the regime will bolster the idolization of Kim Jong-un to enhance solidarity within the country.
<위 글은 코리아타임즈 2015년 12월 15일(화)자 10면에서 전재한 기사입니다.>