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NORTH KOREA: Peace Process Again a Distant Dream

Analysis by Zoltán Dujisin

SEOUL, Jun 17 2009 (IPS) - Ever since being elected as President in 2008, conservative Lee-Myung-bak has pursued a hard-line policy towards North Korea, with the country’s left also blaming him for recent tensions in the peninsula.

Criticising previous left-wing presidents for being idealistic, conservatives say the policy of appeasement has brought no results.

The so-called “Sunshine Policy” of the progressives had culminated in several common projects, such as the Kaesong Industrial Region located in the North – hosting 100 South Korean firms that produce clothes, kitchenware, and electronic equipment while employing 40,000 North Korean workers.

Citing exorbitant financial demands from the northern side, South Korean firms are beginning to close shop at Kaesong, soon after Seoul announced the suspension of shipments of rice and fertiliser to their impoverished northern neighbour.

“Every elected President has a different approach to North Korea. Under the current global economic situation the previous agreements – which were done hurriedly at the end of previous presidencies – needed reviewing according to the President,” Su-Jeong Kim, foreign affairs senior reporter at the JoongAng Daily told IPS.

Those advocating controlled economic cooperation say an approach of isolating the North could lead to desperate and irrational actions from the Stalinist regime.

But this line of thinking has been dealt a fatal blow following the suicide of former progressive President Roh Moo-hyun, who was being investigated by the state prosecutor for an alleged case of corruption.

His death has left a void in the Korean left, which claims the investigation had been aggressive, politically motivated, and overtly sensationalised.

“At first I cursed him, but then I cried,” Eun-Ae Song, a primary school teacher and supporter of the former president and human rights lawyer’s policies told IPS. “He wasn’t one of those politicians seeking power and money, he was a representative of the common people,” she says.

The former president had been widely recognised as having effectively fought against state corruption, and was noticed internationally for bringing the North and South closer to pragmatic cooperation.

But conservatives mostly believe isolation – to trigger an economic collapse in the North – will do more for regime change than the cooperation agreements of previous presidents, a policy that angers Pyongyang. “North Korea was enraged and asked why the South didn’t accept what it called a historical agreement,” says Su-Jeong Kim.

But the North also faces changes. This month North Korean leader Kim Jong- Il appointed his third son Kim Jong-un to replace him in two years. Unlike his father, who assumed office after being firmly established in North Korean power structures, Kim Jong-un still lacks experience and connections, is just 26 years old, and has spent years studying in Switzerland.

Few dare predict the exact nature of upcoming changes: “Nobody knows what actually happens in the North and what his successor is like, but Kim-Jong- Il’s illness might make him more unpredictable, and he thinks the only way for his regime to survive is to get nuclear weapons before he dies.”

It was indeed North Korea’s nuclear test on May 25 that escalated already tense relations, not just with the South, but also with an international community unsure of Pyongyang’s progress toward producing or using nuclear weapons.

The following day South Korea joined 94 other countries in the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative – created in 2003 to prevent the illegal distribution of weapons of mass destruction, and under which any vessel heading to North Korea is liable to inspection.

The North called it a “declaration of war,” threatened military action and nullified the Korean war armistice, signed in 1953, three years after the beginning of the Korean civil war.

However Pyongyang found itself in an unusually isolated position when Russia and China – traditional allies – for the first time joined the West in supporting a package of sanctions against the country at a U.N. Security Council meeting Friday.

But, while many hope China will be capable of influencing Kim-Jong Il, other analysts have warned against overestimating Chinese influence.

North Korea has in the past refused meetings with senior Chinese officials – including once shortly before a missile test carried out this year – and it has also refused calls from its largest trading partner to reform its economy according to the Chinese model.

In the meantime North Korea is responding harshly to the sanctions, promising to enrich uranium in a seemingly endless escalation.

South Korea is also taking action and, together with the U.S., it has announced a readjustment of their military alliance by 2012, which could include a U.S. guarantee of “nuclear protection.”

The capital Seoul and the 20 million living in its metropolitan area are located a mere 56 kilometres from the northern border, but South Koreans have grown accustomed to the threats.

The upgraded alliance is opposed by supporters of the left, who feel the 28,500 U.S. troops presently stationed in the Korean peninsula are part of the problem: “North and South Koreans are the same people, I don’t think they would ever bomb us. The U.S. presence just escalates tensions, they should leave Korea,” Lee Ji Sung, a student of sociology participating in an anti- government rally here told IPS.

The left say a war effort from the North would most certainly result in a massive retaliation, and the successive nuclear provocations from the Northern side should be seen as simply a way to gain leverage in negotiations.

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