Donald Kirk: Lee Wants to Help Build North Korea

[imText1]Washington D.C. — Donald Kirk, a former journalist based in Tokyo with the Chicago Tribune and the author of two books on Korean economy and business, “Korean Dynasty: Hyundai and Chung Ju Yung” and “Korean Crisis: Unraveling of the Miracle in the IMF Era,” gave a talk titled “At the Hub of Asia: Confronting South Korea’s Future under President-elect Lee” at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies on the 17th.

On the eve of the beginning of President Lee Myung Bak term in office, Kirk addressed sweeping issues such as South Korea’s economic outlook and improvements in infrastructure to the future of North-South Korea relations.

He opened the talk with the illustration of the “Dream Center” in Sungdo, which will be connected via a bridge (approximately 6km) to the island on which Incheon is located, facilitating access to the Incheon International Airport. He noted, however, “Whether Korea can turn terrific infrastructure into a regional hub is another matter. There are enormous bureaucratic problems that society finds difficult to overcome. All of this provides an entrée for Korea’s President-elect Lee.”

In regards to Lee’s attitude towards North Korea, Kirk said, “Lee Myung Bak is an ‘economic president’ who ran with North Korea as a secondary concern. You don’t find much concern about North Korean troops even though they are only 30~40 miles away on the streets of Seoul. It is perceived as something to be settled by far-off diplomats.”

“Nor has Lee dwelt on the North Korea issue. Almost since he got elected president, he has been making comments which have been disturbing to those that saw a certain progress in relations with the North in the last 10 years under Kim Dae Jung’s and Roh Moo Hyun’s leadership.”

Kirk elaborated, “He’s been asking about the human rights issue, which is a ‘no-no’ in talks with North Korea. They say it is Western propaganda. He has also asked for strict verification of dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, which implies the right to go in there and look around the country. He has talked about expanding his economic emphasis from South to North, by building up the North Korean economy.”

In Kirk’s opinion, it is unlikely that “North Korea will give a serious list of its [nuclear] programs or talk about what’s been going on with Pakistan or its relationship with Syria or Iran. So then, how tough will Lee be in demanding verification? When he sees that the Six-Party Talks are going nowhere, will he continue to demand verification or talks on human rights? There’s some sense that he’s going to back down eventually. After all he is a businessman, is economically-minded, and wants to help build North Korea. ”

Lee has been pushing for a vast improvement in the Kaesong Special Economic Zone and for an expansion of the Mt. Geumgang Tourism Zone. “Kaesong Zone will become a tremendous economic zone. There are about 25 factories there, although they are not making money. They manufacture very small items—from electronics, cosmetics, shoes. But it is still a powerful economic area for the both Koreas.”

“Lee seems to think he can keep talking about doing what he can for North Korea economically, if North Korea will come through with a complete list of its nuclear activities,” stated Kirk. “I don’t think North Korea will go for this. Will the Six-Party Talks give room for another compromise? All of the headlines, analyses, articles, semi-compromises…can you imagine going through that again? There is a strong chance that we’ll have to go through another cycle before reaching rapprochement between North and South Korea. By then, the results will not be satisfactory to South Korea and to many Americans.”

“Lee Myung Bak also said he wanted to do away with the Unification Ministry. This is a very bold move. The Ministry is at the heart of SK’s relations with NK. It approves all political, cultural, and social trips from South to North Korea and has been a target of criticisms by conservatives. It has been responsible for all kinds of negotiations at different levels with NK. To do away with the Ministry would undercut a lot of these moves,” Kirk expressed.

“My guess is that the Foreign Ministry [Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade], which is physically next door, will go on functioning [as the Unification Ministry] without the name of the Ministry of Unification,” said Kirk.

Kirk posited, however, “One thing he will not want to back down on is the return of South Korean prisoners of wars from the Korean War in North Korea and South Korean fishermen who have been taken. As a beginning step, South Korea should be negotiating hard about demanding the return of these people.”

Regarding the U.S.-Korean military alliance, the author commented, “Americans are attuned to the idea of giving wartime command to South Korea in the case that war breaks out. Nevertheless, the U.S. is ready to give this over. Lee says they should postpone this idea. This is an interesting question—will the U.S. transfer the military command authority to South Korea? South Korea doesn’t want U.S. pulling out more troops under Lee.”

“There has definitely been a toughened military stance. The U.S. has been very uncertain, going along with the policies of Roh and Kim Dae Jung. Conservatives are on the rise in Korea and the U.S. has to do a turn and go with Lee’s policies. This is a very confusing, but also an exciting time. It remains to be seen how Lee will act in regards to trade issues with the U.S. and issues with North Korea and how South Korea will shape up economically as a regional hub.”

The Sejong Society of Washington, D.C., an organization devoted to public education regarding U.S. and Korea-related policy issues, sponsored the event.

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