Monday, May 23, 2011

Interview: Mr. Hyun In-taek, Minister of Unification

On May 9th, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak made a surprising offer by inviting North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to Seoul for an international nuclear summit next year with U.S. President Barack Obama and dozens of world leaders if Pyongyang makes a firm commitment to give up its atomic programs.
The proposal, if realized and followed through by Pyongyang, could theoretically lead to the North's reclusive leader attending an international summit with foreign leaders for the first time ever, as well as to a rare summit between leaders of the two Koreas.
The proposal was seen as aimed at pressuring Pyongyang to make a strategic choice to give up nuclear ambitions. It was also believed to be aimed at helping break the deadlock in inter-Korean relations, frayed badly after the North's two deadly attacks on the South last year.
President Lee's offer came as South Korea has increased pressure on North Korea to take concrete steps to demonstrate its denuclearization commitment before opening the six-party nuclear talks. The negotiations have been stalled since December 2008 due to Pyongyang's boycott and tensions over the North's deadly attacks on the South last year.
With tensions on the peninsula rising in recent months, we sought the views of Mr. Hyun In-taek, Minister of Unification, on the government’s policy towards the North and the way ahead.

Could you elaborate on the South Korean government policy towards unification and relations with the North, especially in light of the recent tension between both sides?
Basically, the South Korean government works to improve inter-Korean relations, build peace on the Korean peninsula and, ultimately, achieve a peaceful and gradual reunification of the Korean peninsula. We aim to achieve a Korean unity by building a peace, economic, and national community between the two Koreas. Since North Korea’s nuclear armament is the most pressing issue facing the Korean peninsula, we believe that building a peace community by denuclearizing North Korea should be the first step in our endeavours.
To this end, the Lee Myung-bak administration has proposed the “Vision 3000: Denuclearization and Openness” initiative. The initiative suggests that once North Korea decides to abandon its nuclear program, the South Korean government, together with the international community, will provide large-scale economic assistance to help North Korean economy make a substantial leap forward. In pursuing such a policy, the administration has maintained a “principled” approach by promoting sound inter-Korean relations based on mutual respect between the two Koreas and upholding such universal values as humanitarianism.
Despite our efforts, however, North Korea has continued to raise tensions on the Korean peninsula during the past three years with its brutal provocations, including the shooting death of a South Korean tourist at Mt. Geumgang in July 2008 and second nuclear test in May 2009, not to mention a torpedo attack on the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island last year.
To make a substantial improvement in inter-Korean relations, we believe that, more than anything else, North Korea must change its provocative attitude. In this regard, we have urged North Korea to take responsible measures regarding the two attacks it made last year, promise non-recurrence of such provocations in the future, and hold inter-Korean talks on the nuclear issue to confirm its sincere commitment to denuclearization.

What is your opinion of the economic cooperation programs like Gaeseong? What has been the progress of these ventures and do you think they should continue?
It has been already eight years since the two Koreas embarked on the Gaeseong Industrial Complex (GIC) in June 2003. The Complex has grown significantly over a short period of time. Even despite North Korea’s provocations last year, the South Korean government has sustained the Complex.
The number of South Korean companies operating in the GIC currently is 122, a 30% increase from three years ago. Although new investment in the Complex has remained restricted since the Lee Myong-bak administration suspended interactions with North Korea following North Korea’s attack on the South Korean corvette Cheonan, most South Korean companies in the GIC have been doing their business as usual. Last January, for example, the total production in the Complex reached US$ 31 million, recording an all-time high on a monthly basis.
Yet, if we are to make the GIC an industrial complex with a truly global standard, several key issues must be cleared. The most important of all is to allow South Korean workers commute more freely to the Complex. In this regard, we have urged the North many times to remove inconvenience related to so-called the “3C” issues--border crossing, communication, and customs clearance. Another issue arises from the very fact that the GIC is located in North Korea. This makes the Complex vulnerable to the ups and downs in general inter-Korean relations, which, in turn, may affect the investment climate. Moreover, the personal safety of our workers has yet to be fully guaranteed.
Nevertheless, as long as the situation does not deteriorate drastically due to such factors as military provocations by North Korea, the South Korean government is willing to maintain and even support steady growth of the Complex. While placing our highest priority on the personal safety of South Korean citizens working in the Complex, we will keep addressing the need for institutionalization to improve procedures for entry and stay for the GIC workers.

Early last month, we understand that North Korea jammed GPS signals and also resorted to hacking of many government websites. Given this, how well prepared is the Korean government to tackle North Korea’s cyber warfare capabilities?
The disruptive electronic waves that jammed our GPS signals last March seems to have originated from several regions in North Korea, including Haeju and Gaeseong. In response to such threats, the South Korean government has reinforced its security and monitoring system in order to prevent additional cyber attacks by North Korea. We have also reorganized and expanded relevant government agencies and increased cooperation among the government, military, and private sector.
South Korea certainly has technologies to counter North Korea’s cyber warfare. With capabilities far surpassing those of North Korea, we can and will properly counter any cyber threats from North Korea in the future.

The six party nuclear talks have stalled for some time now. When do you foresee the next talks taking place, and what are the main challenges on this front?
These days people often ask whether the Six-Party Talks will be resumed and, if so, when. I think, however, a more relevant question should be how productive the talks would be when they are resumed. When resumed this time, the Six-Party Talks should result in a concrete contribution to the denuclearization of North Korea. They should not be the “talks for talks’ sake.” To avoid it, North Korea must come to the table with a serious and sincere commitment to denuclearization.
North Korea has a long record of violating agreements, including the 1994 Geneva accord and the September 19 joint statement reached under the six-party framework. This is exactly why South Korea and the rest of the international community have continuously urged the North to prove its sincere commitment to denuclearization through actions, not just words.
The outcome of the talks is more important than whether the talks would be resumed or when they would. In this regard, I would like to stress once again that the North must abandon its nuclear ambition. To induce such a change in North Korean attitude, we must work with the international community.