Kim Jong-un's ascension offers window to ease North-South tensions

Kim Jong-un is preparing to take charge in North Korea, giving the Koreas a moment to ratchet down tensions. For South Korea, interest in stability runs high.

By , Correspondent

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    North Korean soldiers make a call of condolence for their deceased leader Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in this picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency December 22.
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South Korea wants to get along with North Korea, and North Korea wants to improve relations with foreigners.

Those desires, as expressed by South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak, the North Korean press, and by some South Korean lawmakers, gave the impression Thursday that South and North Korea might again begin to reconcile once Kim Jong-un gets used to his role as heir to the dynasty that his father Kim Jong-il led for 17 years. 

“We are not hostile to the North, “ said President Lee, as quoted by his senior secretary. Indeed, he added, “front-line troops are maintaining low levels of vigilance” – down from the emergency alert called after North Korea announced Kim Jong-il’s death Monday – and “an early stabilization of North Korea’s system is in the interests of neighboring countries.”

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In Pyongyang, the official newspaper Rodong Sinmun promised “to strengthen friendships with people of foreign countries” while calling on everyone to unite around “great comrade Kim Jong-un and faithfully follow his leadership.”

Such expressions from Seoul and Pyongyang in theory suggest at least a desire to patch up their differences. Yet reconciliation will be a long and difficult process and reunification is out of the question in view of the depth of hostilities, fear of instability on the peninsula, and the North's rigid dictatorial structure. 

For now, in the view of observers here, the crisis atmosphere that often surrounds relations between the two countries may well ease while Kim Jong-un gets used to exercising power at the behest, perhaps, of an inner circle carefully selected and nurtured by his father.

“We will do our best,” says Chung Ok-min, a National Assembly member from South Korea's ruling conservative party and a former college professor. “I support humanitarian assistance,” she says, alluding to food and other aid that Mr. Lee has denied while calling on the North to give up its nuclear program.

After his inauguration as president in early 2008, Lee reversed the Sunshine Policy of reconciliation initiated by former president Kim Dae-jung after he defeated a conservative for the presidency in December 1997.  Both Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, also dedicated to North-South reconciliation, flew to Pyongyang to meet Kim Jong-il. The North Korean leader hosted Kim Dae-jung for the first inter-Korean summit in June 2000 and Mr. Roh at the second summit in October 2007.

President Lee strongly opposes talks and deals that fail to get North Korea to give up its nuclear program, but he is likely to mute his feelings in a time of grief and transition in the North. One reason is that South Koreans vote on new assembly members next April and in December vote for a president to replace Lee, who under Korea’s constitution cannot run for a second five-year term.

“Lee will not take a strong stance against North Korea,” predicts Hwang Sung June, a computer analyst. “The Korean people want stability”  and calm rather than intermittent crises such as those inflicted last year by the sinking of the navy corvette the Cheonan and the shelling of an island in the Yellow Sea in which a total of 50 people died.

The yearning for stability may equate with a desire for reconciliation, say analysts, but does not necessarily translate into a desire to reunite the two Koreas, divided at the 38th  parallel by the US and the Soviet Union after the Japanese surrender in 1945.  

“A lot of Korean people do not want reunification,” says Mr. Hwang. The danger of political and social upheaval surrounding reunification – and jeopardizing stability – is simply too high, he believes.

North Koreans are widely assumed to feel much the same way considering that long entrenched military officers and bureaucrats would suddenly lose their jobs in any moves to bring the two Koreas together. Given that reality, many believe that reunification can only occur after upheaval, an implosion, in North Korea.

“Some kind of internal conflict will take place within North Korea,” says Chung Ok-min, the assembly member, expressing doubt that Kim Jong-un will emerge as a conciliatory figure among his own people. "He will be as much a dictator as his father,” she says. “He will need to be aggressive to show his power.”

In the end, she believes, North Korea will fall apart in civil conflict, which the regime will blame on South Korea before finally falling.

“A regime like that cannot last forever,” says David Straub, a former US diplomat in Seoul, now at Stanford University. “It’s going to be a tectonic change” – the condition many believe is needed for the two Koreas to reunify at last.

In the meantime, South Korea clearly does not want to antagonize North Korea unnecessarily. In that spirit, the government ordered Christian activists to give up plans to light up three huge steel towers overlooking the demilitarized between the two Koreas like giant Christmas trees clearly visible for miles inside North Korea.

North Korea had threatened, well before Kim Jong-il’s death, to open fire against any such displays. The Rodong Sinmun editorial repeated the familiar rhetoric of a regime in which the armed forces are dominant, vowing “to sternly and mercilessly crush any provocations by enemies.”

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