Detente on Korean peninsula as Pyongyang seeks to lift isolation
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is reaching out to Seoul and Washington after months of threats to try to mend his country's broken economy in a move that appears to have vindicated, for now, the policies of his South Korean counterpart.
Kim, the third of his line to rule North Korea, may release jailed U.S. missionary Kenneth Bae in the coming days after agreeing to reopen a joint industrial zone with South Korea and to hold reunions between families that were torn apart by the 1950-53 Korean War.
To be sure, experts are not predicting lasting peace between the two Koreas since Kim has shown no sign of giving up his banned nuclear weapons program.
But Kim and South Korean President Park Geun-hye could have found some common ground after they were both buoyed domestically by their hardline stances earlier this year when the North threatened the South with war.
"North Korea appears to have made up its mind to improve ties during Park's term," said independent political commentator Yu Chang-seon. "Park herself has to have on her mind her father's aspirations for unification that he never realized."
Park is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the military ruler who is credited with building modern South Korea. She has a single five-year term in which to leave a legacy that in some way measures up to her father's.
She met Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, in 2002 in a move that some credit as paving the way for better ties, such as the reunions of separated families, which began the following year.
"She is one of those rare people who met with Kim Jong-il and spoke at length," Yu said. "That is quite a significant experience and is just the kind of thing that can provide for a dramatic improvement in South-North ties."
Park has a generally favorable public rating six months into her presidency, thanks largely to support for her North Korea policy, according to a poll published this week.
Sixty percent of a survey of 1,000 people by the mainstream Chosun Ilbo newspaper published on Monday agreed with her policy of not backing down in the face of North Korean threats while persistently trying to engage in dialogue.
That is a sharp shift from her conservative predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, who sought to isolate Pyongyang after a North Korean guard shot and killed a South Korean tourist at a jointly run resort in 2008 and the North's military sank a South Korean naval vessel and shelled an island in 2010.
Park took office in late February and was immediately tested by North Korea, which had carried out its third nuclear test a couple of weeks earlier and then embarked on a two-month long period of saber rattling, threatening the United States, South Korea and Japan with nuclear war and missile strikes.
North Korea's puny economy and isolation under heavy U.N. sanctions means it is rarely taken seriously on the diplomatic stage unless it reminds the world of its willingness to engage in combat or of its capacity to push nuclear proliferation.
Typically, periods of tension are followed by engagement, with North Korea again turning its attention to an economy that is 45 times smaller than the South's and dependent on China for much of its trade and aid.
"Park Geun-hye's policy is working because the North is isolated after the provocations under Lee Myung-bak and its missile and nuclear tests," said Hong Sung-gul, who teaches government administration at Kookmin University in Seoul.
Park sketched out her vision of engagement with North Korea before taking office in a policy she dubbed "trustpolitik", an echo of West Germany's approach to East Germany before German reunification in 1990.
She pledged to respond strongly to any military action by the North but said she was willing to commit to better commercial ties in return for a dialing down of tensions.
"For now, the path for the so-called trust process appears quite smooth, with Kim Jong-un stressing economic rebuilding, for which political stability is crucial," said Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
Park's government has given the go-ahead for private aid groups to send supplies such as medication, clothing and blankets to North Korea for its children and disabled people.
The North has also made overtures to Washington by inviting a special envoy, Robert King, to visit Pyongyang on Friday.
That could lead to the release of Bae, a Korean American Christian missionary who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in April after a court convicted him of state subversion.
The court said Bae, 45, used his tourism business to form groups aimed at overthrowing the government. Bae was detained in November as he led tourists through the country's northern region.
Another Korean American who was detained in North Korea for six months was released during a 2011 visit by King to assess the country's pleas for food aid.
The endgame for Park is highly unlikely to be a permanent thaw in relations or reunification.
"The ultimate goal for the North is to get around international sanctions," said Jang Sung-min, a former legislator and aide to ex-President Kim Dae-jung, who ushered in warmer ties with his Sunshine Policy in the early 2000s.
"Kim Jong-un has his nukes with the third nuclear test, which he says has given the country a deterrent from outside aggression. The focus is the economy."
Yu, the political commentator, said Park's North Korea policy has the basis to be broader in support and impact if it succeeds, unlike those of liberal leaders Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun who were criticised for "buying" better ties with aid.
"Park will be pursuing a policy largely backed by the country's conservatives. If it works, it has the makings of a very broad policy success," Yu said.