SEOUL, South Korea | After last year’s lethal attacks on a South Korean warship and civilian-populated island – and with thousands of North Korea’s artillery pieces and much of its million-man army just 30 miles up the road – you’d think the government in Seoul would be responding positively to the North’s latest “let’s talk” gambit. But you’d be wrong. In a lengthy interview Friday, on the heels of a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, South Korea’s national security adviser Chun Yung-Woo made clear his government isn’t in any hurry to resume talks with Pyongyang unless it meets certain conditions.
Chun and I spoke in a nondescript “annex” on the grounds of the Blue House – South Korea’s White House. (We’ve posted excerpts of that interview here.) The government is so obsessed with security that we weren’t allowed to film the building’s exterior or grounds. In his flawless English, Chun made clear the South won’t resume an official North-South dialogue until Pyongyang owns up to what it did last year, and expresses regret. There’s a domino effect at work as well. Secretary Gates said during his visit that despite Washington’s interest in restarting six-nation talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, that can’t happen until the South’s preconditions for a dialogue are satisfied.
What’s caused this tougher line? It’s consistent with the attitude President Lee Myung-bak took on assuming office in early 2008. When North Korean guards shot and killed a South Korean tourist that year at the Diamond Mountain resort complex in the North – a major source of hard currency for Pyongyang — the Lee government shut down the tours. And after it was proven North Korea was behind the March 2010 sinking of the South’s Cheonan warship, Seoul cut off nearly all South-North trade. Now, in the wake of the November attack on the front-line South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, Chun said, the Lee government believes it has the South Korean public squarely behind the harder-edged approach. Last year’s attacks and civilian deaths were “a sobering reminder of the nature of the North Korean regime,” he said. It “enabled us to see it as it is, not as we want to see it.”
What was most intriguing was not his position, but his rationale. Chun believes North Korea’s economic crisis is so severe that it’s creating an “existential crisis” for the Pyongyang government: that unless it bows to international demands to denuclearize in exchange for aid, the regime could face collapse sooner than most people think.
That’s because internally, “the energy for change is growing,” he said, and at some point it will reach “critical mass.”
Seoul seems determined to hasten that end. The fact that nothing’s worked for decades to dissuade the North from pursuing nuclear weapons he said, simply “means that the price they were made to pay proved tolerable. We haven’t imposed enough price for refusing to denuclearize.” Now, he said with some satisfaction, “we have shut down major channels of cash flow annually into North Korea.” If the Pyongyang regime keeps on its current course, he said, spending most of their money on military, missile and nuclear weapons programs, “that would be a shortcut to their demise.”
This is not to say that Chun is right. It is to say that Seoul thinks the North may be nearing its breaking point, and its decisions on dealing with the North will guided by that conviction. That’s something for President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao to take into account when they take up the North Korea issue in Washington next week.
Video edited by Larisa Epatko