Political divide poses challenge for inter-Korean summit

By Ock Hyun-ju
  • Published : Feb 13, 2018 - 18:17
  • Updated : Feb 13, 2018 - 22:53
As the South Korean government considers ways to create the “right conditions” for the inter-Korean summit proposed by the North, a sharp divide in South Korea remains a challenge for the government.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, via his sister Kim Yo-jong, invited President Moon Jae-in for talks in Pyongyang on Saturday, which put the Moon administration in the delicate position of having to continue the conciliatory mood without alienating the US.

However, that’s not the only task for Moon, who has favored engagement with the North; he will also have to convince his own people, who are wary of the North’s intentions.

Liberals hailed the invitation as a diplomatic breakthrough while conservatives dismissed it as a charm offensive by Pyongyang aimed at undermining the Seoul-Washington alliance and international sanctions against it.

Rep. Choo Mi-ae, leader of the ruling Democratic Party said Monday that the inter-Korean summit would serve as a “meaningful starting point” toward denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Choo also said she hopes to see the US and the North reopen talks.

“If an inter-Korean summit is realized, it will be recorded as the biggest achievement of the PyeongChang Olympics,” she said, calling on the government to persuade its allies to make the summit happen.

Conservative parties opposed any inter-Korean summit that would not result in denuclearizing the North.

“We once again warn that a visit by the president to North Korea, unless it is premised on denuclearization, would be nothing more than a congratulatory delegation celebrating (the North’s) nuclear development and would amount to an enemy-benefiting act,” said Rep. Chang Je-won, spokesman of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party in a statement.

The divide reflects hope, frustration and indifference in Korean society over what could be the third inter-Korean summit after a decade of a series of cross-border talks that were followed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile provocations.

The decision to field a joint South-North women’s hockey team during the two Korea’s inter-Korean talks just a few weeks ahead of the Olympics sparked a public backlash, which caught the administration by surprise. Many, especially the young, accused the government of sacrificing its own players for a political cause. 

Members of an anti-North Korea civic organization protest North Korea’s participation in the PyeongChang Olympics near Gangneung Art Center in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Thursday. (Yonhap)

Such polarization shows how ideological differences over North Korea have shaped South Korean politics for a long time, a scholar said.

“The issues surrounding North Korea have been used for political purposes by politicians due to the long division between two Koreas,” Koh Yu-hwan, professor at Dongguk University told The Korea Herald.

“There will always be conflicts over how to deal with the North as long as the Koreas are divided. If the government makes progress in denuclearizing the North through dialogue, it  could ease such a divide and concerns.”

The political strife could affect prospects of the inter-Korean summit and broader cross-border ties before and after the June 13 local elections, another expert said.

“The local elections will be the most important factor in shaping inter-Korean relations and conflicts will intensify in the lead up to the elections,” said Lee Woo-young, professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

“The thing is that the North Korean issue is too politicized,” he said. “There should be a framework in which both sides can rationally discuss the issue. The process of seeking a consensus is important in making an inter-Korean summit a success.”