During his visit to the truce village of Panmunjom on Wednesday, Unification Minister Lee In-young expressed hope for the resumption of “open-minded” dialogue between the two Koreas at an early date.
The visit came days ahead of the second anniversary of the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang.
During their second encounter in 2018, Moon and Kim agreed to reduce tensions on the peninsula and bolster cross-border cooperation. The agreement was followed a month later by the opening of a joint liaison office in the North’s border town of Kaesong to facilitate communication between the two sides.
Inter-Korean relations have since remained stalled, as denuclearization talks between the US and the North have made no progress due to differences over the scope of Pyongyang’s measures to dismantle its nuclear arsenal in return for sanctions relief.
Cross-border ties were strained further in June after the North cut off all communication lines with the South and blew up the liaison office in anger over the sending of anti-Pyongyang leaflets by North Korean defectors and other activists here.
Lee, who took office in July, told reporters at Panmunjom that the explosion of the liaison office was a regrettable act, but that he believes the North remains committed to implementing summit agreements between Moon and Kim.
He went on to say that Kim’s decision to shelve any military action against the South might be judged as an effort to prevent further escalation of tensions.
His remarks have drawn criticism for being detached from reality and painting an overly optimistic -- or even distorted -- picture.
Kim is unlikely to show interest in carrying out agreements with Moon, unless Seoul risks violating international sanctions to pursue large-scale cross-border projects that would bring bulk cash to the impoverished regime.
Predictably, Pyongyang has not responded to Lee’s proposal for small-scale barter deals, which he has described as a creative way to move forward inter-Korean cooperation while bypassing the sanctions regime.
The approach advocated by Lee has also proven not so easy to follow, as shown by the Unification Ministry’s recent decision to cancel a plan to permit a deal to bring in North Korean liquor in return for South Korean sugar after a North Korean firm involved was found to be subject to international sanctions.
The Moon administration, which has been preoccupied with inter-Korean reconciliation since it assumed office in 2017, would be put in an even more awkward position if Pyongyang test-fired more sophisticated ballistic missiles ahead of the US presidential election in November to strengthen its bargaining power in the ensuing negotiations with Washington.
Regrettably, its eagerness to carry forward dialogue with the North has led it to turn a blind eye to the dire human rights situation in the totalitarian state ruled by the Kim family for more than 70 years.
Over the past four years, the Unification Ministry has published no report on North Korean human rights issues.
Earlier this year, it also suspended administrative and financial support for a nonprofit organization set up in 2003 to monitor and improve the rights situation in the North. As a result, the Database Center for North Korean Human Rights may be unable to continue its work of investigating and documenting cases of rights violations by the oppressive regime, based on in-depth interviews with North Korean defectors.
It has built up the most comprehensive data on North Korean human rights, drawing up a list of 78,798 violations involving 48,822 people.
The center has published an annual white paper on North Korean human rights since 2007, but its publication is likely to be suspended this year.
The measure by the Unification Ministry seems to reflect the Moon government’s concerns that irking the North by taking issue with its human rights conditions would hamper efforts to push for inter-Korean dialogue.
But a thorough inquiry into the North’s human rights situation through testimony from defectors is an essential part of preparations for the eventual reunification of the two Koreas. Such an endeavor might also put psychological pressure on perpetrators of rights abuses in the reclusive state.
It should be noted that it would be pointless to advocate inter-Korean reconciliation in a blind manner without paying due attention to the suffering of ordinary North Koreans and ensuring the complete denuclearization of the totalitarian regime.