South Korea will adhere to its policy of economically supporting North Korea despite Pyongyang’s missile tests and provocative behaviour, and despite increasing pressure for more reciprocity, says Han Myeong-sook, prime minister.
“The main basis of our ‘peace and prosperity policy’ will continue,” South Korea’s domestic policy chief said in an interview with the Financial Times, referring to the government’s principle of maintaining stability on the divided peninsula.
“Inter-Korean relations are not always easy but it is important to carry on with this policy in a consistent manner . . . A majority of South Koreans have a strong conviction that we should resolve this issue peacefully,” said Ms Han.
Her comments highlight the differences in opinion that are likely to be evident next week when South Korea’s President Roh Moo-hyun meets his US counterpart George W. Bush in Washington, a summit at which North Korea’s July missile tests – and the international community’s response to them – will be high on the agenda.
The US favours sanctions and other punitive measures against Kim Jong-il’s regime, and many in Washington are unhappy that Seoul continues to channel money to Pyongyang through a Southern-run tourism resort and industrial park in the North.
But Seoul, fearing anything that could trigger the regime’s costly collapse, has espoused patience and diplomacy as the best way to deal with Pyongyang. Since 2002, South Korea has spent Won4,805bn ($5bn, €3.4bn, £2.3bn) through its inter-Korean co-operation fund.
“With regard to the missile test, they were not threatening to start a war or to use force, they just want to get something out of the US through six-party talks. It was a way of addressing the negotiations and creating a more favourable environment for them,” said Ms Han, Mr Roh’s deputy.
“If you look at the position of the South Korean government, we were disappointed and regret their actions but we will consistently pursue the peace and prosperity policy and will try to get North Korea to come back to the talks,” she said.
But the policy is not only unpopular in Washington – an increasing number of South Koreans are wondering what they have achieved after six years of engagement. Recent surveys found the proportion of South Koreans who support US policy towards North Korea is rising while those favouring increased aid is diminishing.
Ms Han said: “Some people question how can we co-operate with a communist regime run by a dictator, but if we used force, that could lead to a war.” Asked what South Korea had gained for its six years of economic support for the North, Ms Han said: “There are so many things. Economically we may not be able to quantify them but . . . we now have a peaceful attitude.”
But many conservatives think that a change in government policy is inevitable.
“Despite what the president and the prime minister say, I don’t think it will be easy for them to continue this policy because North Korea is not likely to soften its position,” said Lee Dong-bok, a former Southern lawmaker who is now president of the North Korea Democratisation Forum.