The revelation by the North Korean National Defense Commission (NDC) that North and South Korea had held secret meetings in Beijing last month has created a political firestorm in South Korea. Blue House officials allegedly turned off their cell phones in order to duck the press until the Ministry of Unification released an announcement that the South Korean government would not dignify the NDC’s typically over-the-top prose with a response. Some in Seoul are pillorying President Lee Myung-bak for his perfidy.
Whoa. In the past year, North Korea carried out two acts of aggression against the South: the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. As the aggrieved party, Lee demanded an apology. But regardless of the justness of the request, such a response is understandably difficult for the North to provide diplomatically. So North-South relations have hit a roadblock.
Many, including my collaborator Steph Haggard, were skeptical, if not derisive, about Lee’s invitation for Kim Jong-il to attend the upcoming global denuclearization summit. But the point was not the summit–which Kim would be unlikely to attend–but rather that discussions associated with the proffered invitation could have constituted an avenue for the North and the South to start talking again. Indeed, the meeting in Beijing apparently occurred at the same time Lee was in Berlin issuing his public invitation.
Presented with this opportunity, what do the North Koreans do? Publicly embarrass their counterpart. This is the second time in as many months that they have pulled this trick: last month it was the Elders, about as sympathetic a collection of international statesmen as one could find, who were publicly snubbed in Pyongyang.
Today Lee Myung-bak has egg on his face. But who is the bigger fool? If anything, Lee’s pro-engagement critics (Joel Wit springs to mind) should be praising him for his secret diplomacy while the hardliners in Seoul should pipe down: if Kim Jong-il is in China, and the US has a delegation in Pyongyang, then why should the South Koreans also not be talking to the North Koreans?
The disturbing aspect of this episode is not Lee Myung-bak’s alleged hypocrisy but rather North Korea’s recklessness. One has to assume that this behavior is connected to North Korea’s internal political machinations and could auger further provocations in the future. While some like Senators Kyl, Lieberman, Webb, and McCain speculate that the North’s desire for food aid is a move aimed at building stocks for the Kim Il-sung centennial next year, if the aid request is indeed a gambit, it strikes me as more likely that it is in anticipation of the international reaction to some provocation in the works.