SEOUL // South Korea offered the North a massive economic aid package yesterday in exchange for a mutual cut in conventional arms on their border and an end to the isolated northern regime's atomic weapons programme, though analysts said Pyongyang was likely to decline. Marking the annual anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, the South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said his government was willing to establish high-level economic dialogue with the communist state if it agreed to first give up all its nuclear drive.
"I hereby make it clear that this government is ready to start dialogue and co-operation with the North over any issue, at any time and at any level," Mr Lee said. Yoon Sang-hyun, a spokesman for Mr Lee's ruling Grand National Party, said: "Right now, when our government is actively engaging North Korea, is the best time for North Korea to start changing." Analysts, however, were sceptical about the possibility of northern leaders accepting the proposal, saying similar moves had been made in the past and turned down.
"It's a new package with the old contents," said Cheong Seong-chang, the director of inter-Korean studies at Seoul's Sejong Institute. "That shows Lee still hasn't realised the importance of building political trust before he talks about economic terms." In fact, since his inauguration, Mr Lee has promoted the so-called "Denuclearisation, Openness, 3000" initiative, repeatedly promising to help develop North Korea into a country whose per capita income would exceed US$3,000 (Dh11,000) if the communist state were to first abandons all its nuclear programmes. But Pyongyang has rejected Mr Lee's Openness 3000 initiative as an insult, calling it a "malicious" campaign to topple the communist regime.
The August 15 Liberation Day in South Korea has traditionally been an occasion for South Korean leaders to reach out to the North and it was expected Mr Lee, who has been advocating a tough stance on Pyongyang, would be compelled to do the same. Analysts said Mr Lee was merely fulfilling this expectation, rather than making a heartfelt and groundbreaking diplomatic overture. Brian Myers, a North Korea specialist who teaches at Dongseo University in Busan, said: "I agree with the people who say there's nothing substantially new about the proposal. The only real nuance in it is that he is talking about South Korea also reducing its conventional weapons."
North Korean experts point out that the North's military and its nuclear programme are the regime's only remaining source of public support. "No matter how much aid North Korea receives from South Korea, North Korea will still remain far behind South Korea economically. In other words, economic growth does not translate into a big political benefit for Kim Jong Il," Prof Myers said. Prof Myers implied Mr Lee's proposal was most likely a cynical attempt to corner North Korea by forcing its leadership to either publicly accept or reject the offer. This, he said, would make it "humiliating for North Korea even to come to the table".
If Mr Lee had genuinely wanted to engage the North, he would have initiated talks discreetly so Pyongyang could "save face" by being seen as a co-architect of any deal, as was the case recently with the release of two American journalists during a trip by the former US President Bill Clinton. But others believe it was the correct approach, as previous southern governments had been too soft on the North. "The point of the proposal is that we show to them that we don't mean harm to them. We show them we want to reach out to them," said Cha Du-hyeogn, the director of North Korean studies at the state-run Korea Institute for Defence Analyses in Seoul. "They cannot expect us to yield to them first and offer unconditional aids, just like previous governments did. It's time for the North's leadership to change first."
Meanwhile, a top South Korean industrialist yesterday again extended her stay in North Korea after winning the release of a detained employee, apparently in the hope of meeting Kim Jong Il. Hyundai Group chairwoman Hyun Jung-Eun went to Pyongyang last Monday on what was to be a three-day visit to secure the release of the employee who had been held there since March 30. The employee, Yu Seong-Jin, returned home on Thursday, raising hopes of better cross-border relations after 18 months of hostility.
"Chairwoman Hyun Jung-Eun's entourage has informed that they will extend their stay by one day," the group said in a statement. Ms Hyun, whose group pioneered inter-Korean joint business projects, met Mr Kim in 2005 and twice more in 2007 to arrange tours to North Korea. She has now extended her stay four times to try to meet Mr Kim and discuss restarting the tours. * with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse