South Korean politicians play a zero-sum game

A major split exists within the south, between those who sympathise or support engagement with Pyongyang and those who oppose it.

SEOUL // While the most well- known ideological divide on the Korean peninsula is between the communist North and democratic South, another major split exists within the south itself, between those who sympathise or support engagement with Pyongyang and those who oppose it. Known as the "South-South Conflict" , observers say there is no easy solution.

Many in South Korea see the North as their arch-enemy and hope - or even agitate - for its collapse. Others, however, call for unconditional engagement and reconciliation, believing goodwill gestures will eventually be reciprocated by Pyongyang. The former calls the latter "pal gaeng yi" - untrustworthy communists with greater loyalty to the North. The latter accuses the former of being stubborn right-wingers, responsible for elevating tension on the Korean Peninsula over their hardline posture toward Pyongyang.

Most recently, for example, the southern parliament on February 11 passed a North Korean human-rights act, ostensibly aimed at preventing the misappropriation of South Korean food aid to the North. The law stipulates that a commission, within the Ministry for Unification, will prepare and approve new aid plans in North Korea. The point at issue concerns the new limits imposed on the sending of humanitarian aid by the South.

Leftist politicians condemned the law as preventing inter-Korean exchanges and co-operation by limiting humanitarian aid to the North. Right-wing lawmakers railroaded the bill when the left-leaning lawmakers walked out as a sign of protest. President Lee Myung-bak has said in the past the divide within South Korea is an ever greater threat to the country than that posed by the North Korean nuclear programme. He even launched a non-partisan committee for "national harmony".

"The ideological division is widespread across all sectors of the South Korean society from the top political leadership, to their supporters, to lawmakers, and down to the public," said Baek Seung-joo, an analyst at the state-run Korea Institute for Defence Analyses. One major instance highlighting the ideological split in South Korea was the furore surrounding the negotiations the late South Korean president Kim Dae-jung held with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in 2000. While the talks largely reduced tensions between the Koreas and the late Kim was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his work, at home large numbers of southerners consider him a traitorous"pal gaeng yi".

"It's not simple to define what constitutes a 'communist', but Kim certainly crossed the line by being overly keen to help North Korea economically," said a veteran journalist who covers North Korea with a major conservative newspaper. Choi Kyung-hwan, a personal aide to the former president, is infuriated by how his superior was treated. "The former president was someone who was even arrested by the North Korean communists during the Korean War and barely escaped from death," Mr Choi said.

"There are some in South Korea who exploit the ideological divide for political gains," Mr Choi added. In South Korea, the terms "communist", "communist sympathiser", "pro-North Korean" and "leftist" are often blurred. Seoul's economic aid to the North has been a perennial controversy in South Korea. The right argues that the major economic aid doled out to Pyongyang, supplied under the Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-2008) administrations, has actually prevented the collapse of the northern regime, which had already been disintegrating from within. The left responds that such criticism is short-sighted because an economically desperate North Korea might resort to military action.

"The leftists suffer from an excess of imagination, while the rightists suffer from a lack of imagination, in their dealings with North Korea," said Lee Hee-ok, a North Korea analyst at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. Beyond politics, Koreans share the same ethnic and cultural lineage, and while many southerners criticise the North's dismal human-rights record and failed economic policies that starve its people, almost all also feel an affinity to their northern brethren and aspire to national reunification 60 years after the war that divided them.

In a survey, released on Sunday by the Korea Institute for National Unification, a South Korean government-funded think tank, 56 per cent of South Koreans see North Korea negatively as a major security threat, yet almost the same (51 per cent) would prefer "dialogue" as the most desirable policy for the South to choose in dealing with the North. A predominant 87 per cent support a summit between the leaders of the two Koreas to improve relations, which will eventually lead to reunification.