By Zavi Engles
On the surface, it appears that the death of North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong Il will bring little change to the tense and hostile relationship between North and South Korea. Yet, as the world warily focuses on the shift in power occurring in North Korea, only a few media outlets have been paying attention to more subtle shifts occurring in South Korea. Despite their government’s official hard-line policy towards their neighbors of the North, many South Korean citizens have come out to voice their own opinions regarding the matter. Further, other changes, including the recent election of a former activist and human rights lawyer as the mayor of Seoul, as well as the numerous scandals that have damaged the ruling Grand National Party’s popularity, signal that there may be a drastic shift in North-South relations in the coming year.
Within a week of Kim Jong Il’s death, the North Korean state media issued the following statement:“We declare solemnly and confidently that the foolish politicians around the world, including the puppet group in South Korea, should not expect any change from us.”
Though South Korean President Lee Myung-bak addressed the matter with more optimism and discretion, even claiming the regime change was a “new opportunity” for peace, he also ended by saying that South Korea would “thoroughly maintain national security as long as there is a possibility of provocation by the North.” Further, a day after Kim’s death, the South Korean government announced its decision not to send an official delegation to express condolences.
Relations between North and South Korea have been even further strained in recent times due to two military attacks within a year: one on a South Korean warship in 2010 and another one on a border island, both of which were blamed on North Korea. In late 2010, President Lee also ended South Korea’s longstanding Sunshine Policy, which provided unconditional aid to North Korea, and instead attempted to negotiate providing substantial assistance if the late Kim Jong Il would agree to denuclearization (an offer that Kim rejected several times up until his death).
Though both governments have not changed their oppositional stances, some say that this is not necessarily reflective of changes in public opinion, particularly in South Korea. A little over a week after Kim’s death, a group of South Korean activists created a peace memorial displaying Kim with a former South Korean president. The display was dismantled by the police within minutes. Seoul Mayor Park Won-Soon has also stated his disappointment that local governments are not allowed to give condolences to North Korea. Lastly, despite South Korea’s governmental decision not to send official condolences, two women-headed delegations were allowed into North Korea to pay their respects to the former North Korean leader. The first delegation was led by Lee Hee-Ho, the former first lady whose late husband, Kim Dae-jung, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the now-defunct Sunshine Policy. The second was headed by Hyun Jeong-eun, the widow of a former chairman to Hyundai. Both delegations stated that they were visiting in a personal capacity but hoped to see an improvement in North-South Korean relations.
As these and other examples illustrate, there appears to be a great divide between the current official policies of the South Korean government, and what South Korean citizens desire to see change. President Lee’s approval ratings have dropped so low that an unofficial poll indicated that a popular businessman and public intellectual named Cheol-soo Ahn, who is not affiliated with a particular party but has hinted at political aspirations, could win the upcoming presidential elections of 2012. Further, a recent report from the International Crisis Group has stated that “the right in the South is facing the paradox that voters may blame Lee’s tough line for the increased tensions…The North Korean leadership could calculate that rising tensions will push the South Korean electorate towards candidates who favor a more conciliatory policy.” In the days following Kim Jong Il’s death, the official state media vowed that“North Korea would ‘never deal’ with South Korean leader Lee Myung-bak.” Given President Lee and his party’s tanking popularity, as well as the South Koreans’ demonstrated sense of renewed desire for genuine peace talks, it is likely that North Korea will hold to their promise, as they may be negotiating with a very different South Korean government in the near future.