x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

South Korea softens stance towards north

Leader of South Korea may be considering his legacy with North Korea as the end of his presidential term nears.

BEIJING // In signs of a softer attitude towards its northern neighbour, South Korea is sending medicine for North Korean children and has stopped balloon-drops of propaganda leaflets.

Analysts say South Korean President Lee Myung-bak is echoing a shift in public sentiment after two deadly confrontations between the countries last year and may be looking to his own legacy as his term nears an end.

Tensions increased last year after the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, an event blamed on Pyongyang, and the shelling in November by North Korea of the south's Yeonpyeong Island, killing four people.

Now, the South Korean authorities are sending Hepatitis B vaccines for more than a million children to North Korea, the first such shipments in more than a year.

And Seoul's Yonhap news agency last week quoted a military source saying troops have not sent leaflets attached to balloons into North Korea for several months. The country began leadlet drops after the Yeonpyeong shelling.

"[Last year] there was a lot of public sympathy for taking a hard line, but it didn't produce results - the north did not apologise," said Brian Bridges, a professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who has written and edited books on Korea.

"This year, the public mood has moved, [there is a belief] that we cannot continue in this situation, so maybe we have to be more flexible."

Mr Lee may be keen for ties to improve because he is interested in organising a summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, suggested Mr Bridges. And as Mr Lee's term ends in 2012, the South Korean leader is considering what his legacy will be.

"Both his predecessors had a summit meeting with Kim Jong-il ... maybe he's thinking, 'Should I try for a summit before I step down?'" said Mr Bridges.

"It's one eye on thinking of his legacy and whether the legacy will be no improvement or a deterioration, or whether in his last year he will be able to do something and bring back a measure of dialogue."

Mr Lee has generally taken a harder line with the north than his two predecessors, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, who promoted the "sunshine policy" encouraging rapprochement.

As well as this week's developments, further signs South Korea has softened its stance towards its northern neighbour include loosening restrictions on visits by aid groups or religious leaders to North Korea.

Last week Pyongyang stepped up its propaganda campaign against South Korea by adding icons linking to Facebook and Twitter on its official Uriminzokkiri website.

This allows readers to share content using the social networking sites, potentially increasing the number of South Koreans who read the material. Although Uriminzokkiri is blocked in South Korea, techno-savvy netizens are able to get around the restrictions.

"The north is being more inventive. It's appreciating there's a lot of scope for getting into South Korea using modern technology," said Mr Bridges.

"The South Korean society is one of the most wired in the world. It doesn't surprise me the north should try to use this."

North Korea, while heavily restricting internet use by its own citizens, has also uploaded multiple pictures to the photo-sharing website Flickr. These show everything from farms to mountain scenery, towerblocks under construction and factories.

 

dbardsley@thenational.ae