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After A Chill, Signs Of A Warming Trend In Koreas

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After A Chill, Signs Of A Warming Trend In Koreas

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After A Chill, Signs Of A Warming Trend In Koreas

After A Chill, Signs Of A Warming Trend In Koreas

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/129912132/129985493" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Near the border village of Panmunjom on Wednesday, South Korean kindergartners look at North Korea through a barbed-wire fence decorated with messages wishing for the reunification of the two Koreas. Ahn Young-joon/AP hide caption

toggle caption Ahn Young-joon/AP

Near the border village of Panmunjom on Wednesday, South Korean kindergartners look at North Korea through a barbed-wire fence decorated with messages wishing for the reunification of the two Koreas.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

A thaw seems to be emerging between the two Koreas, just six months after Seoul blamed Pyongyang for sinking a South Korean warship. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak came to power in 2008 talking tough about North Korea, but now he appears to be taking a softer line.

Amid widespread discontent, South Korea is struggling to find the right course of action to deal with its dangerous neighbor.

“Korea's 9/11” is how people describe the sinking of the South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March. As family members grieved, the nation shared its shock at the deaths of 46 sailors. A North Korean torpedo was blamed for the attack, which cut the vessel in two, though Pyongyang denied it was responsible.

In retaliation, South Korea froze an inter-Korean maritime agreement and cut off economic aid. It also demanded an apology before six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament could be restarted.

A South Korean truck driver checks sacks of flour bound Thursday for North Korean flood victims. Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

A South Korean truck driver checks sacks of flour bound Thursday for North Korean flood victims.

Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Images

Six months later, there has been no apology, yet ties are slowly and surely being rebuilt

Pragmatism Trumps Principle

The North Korean Red Cross offered to hold reunions for separated family members, says Daniel Pinkston, northeast Asia deputy director for the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization devoted to resolving deadly conflict.

“This is a humanitarian issue in the South. It’s almost impossible to reject this offer, so this could be the beginning of the thaw in relations,” he says.

Pinkston describes the South Korean government as being “on a slippery slope,” steadily watering down its demands for an apology.

“We see now a willingness already for South Korea to de-link the Cheonan sinking and the denuclearization issue,” he says.

South Korea has just announced it is sending $8.5 million of economic aid to the flood-stricken North. The government also has approved a second tranche of aid by local groups. North Korea is now requesting working-level military talks with the South, according to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency.

That’s just the latest in a series of conciliatory gestures, which includes North Korea's release of the crew of a South Korean fishing boat.

Instead of tough talk, pragmatism appears to be trumping principle.

Columnist Jeong Woo-sang writes in South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper: “North Korea, the attacker, is keeping silent and the people of the country that was attacked are demanding that the incident be forgotten.”

Connected Like Twins

South Korea has made this kind of abrupt reversal after North Korean provocations in the past, driven partly by ethno-nationalism — the shared Korean identity — and fraternal ties between North and South Korea.

“They are connected like conjoined twins; they can’t go away,” Pinkston says. “So these are their brothers, they have to deal with them. It’s difficult for people to understand how and why the South and North Koreans will suddenly return to these interactions, and it seems like this complete reversal, which might seen irrational or illogical, but it’s connected to that.”

Others believe that South Korea’s president is also motivated by the hand of history on his shoulder.

“The policy of South Korea toward North Korea over the past 2 1/2 years was just doing nothing, a non-action policy. It was totally unbelievable,” says Paik Hak-soon of the independent Sejong Institute think tank.

“If [President Lee Myung-bak] continues the policy he has pursued until now, he’ll be recorded in history as the president who just failed in his policy toward North Korea,” Paik says.

In Seoul, there is widespread discontent with the government’s handling of the Cheonan incident.

The initial response was marked by PR blunders, including angry confrontations between civil servants and the relatives of the victims, official obfuscation and delays in retrieving sunken parts of the ship. This has bred such widespread public mistrust that surveys show just three in 10 people believe the government's final report blaming North Korea for torpedoing the boat.

The ruling party has been punished, too; it had a poor showing in local elections in June. Some voters were angered by its previous hawkish stance; others by the recent gestures toward the North.

“After North Korea crossed the red line by so much, we shouldn’t give them rice aid,” says Shin Hyun-cheol, a 25-year-old night-shift worker sitting near a small cobbler's shop in Seoul. “We should be asking them for proper compensation, but this government isn’t doing that.”

A customer at the shop, Kim In-e, favors the government keeping a certain distance from North Korea.

“Before, with the 'sunshine policy' of engagement, it used to be so one-sided,” she says, referring to South Korea's official policy of measured political and commercial engagement with the North in place before Lee was elected president in 2008.

Rapprochement Holds Danger

Paik believes policy toward the North has been pulled in two conflicting directions. He says the official policy — of symbiosis and co-prosperity with the North — is undermined by a "hidden agenda," which he believes is the idea that North Korea could collapse at any moment.

"This is a very serious problem in South Korean policy toward North Korea," he says, adding that it has resulted in a lack of progress.

Yet the current rapprochement holds dangers, too. As Workers' Party delegates convene in Pyongyang, North Korea is believed to be about to undergo a politically risky transition of power, and it may wish to divert attention away from domestic failures and provide a rallying point to counter badly dented morale.

Given the lack of long-lasting punitive measures from the South, there are fears Pyongyang could be tempted to stage more military provocations in future.

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