Accessibility links

Breaking News

North Korea Pursues Charm Offensive in South

Pyongyang has initiated a series of unprecedented goodwill measures to improve relations with South Korea. Recent opinion surveys suggest the campaign is bearing fruit: many South Korean's say they now have a better opinion of their communist neighbor to the north than of long-time ally, the United States.

Diplomats are calling it North Korea's charm offensive - a five-year effort to woo public opinion in South Korea.

Just over a decade ago Pyongyang threatened to firebomb the South's capital, Seoul.

But since then, it has responded to South Korea's policy of engaging with the North. This month, a North Korean delegation paid an unprecedented call on South Korea's National Assembly, one in a series of goodwill gestures during a visit celebrating Korea's August 15 Independence Day.

Kim Ki Nam, the head of the North Korean delegation, said the trip marked the start of a new era in North-South relations.

He says he can feel the wall dividing the two countries coming down. Let us work together, Mr. Kim says, to strengthen ties and reunify the nation.

Talk like that, and such events as joint sports matches and growing cultural contacts are helping improve Pyongyang's image in the South.

It comes at a crucial time, as six-country negotiations to end North Korea's nuclear weapons programs appear to be gaining ground.

China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, North Korea and the United States are to resume the talks in Beijing by the end of this august.

Pyongyang seems to hope that South Korea will support its efforts to retain civilian nuclear reactors, something the United States opposes.

Kang Won Tek is a professor at Soongsil University, where he surveys public opinion on current affairs.

He says North Korea's diplomatic efforts play differently to different audiences. Older people, who remember when the North invaded the South in 1950, starting the Korean War, say they question Pyongyang's commitment to better relations.

But he says many younger South Koreans have an different attitude toward Pyongyang.

Professor Kang says teenagers today do not share their parents' concerns. They grew up taking for granted South Korea's democracy and economic security. For them, he says, North Korea is not a threat, but a poor relative who needs help. For them, reconciliation, not war, is the prevailing attitude.

In Seoul, university student Lin Young Joo says the recent North Korean visit reinforced her good impression of the North.

"I know they are really trying to see us as brothers so I know there will be more progress in the future," he said.

Political analysts say this is precisely what North Korea wants to hear.

For decades, there was almost no contact between North Korea and South Korea - and what little contact they had was generally marked with venomous rhetoric - or gunfire.

Now, slowly but surely, Pyongyang is gaining sympathy in the South, and in the process, weakening public support for hard-line, anti-communist politicians in Seoul.

According to one recent survey, more than 60 percent of all South Koreans believe their government should cooperate with North Korea.

Among younger people, the figure is even higher: 65 percent say they would support North Korea, even in a conflict pitting Pyongyang against South Korea's long-time ally, the United States.

Policy experts say the United States will likely continue to lose ground in the battle for public opinion.

Lee Sang-Hyun directs the Sejong Institute's Security Studies Program in Seoul. He says North Korea can appeal to the younger generation's sense of nationalism and cultural kinship.

The United States, by contrast, has fewer tools at its disposal. It lacks the cultural ties, and many Koreans deeply resent the presence of U.S. military bases in the South. And, as relations with North Korea improve, fewer people in the South feel they need Washington's protection from the Stalinist state.

Mr. Lee says that for the alliance to survive, Washington must convince younger South Koreans that there is still common ground between the two countries.

"The U.S. government should frankly explain their genuine intentions - their goal is not strictly removal of the North Korean regime but to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction," he said.

The United States has already tried to lower its profile in South Korea. Washington hopes such moves as shifting troops away from Seoul and cutting its forces will temper some criticism.

The United States' major concern is that Seoul continues to support efforts to end North Korea's nuclear programs.

The North says it has built nuclear bombs, in violation of several past international pledges to remain free of such weapons. Washington not only is concerned that North Korea could use the bombs, but also is worried that Pyongyang may sell nuclear weapons to other countries or to terrorist groups.

Mr. Lee says it is unlikely public opinion will influence the outcome of the coming nuclear talks. But in the future, he says, a younger generation of South Korean politicians, inspired not by memories of civil war but dreams of reunification, could take office, and permanently change the relationship with Washington.