South Korean president Lee Myung-bak's North Korea policy has been drastically different from that of his predecessor's conciliatory policy that involved giving unconditional aid to the North. Lee's policies are more vigorous and he believes that aid must be tied to progress on the North's denuclearization. Lee has also joined the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which the previous liberal government declined to entertain out of fear of straining bilateral ties with its northern neighbor.
This has in turn angered the North Korean government, which in a tit-for-tat gesture, discarded the armistice treaty that ended the Korean War, and constantly barraged the incumbent South Korean President with insults on national television broadcasts. Though it seems that the South Korean President was flirting with a second Korean War, he appears determined to stay the course. Lee believes his policy will bring an end to North Korea's nuclear ambition and, despite the negative image he is gaining, that he will come out the victor.
Until now, North Korea's constant threat of military retaliation to Lee's hawkishness has not materialized. Lee has constantly repeated the denuclearization of the North is the only policy that will work. What he wants more than anything else is to replace the "Sunshine policy" with his own "Denuclearisation, Openness, 3000" idea.
Now, despite the South Korean president's pledge to keep pressurizing the North, he has thrown in a new deal which includes mutual cuts in conventional arms. This represents a different stance from his usual confrontational policy. It seems that Lee is getting a bit desperate, as he made this announcement after former US president Bill Clinton secured the release of the two American journalists.
The meeting between Kim Jong-il and Bill Clinton may open up negotiations for nuclear disarmament, which is good news for South Korea but bad news for president Lee. By almost bringing the Korean peninsula to the brink of war, Lee has yet to prove to his people that his method was the only way of bringing North Korea to the negotiating table.
However, if the US administration acquires a concession from the North, the South Korean conservative administration will take a deadly blow -- especially President Lee. Lee is starting to realize that the North is not going to budge and that the longer North Korea holds out, the more the US will take the initiative without involving South Korea.
With the Bill Clinton meeting as background, US president Barack Obama may signal that the US is moving in a new direction. Lee is now forced to make a desperate attempt to get North Korea back to the negotiating table on his terms. His offer of raising North Korea's GDP and the promise of massive economic and humanitarian aid seems to have left the leadership in Pyongyang unfazed.
North Korea seems more insulted by Lee's offer and may now sense the opportunity to press him to take a more softer line without losing his image of being stern with North Korea. Most probably, Lee will not take reconciliatory steps, as this will harm his image as one who goes back on his promises. But circumstances may force him to soften his line as a part of adding incentives to his "Denuclearisation, Openness, 3000" scheme.
So far, Lee's plans to add cuts in conventional arms have not found a receptive audience in Pyongyang. Lee could add some more incentives, but it seems that unless his willing to return to a 'Sunshine policy"-like stance, he will not get any purchase with the North. But going that far would mean admitting that his North Korea policy for so long was a complete failure.