Conditions for Continued Inter-Korean Reconciliation

Home > Opinion > Columns

print dictionary print

Conditions for Continued Inter-Korean Reconciliation

Three months have passed since the deeply stirring June 15 Joint Declaration was issued. Looking back over these months, we realize that South Koreans have succumbed to their emotions, rather than keeping their cool. We became wildly excited, for example, over Chairman Kim Jong-il's unprecedented personal appearance to greet President Kim at Pyongyang Airport. We indulged in the fantasy that the South and North had almost become one as we watched the floods of tears shed when the separated families met in August. We even began to delude ourselves that reunification was imminent. However, the greater the initial euphoria, the faster the frustration and disillusionment comes when we do not see results.

Now that the elation surrounding the meetings between members of separated families has abated, we are experiencing a sense of disillusionment and frustration and wondering what was the point of holding such brief reunions. We are now questioning why South Korean abductees and prisoners of war are not being repatriated when unconverted long-term North Korean prisoners have been allowed to return to the North. For that matter, why do we have to pursue such a policy of reconciliation and cooperation with the North when it is giving us nothing in return? Such encounters, signs of reconciliation and exchanges which give rise to a brief emotional impact followed by a prolonged period of remorse, can only have short-term effects. This is why it is time for the government to modulate the speed of inter-Korean rapprochement, not at government level, but on a national scale, and to present a short- and long-term vision for its North Korea policy, emphasizing the need for cool headedness rather than emotion, to paraphrase the words of President Kim Dae-jung.

To that end, I believe that the following several principles must be observed. First, the government must pursue its North Korea policy with a clear perception of what the North is willing to change and what it is not likely to change. Some sectors of South Korean society claim that nothing about the North has changed, but the June 15 Joint Declaration itself was an important change for North Korea. Going against the widespread belief that it would not take steps toward becoming a normal member of the international community, North Korea has normalized relations with the Philippines, Italy and Australia, and Chairman Kim Jong-il visited China for the first time in 17 years to confirm the two countries' bilateral alliance, and even toured a state-of-the-art electronics complex. How did such changes in North Korean behavior come about? These changes were the result of the North's belated realization of the limitations of its autonomous economic system. The North has confirmed that it is beyond its capacity to survive independently, without cooperation and assistance from foreign countries, and particularly without help from the South Korean economy. The recent signs of change from the North can be viewed as an attempt at transforming itself by fostering science and advanced technology as a springboard for economic revival, with financial and technological support from South Korea and China.

Do these changes then signal an attempt to completely transform the North Korean system and pursue reforms and liberalization? It is not likely that the North will go that far. Rather, the current moves signify a change in tactics toward opening its doors to the major powers and introducing new technology into its economy. As yet there are no signs that the North will undertake reforms that would change its political system, or introduce a market economy by changing the fundamentals of its "self-reliant" economy. The key proof of this is the fact that there have been no changes in the system of political rule by the 'Dear Leader', upheld both by the Workers' Party and the people of North Korea. Accordingly, South Korea should actively encourage the North to change whatever aspects of its society it is willing to change, and abandon any groundless expectations or hopes of its changing what it will not change. The government must outline a policy setting the upper and lower limits of expectations for pursuing reconciliation and cooperation with the North.

Second, the government must not let its guard down when dealing with the North. Throughout 1991, the Roh Tae-woo administration worked to conclude the South-North Basic Agreement by resorting to every available strategy. The prime ministers of the two Koreas eventually signed the agreement and as a legal and systemic mechanism, it was the most rational apparatus for paving the way to the reunification of the two Koreas. However, the agreement, which took effect in February of the following year, turned out not to be worth the paper it was written on and never produced any concrete results. The North Korean regime can seemingly stay in power indefinitely, while South Korean governments have a finite lifespan. We therefore had the painful experience of confirming that an inter-Korean agreement reached at government level is liable to end with the termination of the administration that signed it. To prevent the nation from going through such a disappointing experience a second time, the two Koreas must observe systemized principles of reciprocity.

Reciprocity means having South Korean prisoners of war and abductees repatriated when unconverted long-term prisoners are sent to the North. Reciprocity means the implementation of visible tension-easing measures, such as the re-alignment of artillery and weapons of mass destruction currently pointed at the South, if the Kyongui railway is restored and the South transfers advanced technologies to the North by developing an industrial complex in Kaesong. This reciprocity should be based on exchanging economic cooperation for peace and we must therefore implement a North Korea policy that clearly informs the North that developing an industrial park in Kaesong or transferring advanced technologies will be impossible if such an apparatus for reciprocity is not in place.

Finally, President Kim Dae-jung should realize that the engagement policy toward the North is no longer the most important issue. He should know that it is more important for the various sectors of South Korean society to be reconciled with each other. At the moment, President Kim's attention appears to be focused solely on North Korea policies. During the Roh Tae-woo administration when the president was about to return from overseas tours, he often lamented the deplorable state of domestic politics when compared to the outstanding achievements of his foreign diplomacy. President Kim himself might now be bemoaning the state of domestic politics at a time when the results of his foreign policy have been so remarkable. Genuine politics have vanished from South Korea, and the protracted stalemate in the dispute between the government and the doctors is causing the general public much anxiety. The warning signs in the economic sector are also becoming more obvious and there is a prevailing sense of crisis over the possibility of an impending oil shock.

With domestic politics in their current state, public opinion cannot continue to support reconciliation and cooperation with the North indefinitely. More specifically, the general public cannot keep on supporting an engagement policy with North Korea, which on the one hand alienates the opposition leader while on the other making every possible concession to the North. It is now more important than ever that the government resolve the political gridlock, if it is to continue to pursue such a policy toward the North. Even more urgent is the matter of reconciliation between the ruling and opposition parties, something that is necessary for the sake of sustained inter-Korean reconciliation. It is essential for President Kim, the leader of the ruling party, to extend the olive branch first, if only to ensure the continuation of his government's current North Korea policy.

by Kwon Young-bin

More in Columns

China’s thin skin

The Korean War from China’s view

Who’s laughing now?

Fighting Chinese patriotism

The curse of the presidency

Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now