Obstacles to Inter-Korean Reconciliation

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Obstacles to Inter-Korean Reconciliation

North Korea appears to have indirectly informed Washington of a change in its perception of the United States Forces in Korea (USFK) at least five years ago. On September 28, 1995, the Joongang Ilbo quoted Selig Harrison, a Washington-based expert on North Korea, in a front-page article under the heading, "North Korea Gives the Nod to USFK's Indefinite Stationing."

Just before the article was published, Harrison made a week-long visit to North Korea where he held unprecedentedly lengthy interviews with then Foreign Minister Kim Yong-nam, First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju and Lee Chan-bok, North Korea's Panmunjom representative to the Military Armistice Commission. After arriving in Tokyo, Harrison told Joongang Ilbo of the message he thought North Korean authorities wanted to deliver to Washington. The message was that North Korea welcomes the expansion of the role of U.S. forces to guarantee security not only in South Korea, but also on the entire Korean peninsula, and that it consents to the indefinite stationing of the USFK in the South.

Washington, however, did not share this information on Pyongyang's change of attitude with the South Korean government. Throughout the 1990s, the South Korean government appears to have implemented its North Korea policy based on the premise that the withdrawal of U.S. forces was the basis of Pyongyang's strategy for survival. As such, it is of paramount significance whether or not the leaders of the two Koreas now finally share a common understanding on the USFK's contribution to the security of the Korean peninsula.

During a recent interview with three TV networks, President Kim Dae-jung stated that the USFK, the federation reunification formula, and the National Security Law used to be the "three obstacles that had stood in the way of inter-Korean relations like an iron wall." All three of these obstacles have now been removed, President Kim declared, and this has paved the way for the easing of tensions, and inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation. Although it sounds somewhat as though he is blowing his own trumpet, this view is close to the truth.

Last month, Chairman Kim Jong-il told a delegation of South Korean media presidents that the revision of the Worker's Party of Korea charter and that of South Korea's National Security Law are two separate issues, and thus made it clear that revision of the National Security Law is not a prerequisite to inter-Korean reconciliation. As for the reunification formula, the June 15 Joint Declaration showed that the two Koreas have began to bridge the divide between their respective views of reunification by specifying a loose form of federation system. As President Kim explained, North Korea had for the last twenty years persistently insisted upon a federation system in which the central government takes charge of foreign policy and national defense. It was an impractical call for a headlong entry into reunification without going through any intermediate stages. During the Pyongyang summit talks, North Korea abandoned its previous position by adopting the expression "a loose form of federation."

Does this mean that all the obstacles to inter-Korean reconciliation have now been removed?

Judging by the behavior North Korea has displayed since the inter-Korean summit talks, it is clear that there are still "impregnable" obstacles: in particular its insincere attitude towards negotiations and ambiguous objectives in the inter-Korean talks. The North Korean side also likes to proceed with the talks just as it pleases. It was a pathetic sight to see the South Korean chief delegate at the latest round of inter-Korean ministerial talks become so flustered over whether or not he would get to meet Chairman Kim. Even after the unconverted long-term prisoners were repatriated to the North to receive a hero's welcome, North Korea continues to deny the existence of any South Korean prisoners of war (POWs) or abductees. As for easing military tensions--the basic condition for building trust--the two Koreas only just managed to reach an agreement on holding defense ministerial talks, propelled in large part by strong public feeling on the issue in the South. Nevertheless, it appears that the military talks will come up against yet more obstacles in the future.

We cannot remain satisfied with the removal of just three obstacles. There must be a clear landmark for gauging the objectives and direction of inter-Korean talks. We must be able to use this landmark as a reference point so that we can monitor what should be forthcoming from the North and when, in return for the fertilizers, food and long-term prisoners being sent by the South. This would signify a grass roots participation in inter-Korean reconciliation. We are aware that the easier issues should be resolved first within the wider framework of a conceptual agreement. However, talks should have a minimal level of formality. Such fundamental human rights-related issues as the repatriation of South Korean abductees and POWs must handled Obstacles to Inter-Korean Reconciliation

By Kim Young-hee

North Korea appears to have indirectly informed Washington of a change in its perception of the United States Forces Korea (USFK) at least five years ago. On September 28, 1995, the Joongang Ilbo quoted Selig Harrison, a Washington-based expert on North Korea, in a front-page article under the heading, "North Korea Gives the Nod to USFK's Indefinite Stationing."

Just before the article was published, Harrison made a week-long visit to North Korea where he held unprecedentedly lengthy interviews with then Foreign Minister Kim Yong-nam, First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju and Lee Chan-bok, North Korea's Panmunjom representative to the Military Armistice Commission. After arriving in Tokyo, Harrison told Joongang Ilbo of the message he thought North Korean authorities wanted to deliver to Washington. The message was that North Korea welcomes the expansion of the role of U.S. forces to guarantee security not only in South Korea, but also on the entire Korean peninsula, and that it consents to the indefinite stationing of the USFK in the South.

Washington, however, did not share this information on Pyongyang's change of attitude with the South Korean government. Throughout the 1990s, the South Korean government appears to have implemented its North Korea policy based on the premise that the withdrawal of U.S. forces was the basis of Pyongyang's strategy for survival. As such, it is of paramount significance whether or not the leaders of the two Koreas now finally share a common understanding on the USFK's contribution to the security of the Korean peninsula.

During a recent interview with three TV networks, President Kim Dae-jung stated that the USFK, the federation reunification formula, and the National Security Law used to be the "three obstacles that had stood in the way of inter-Korean relations like an iron wall." All three of these obstacles have now been removed, President Kim declared, and this has paved the way for the easing of tensions, and inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation. Although it sounds somewhat as though he is blowing his own trumpet, this view is close to the truth.

Last month, Chairman Kim Jong-il told a delegation of South Korean media presidents that the revision of the Worker's Party of Korea charter and that of South Korea's National Security Law are two separate issues, and thus made it clear that revision of the National Security Law is not a prerequisite to inter-Korean reconciliation. As for the reunification formula, the June 15 Joint Declaration showed that the two Koreas have began to bridge the divide between their respective views of reunification by specifying a loose form of federation system. As President Kim explained, North Korea had for the last twenty years persistently insisted upon a federation system in which the central government takes charge of foreign policy and national defense. It was an impractical call for a headlong entry into reunification without going through any intermediate stages. During the Pyongyang summit talks, North Korea abandoned its previous position by adopting the expression "a loose form of federation."

Does this mean that all the obstacles to inter-Korean reconciliation have now been removed?

Judging by the behavior North Korea has displayed since the inter-Korean summit talks, it is clear that there are still "impregnable" obstacles: in particular its insincere attitude towards negotiations and ambiguous objectives in the inter-Korean talks. The North Korean side also likes to proceed with the talks just as it pleases. It was a pathetic sight to see the South Korean chief delegate at the latest round of inter-Korean ministerial talks become so flustered over whether or not he would get to meet Chairman Kim. Even after the unconverted long-term prisoners were repatriated to the North to receive a hero's welcome, North Korea continues to deny the existence of any South Korean prisoners of war (POWs) or abductees. As for easing military tensions--the basic condition for building trust--the two Koreas only just managed to reach an agreement on holding defense ministerial talks, propelled in large part by strong public feeling on the issue in the South. Nevertheless, it appears that the military talks will come up against yet more obstacles in the future.

We cannot remain satisfied with the removal of just three obstacles. There must be a clear landmark for gauging the objectives and direction of inter-Korean talks. We must be able to use this landmark as a reference point so that we can monitor what should be forthcoming from the North and when, in return for the fertilizers, food and long-term prisoners being sent by the South. This would signify a grass roots participation in inter-Korean reconciliation. We are aware that the easier issues should be resolved first within the wider framework of a conceptual agreement. However, talks should have a minimal level of formality. Such fundamental human rights-related issues as the repatriation of South Korean abductees and POWs must handled with greater priority than the restoration of the Kyongui railway or food aid.

by Kim Young-hei

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