[OUTLOOK]The long, hard journey is worth it

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[OUTLOOK]The long, hard journey is worth it

When I studied in West Germany, I felt the indescribable agony of living in a divided country. For my doctoral dissertation about German history before the year 1945, historical records were the most important factor.
In 1945, when Germany was divided, central Berlin became a part of East Germany. The major archives, libraries and museums belonged to East Germany after that.
I had difficulty finding the right references. I even lost sleep over the problem. I felt sad and helpless that I was born in a divided country and studied in another separated nation.
In a communist country, people are not allowed to make copies of documents. I did not know what to do. There was no way for me to go to East Germany. I had nightmares until the night before I received my doctoral degree. In the nightmare, my professor, whom I had always feared, appeared. He threatened that he would annul my degree because I had not consulted East Germany’s documents. The division of a country hurts us and twists our fate, whether we are aware of it or not.
Today is the sixth anniversary of the June 15 Joint Declaration. A four-day celebration event began yesterday. South Korea’s committee for carrying out the declaration organized the event, which will be attended by some 200 delegates from North Korea and around 150 delegates from overseas.
The South Korean committee is a civic group consisting of many members with a variety of political convictions and religious beliefs. Despite such differences, the members are trying to have a dialogue among themselves. This can be seen as a big step forward in the history of our reunification movement.
We need to look at the current situation of inter-Korean relations and the direction we are headed. We have been working hard for the past six years. The majority of South Koreans agree that the two Koreas have started a long journey toward a peaceful co-existence.
Some people in the reunification movement are anxious, saying inter-Korean ties are developing at a slow pace, considering how much Seoul has provided to Pyongyang to enhance the ties.
Meanwhile, Washington might think inter-Korean ties are developing too fast, compared to the current relations between the United States and North Korea. Some experts think Washington might have brought up the issue of North Korea’s counterfeit currency as a way to adjust or slow the development of those ties.
However, one thing is clear. For the past six years, North Korea has been opening its doors and there is no turning back. Trade volume and cooperation between the two Koreas have significantly increased. Although complaints are often made during contacts or negotiations with the North, inter-Korean ties are improving slowly but steadily in the big picture.
However, overheated feelings by extreme groups which stand at both ends on the ideological spectrum may block the improvement.
Although some people still worry about threats by the North and extreme leftists in the South, South Korea’s civil society has developed significantly for the past 20 years. The North Koreans are now exposed to a great deal of information and have a better understanding of the outside world. They have animated debates.
It seems that most South Koreans oppose the withdrawal of the U.S. military in Korea and believe the South Korea-U.S. alliance should remain strong.
Regarding the relocation of the U.S. military base to Pyeongtaek, South Koreans think it is time for them to talk with the United States about details, instead of accepting all the conditions the United States asks for, as it has done in the past.
South Koreans want to talk about transfer fees, transparency in negotiations, strategic flexibility and the possibility of intervention in case of confrontations in East Asia.
When dealing with inter-Korean issues, both the administration and civic groups need to consider these changes in the political environment and people’s enhanced awareness of politics. Provocative remarks or distorted information does no good.
While economic cooperation between North Korea and China has been speeding up recently, that of the two Koreas is going relatively slowly. The other day I saw an interview of the president of a fishery company. He felt helpless to see that many Chinese boats were fishing in North Korea’s waters and that the fish caught by the Chinese was being sold at Incheon, a port city southwest of Seoul.
In the meantime, South Korea produces excessive rice and barley while many North Koreans are starving to death. When dealing with the inter-Korean issues, we need to try to find ways to help our economy in a practical manner.

* The writer is a professor of history at Sungkyunkwan University.

by Chung Hyun-back
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