Unification fatePresident-elect Lee Myung-bak’s transition team has decided to shut down the Unification Ministry and merge its functions into the Foreign Ministry. The decision aims to maintain consistency in foreign policy. The idea is to prevent conflicts between the Foreign Ministry and the Unification Ministry like that over South Korea’s position on the UN resolution on human rights in North Korea. The effectiveness of the decision, however, still remains an open question.
Getting rid of the Unification Ministry makes sense in one way: Its practices over the past decade have been unreasonable. The Unification Ministry is modeled after the South-North Basic Agreement, which took effect in 1992. The ministry should have put its best efforts toward implementing the agreement. The ministry should oversee aid to North Korea but it should also consider various options, such as the temporary suspension of inter-Korean talks if the North abuses the assistance program.
The ministry, however, failed to do this. Instead of negotiating the give and take of Seoul’s relationship with Pyongyang, it was busy maintaining a dialogue. It hardly sought national consensus and instead took comfort from the argument of some civic groups that objections to assisting North Korea come only from “anti-unification forces.” It is not a stretch to say that the ministry took a leading role in politicizing inter-Korean relations. That is why some members of the public demanded the ministry be abolished.
Shutting it down, however, could prompt a backlash. The Constitution stipulates that a major duty of the president is to achieve unification, and the decision may stir debate on the symbolic meaning of the ministry.
Delegating North Korean affairs to the Foreign Ministry also fails to meet the spirit of the 1992 agreement, which identified inter-Korean matters as “special internal relations,” not international affairs. There will likely be other repercussions that could deepen the split between conservatives and liberals in the South.
The government needs an office that will perform the Unification Ministry’s functions. It must be determined carefully whether that office should be a ministry. The functions could be reduced by focusing on inter-Korean talks, research on unification and supervision of inter-Korean exchanges, but it is crucial to have a plan so that those tasks will be adequately performed.