[Outlook]Unification’s changing faceThe Ministry of Unification was on the verge of being closed down but it was decided that it would remain open, and Professor Nam Joo-hong is to be the minister.
How the ministry will change, though, remains uncertain. The working environment has changed, and the organization has been downsized.
Conservatives and liberals will very likely argue over the ideological convictions of the minister-to-be. Conservative forces see him as the right person to fix the North Korea policy, which has been going in the wrong direction for the past 10 years. Liberal forces, however, will resist and say that a figure from the extreme right who wishes for North Korea’s collapse can’t be appointed unification minister.
This is not the first time that controversy has surrounded the status of the Ministry of Unification. In 1969, the office was launched as a government agency, and it has since never had a decent status.
The reasons are various. First of all, the agency was not created with much consideration. The Park Chung Hee administration prioritized economic development over reunification. Meanwhile, North Korea was staging vigorous campaigns for reunification, which made the South’s efforts seem halfhearted in comparison. To remedy this, the South Korean government launched the ministry to show that it was also trying to move forward on the reunification issue. It had a staff of 45 and a budget of 50 million won ($53,000). The agency’s job was to conduct research on North Korea’s situation and not much more.
The feeble status of the agency was elevated when the fifth republic was launched. A department in the central intelligence office that handled dialogue between South and North Korea was transported to the Ministry of Unification, and the department was renamed the office for inter-Korean dialogue. The late Lee Bum-suk, the former minister, persuaded former President Chun Doo-hwan that the central intelligence office is the agency that arrests communists, so if it also handled inter-Korean issues, it would be hard to have a good dialogue with the North.
The Ministry of Unification confirmed its unique status in the sixth republic as well. When Lee Hong-Koo led the ministry, a Korean National Community Reunification Formula was devised. The administration regarded North Korea as a well-intentioned partner and prepared a basic policy for exchange of human resources and goods. A basis for a desirable North Korea policy was prepared.
But the intelligence agency still took charge of dialogue with the North. The Blue House and the intelligence agency led important North Korea policies and the Ministry of Unification played a secondary role.
Since the Kim Dae-jung administration, the Ministry of Unification has come into its own. To implement the former president’s Sunshine Policy, the ministry had to be enhanced.
Because the government was providing North Korea with aid in every sector, the ministry in charge of this had to grow. The Ministry of Unification grew even bigger because the Roh Moo-hyun administration decided to help North Korea with unconditional material aid and institutional support. The ministry now has a staff of 550 and a budget of 130 billion won.
The Ministry of Unification has taken on more duties, but problems have begun to surface. It confused the goals and means of reunification. Support to North Korea is a means for reunification, but the ministry made it a goal. The ministry got anxious and nervous if North Korea did not respond to its suggestions for dialogue.
The ministry tried its best not to upset Pyongyang. It criticized the United States more and North Korea less. As a result, the ministry has lost support from South Koreans and was on the verge of being shut down.
The Ministry of Unification’s failure to take root and shaky foundation after 40 years is a serious problem. The ministry needs to find its direction.
First, it needs to believe that its job is to negotiate with North Korea, which means dialogue is not the only goal. It should be a give-and-take relationship.
Then the ministry needs to hire experts who can handle North Korea so they can negotiate with Pyongyang in confidence.
They also must create a system that controls cooperation between South and North Korea in every sector, such as railways or shipbuilding.
Most importantly, the administration must not use the Ministry of Unification for political purposes. People must believe that the ministry does not blindly side with the North, but skillfully negotiates to protect our national interests.
This is the most important task for the next unification minister.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Ahn Hee-chang
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