[Viewpoint] A realistic path to reunification

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[Viewpoint] A realistic path to reunification

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter returned from his recent trip to North Korea with a message from Kim Jong-il. The North Korean leader said he wants an inter-Korean summit and urged Seoul to provide his country with food aid. His message has been ignored by policy makers in Seoul and Washington.

There are two reasons why Kim’s request for an inter-Korean summit was rebuffed. First, North Korea has refused to apologize for a series of provocations last year, including the tragic sinking of the Cheonan warship. Seoul cannot believe that Pyongyang is truly sincere about making amends with the South until this apology is made.

Secondly, Seoul does not want to deal with the North through third party actors such as former President Carter. While it appears Carter wishes to promote dialogue between the North and South, Seoul does not believe in talk for talk’s sake. Rather, the Blue House has continuously demanded a substantial change in Pyongyang’s attitude of aggression before both sides meet at the negotiation table.

Whenever the North-South relationship hits a deadlock, self-proclaimed peacemakers always appear out of the blue to propose what they consider clever solutions to the peninsula’s problems. However, these peacemakers rarely try to get to the root of the problem and would rather tackle superficial issues like the immediate resumption of food aid.

How can we expect substantial change from Pyongyang if we forget its past offenses so easily? Seoul must counter these peacemakers’ offers with realistic blueprints for concrete objectives that can be carried out one by one.

If North and South Korea are to one day be reunited, we should work toward shared human rights values and welfare. In order to accomplish that goal, Seoul must take the initiative to push Pyongyang toward adopting a liberal democratic political system and a market economy.

I believe that a Seoul-led reunification plan would include four phases. The first phase involves the present two states and two divergent political and economic systems. The second phase will feature the emergence of an open and reformist regime in the North. The third phase will involve integrating the new political and economic systems in the North with the South. While in the last phase, both countries will be reunited under a liberal democratic and open market system.

It is difficult to predict how long these four phases will take. As we have seen in Eastern Europe, nations can quickly go from socialist or communist systems to more democratic and market-oriented ones. On the other hand, North Korea might take the route of China and Vietnam and become open more gradually.

If North Korea refuses to open up, Seoul’s efforts to improve inter-Korean relations will naturally be limited. A meaningful reunification process can only be initiated once a reformist regime takes power in the North.

But government insiders say the Blue House already has a detailed plan to encourage the government in the North should a power vacuum occur.

The most important stage of the North-South reunification process will be the third one, when the governments and economies of the two countries are integrated. This will be an exciting period for entrepreneurs in the South who will be able to fully access the natural and human resources of the North for the first time.

If a friendly regime comes into power in the North, the reunification process would be much simpler and cheaper than if a closed government continues to rule. If Pyongyang takes the initiative to provide its citizens with a proper safety net and human rights protections, integration with the South will be smooth.

We must remember that reunification will not simply come about through increased dialogue between the two countries. The North and South have been at war for over 60 years and there is much shared history to be resolved. South Koreans cannot forget the deaths of the Cheonan sailors or the soldiers and civilians on Yeonpyeong Island at the hands of North Korean soldiers. Furthermore, there are long-standing issues of abduction and past aggressions to be resolved.

Yet, if the Blue House shows that it is determined to bring about reunification through a realistic and detailed plan, South Koreans will support improving relations with Pyongyang. There is much work to be done and President Lee Myung-bak and the National Assembly should lead the way. Historically, unification has always been completed through the efforts of insightful and determined leaders.

*The writer is the director of the North Korean Research Center at the Korea Institute for National Unification.

By Choi Jin-wook
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