[Viewpoint] Embracing and rejecting change

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[Viewpoint] Embracing and rejecting change

In the month of June, Koreans cannot help thinking about war and peace, our tragic partition and hopes for unification. Even after six decades, our land remains one of the most fortified and scarred territories in the world, with prospects for unification getting more obscure given the evermore ominous clouds looming over inter-Korean relations.

The people on this land wasted 36 years longing for freedom from colonial rule and another 66 years waiting for a unified nation. The past century has exercised our patience and stiffened our perseverance. Nevertheless, we cannot stop re-examining and sharpening our capabilities, resources and strategies in the hope of ending this frustrating status quo of endless confrontation.

In any conflict situation, there are always forces wishing to keep the status quo and others trying to change it. The two Koreas are trapped in such a paradigm.

Both Koreas dream of a unified land, albeit in their respective ways. But pursuing change or resisting it sometimes depends on the demands dictated by history as well as contemporary realities. When it invaded South Korea in June 1950, North Korea undoubtedly sought to conquer the South and unite it under a communist standard. Now, Pyongyang is desperate to keep to itself and put as large a distance between it and the South as possible.

History gives many examples on how autocratic dynasties exploit and abuse national security concerns and their defense forces to keep their grip on power. North Korea is the latest case. It should have taken a historical cue in the early 1990s, when the curtains fell on communism, to modify its system. It missed another historical cue when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping opened and reformed China’s economy. We can hardly expect North Korea to be any more aware now.

North Korea was not entirely oblivious to the historical changes in the early 1990s. It responded positively when South Korea proclaimed a national agenda to pursue cooperation and peace to end the division on the Korean Peninsula in 1988 - the time of our first direct presidential elections and preparations for the Seoul Olympic Games under the banner of East-West harmony.

Since then, the two Koreas have held senior-level talks eight times, and in February 1992 they signed agreements on peace and cooperation as well as denuclearization. They simultaneously joined the United Nations in 1991 in a symbolic joint step toward an eventual unification. But beyond those first few steps, the two sides have gone nowhere.

North Korea may have stopped and turned back, fearful of the cost of changes lying ahead. Its paranoid protectiveness of the totalitarian world it has created overrode any good judgment by its leadership. The sudden death of founder Kim Il Sung, who secretly pursued an exit from the self-seclusion he had created, blew away whatever chances were left for a joint journey.

Despite the fast shift in the postwar global environment, in which dominance by the “hard power” of military force gave way to “soft power,” the influence of economics, innovation and cultural creativity, North Korea stubbornly remained beyond the pale by reinforcing its conventional and nuclear weaponry, as South Korea built up its economy and global reputation.

The gap in the two countries’ international reputations was underscored by the appointment of South Korea’s former foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, as secretary general of the United Nations, and by the United Nations Security Council resolution imposing sanctions on North Korea following its nuclear test. For North Korea, the tense division and confrontation can mask the stark realities on the ground, and keep it from losing face and pride.

China and the United States, for their own separate reasons, also prefer to keep circumstances on the Korean Peninsula unchanged. China is building its status as a superpower and doesn’t want any surprises from the two Koreas. The United States, which has numerous other diplomatic and military engagements, cannot afford to encourage change on the Korean Peninsula.

We are left alone in seeking to end the division and a way toward unification. Looking back on our difficult past, the people on this land won’t shy away from such a demanding historical task.

*The writer is former prime minister and adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.


By Lee Hong-koo
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