[Viewpoint] When the North sought to change

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[Viewpoint] When the North sought to change

All living beings, without exception, are caught in the flow of time. A civilization and country can prosper, stagnate or fall depending on how it copes with the changes and challenges amid the flow, wrote British historian Arnold Toynbee in “A Study of History,” published in 1961.

Even such a sage could not have imagined that the bisecting of the Korean Peninsula, a result of World War II and the struggle between the communist and noncommunist world, would go on for 66 years. Tension has only mounted since last year on the world’s most fortified border, gripping the Korean people with an unknowable anxiety that something bad could happen this year or next.

Koreans tasted the joy of liberation from Japanese rule in 1945, but it was brief because they split into two over ideological differences and to pursue different destinies.

The contrast is too manifest to even ask which was more successful. North Korea, choosing to stagnate during the rapid changes of the post-Cold War era and to ignore globalization, fell further and further behind in the race for viability against the neighboring South.

In a desperate attempt to stay in the race and upset the widening imbalance with the South, the next move from North Korea - as claimed by Michael Green, the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, in a recent contribution to the JoongAng Ilbo - “will not be dialogue, but another provocation.”

North Korea has not always resisted calls for change. On July 25, 1994, the leaders of the two Koreas had planned to hold their first summit in Pyongyang. After South Korea reached a national consensus to build mutual trust with North Korea, the two sides held eight rounds of senior-level talks and signed in 1991 an agreement on reconciliation, nonaggression, exchanges and cooperation as well as a joint declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, placing the two Koreas on the same path toward peaceful unification.

Both joined the United Nations, displaying maturity and the ability to co-exist as separate members of the global community. But North Korea’s obsessive and sneaky pursuit of nuclear weapons led to its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1993, casting dark clouds over the Korean Peninsula.

Things briefly looked brighter when North Korean leader Kim Il Sung met with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter in June 1994 and displayed an interest in an inter-Korean summit. Kim hinted that Pyongyang could finally address the changes in international affairs, join in them, and push bilateral ties with Seoul and Washington to new levels.

A shrewd leader like Kim could not have missed the remarkable changes occurring in the world in the early 1990s: the breakup of the Soviet Union, the independence and democratization of Eastern European nations, and Deng Xiaoping’s epoch-making reforms that opened China to the world at large.

Pyongyang might have figured that the first-ever inter-Korean summit would demonstrate its intention to join the bandwagon to choose a new path for the future. We will never know what North Korea and the Korean Peninsula would look like today if Kim didn’t suddenly die just 17 days ahead of the scheduled summit meeting.

North Korea will commemorate the centennial of the birth of their founding leader Kim next year. I hope the current leadership will pay heed to the old adage, “One must change when desperate, and can discover a new path upon change” and revive the will and courage to push forward to a new and totally different future.

Every country dreams of becoming powerful. But gone are the days when a country can gain power internationally merely by showing off military muscle. Today, a nation’s strength is determined by its so-called soft power, which comes from its economy, technology and creativity.

The lives of North Korean residents have turned from bad to worse since Kim’s death 17 years ago - not because of waning military power but due to a lack of soft power. Returning to the common path of other nations on our globe, which Kim once envisioned, is the only way North Korea can overcome its current difficulties and ensure regional peace and prosperity.

South Korea is thoroughly committed to keeping the peace with North Korea, even as it visualizes unification and can only be deeply concerned about human rights and the welfare of North Koreans. We must exercise creativity and seek another chance to build a unified community on this land. A dramatic declaration of change by North Korea could be the tipping point.

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

By Lee Hong-koo
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