[Viewpoint] What can Korea learn from Ireland?My recent essay, “Denuclearization - Korea’s Red Herring,” stirred much discussion. Most reaction was favorable, but there was also some heated controversy. I had a chance to engage at depth with two ambassadors to Korea. Both diplomats were quite familiar, of course, with North and South Korea.
I will try to fairly represent both ambassadors’ perspectives since one man was skeptical and the other was encouraging of my ideas. Readers may draw their own conclusions.
The first ambassador is from Eastern Europe. He began his career under a socialist government and is therefore in a privileged position of viewing North Korea both from the perspective of a once sympathetic ally and from what may now be assumed to be a more balanced vantage point. This ambassador’s argument was that my recommended shift in diplomacy attacks the political ideology of North Korea. In any country, he maintained, “that is the last to go.” In other words, my approach would have to be a nonstarter.
And, in general terms, I’m sure he is right. But negotiators have been tiptoeing around Pyongyang’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of South Korea for some 60 years - roughly the time covered by two complete generations. The obvious question is: given the glacial pace of change in the North, shall we allow for three or four generations to pass before the matter is properly addressed? Meanwhile, be it a red herring or not, the North Korean nuclear program will continue to develop “defensive” weapons capable of wrecking global mayhem should matters get desperately out of hand.
Today’s enlightened perspective, held by many, is to recognize that North Korea is changing. The theory goes that constant exposures to the outside reality are needed to eventually cause internal reform. That approach comes across as entirely sensible. But, this same strategy has been tried for multiple decades, and the results have been and continue to be remarkably uninspiring. It is like different nations and organizations have been building bonfires in front, around and on top of a glacier. These fire builders are quick to point out the minor indentations that have melted away. Yet, when these efforts are viewed in their totality, one is likely to ask, “So what?”
Back in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, there was merit to the current approach. But, the current strategy, to put it kindly, is getting rather long in the tooth. At the same time, there has been little creativity other than to do the same strategy over and over again.
And, I would guess by now, the North Koreans may have caught on to what the West is really up to. The Germans recently closed their Pyongyang branch of the Goethe-Institut upon realizing that the North Korean authorities were intimidating its citizens from entering those facilities.
Some diplomats may declare: “Small sparks of light are better than none in the darkness!” Perhaps so, but I can’t help wondering who is actually fooling who when one party is controlling the entire game.
Before I move on to the second ambassador, I need to relate that other readers noted that the South has never made any public move to formally recognize the North. But, since the end of the military governments, particularly from the time of Kim Dae-jung, there has been open discussion in South Korea about a federation of two governments on the peninsula, which I assume would require mutual recognition. In earlier times, such discussion would have landed advocates in jail. Today, such ideas are openly aired. All of this suggests much greater flexibility on the part of the South Korea’s government.
I had a long discussion over lunch with another EU ambassador. It turns out he spent several years contributing to the successful Northern Ireland peace accord. While I was aware that the accord took several years of negotiations, I was surprised at how long it took to be fully implemented - almost a decade in fact. In other words, peace building is obviously a very difficult and tedious process, but only when an agreement is signed does the real work begin.
The diplomat cautioned about applying lessons from one conflict to another, but said that there were clear lessons learned from the Northern Ireland peace process. In essence, the Northern Ireland peace process was based on multiple, related negotiation tracks done in full concert with each other. All issues were put on the table and addressed. There were negotiations between Catholics and Protestants; Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; and the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland. The U.S. played a critical broker role as a friend to all parties. In any event, no one negotiation tracks could have ever been truly successful without the successful conclusions of the other two.
In all three tracks, the cornerstones were mutual respect and prolonged meetings leading to personal friendships and empathy, all of which led to mutual acceptance and understanding. But, without achieving these qualities, ancillary issues could not be effectively addressed.
If we may learn from the Irish example, what could be possible?
First, there needs to be an open discussion, such as in forums jointly sponsored by South Korea, the EU and the U.S. to discuss whether a similar approach may work with the North. Rather than focus on resulting issues such as human rights and nuclear proliferation at six-party talks, perhaps multitrack negotiations could be more effective. Confidence building measures would be needed, not least a verifiable freeze on the North Korean nuclear weapons program.
Specifically, there may be the following negotiations: South-North cooperation, which would include humanitarian and commercial matters, bilateral relations, which would address diplomatic and military matters, and Korean foreign relations, which would result in a comprehensive peace treaty involving all parties, including the U.S., the UN, the South and the North. But, it would need to be clear that all three negotiations would have to show substantial progress.
Upon the development and agreement among South Korea and its allies to something similar to the above, this approach would be brought to the UN for further discussion and introduction to North Korea.
To conclude with the obvious, we know what has not been working. Perhaps the powers that be could do better by emulating something that has proven to be successful.
*The writer is president of Soft Landing Consulting in Seoul.
By Tom Coyner