[Viewpoint] Ending ‘hostile coexistence’

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[Viewpoint] Ending ‘hostile coexistence’

A few days ago, President Lee Myung-bak said at a presidential advisory panel on unification that he believed cooperation between the two Koreas to be possible despite differences between the two governments. Though he did not explicitly mention such aspirations in his Liberation Day address, his comment evokes anticipation that the president may be gearing up for changes in inter-Korean relations, which have been in deadlock for a while.

At present, we have not been able to deviate from the zero-sum game of all or nothing in our relationship with North Korea. Lee’s reverse thinking is a refreshing shock.

Of course, the president was wary of being misinterpreted. He may not want to be seen as speaking like Winston Churchill, a hardliner, but acting like Neville Chamberlain, who is known for his appeasement policy with Nazi Germany.

Still, we have reason to pay attention to Lee’s statement. He may be able to turn the zero-sum game into a win-win relationship with North Korea.

When former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who left the White House 11 years ago, was asked to give advice to his successor, he strongly recommended “reverse social Darwinism.” He proposed that the next leader seek a way for everyone to win, not the survival of the fittest. Following this advice, approaching problems from the win-win point of view, not win or lose, could help prevent zero-sum deadlock.

It is too early to determine if Lee’s idea will develop into reverse social Darwinism. Creating productive dialogue with North Korea is a challenging task that requires resolution of political discord between those supportive of the idea and those adhering to principles. Moreover, both ideology and pragmatism need to be considered in the course of the policy making.

The United States is similarly troubled over its relationship with North Korea. Washington has yet to decide whether to remain strategically patient with the North or opt for a change. So far, strategic patience has not brought much progress.

It is true that the U.S. and the South would face many challenges should they modify their North Korean policies. Most of all, they would have to admit that their existing policies were misguided. Moreover, there is no guarantee that dialogue and appeasement would bring out changes from Pyongyang.

Regardless, though we must remember: Whether we engage in dialogue or not, North Korea may still move to provoke us. Since Pyongyang is going through a sensitive power succession, it wants to maintain a certain level of external tension.

Not so long ago, Dr. James Przystup of the U.S. National Defense University attended a forum on strategic patience in Washington and made a noteworthy proposal. He said there is a need to revise the existing policy of strategic patience in order to facilitate dialogue with North Korea. The reasoning is simple. Under the policy, the threat of nuclear proliferation actually increased and the North grew increasingly frustrated, leading its government to further provoke the South and the U.S.

However, Dr. Przystup was also skeptical of comprehensive appeasement involving economic assistance or peace and prosperity offered by South Korea and the United States because these ideas did not interest the North. He proposed lowering expectations and offering other benefits to the next generation of North Korean leaders such as medicine, education, human exchange and other trust-building exercises.

Just as Dr. Przystup pointed out, Seoul and Washington have been asking North Korea to choose between two options, such as food or weapons. Yet North Korea has been consistently avoiding the alternative choice. While Seoul and Washington emphasized mutual exchange, Pyongyang addressed the psychology of national cooperation. Now we need to seek a way to deviate from the vicious cycle. We need to pay attention to approaches from the bottom such as those within the win-win frame of reverse social Darwinism.

Politicians dislike absence of rhetoric because it spreads allegations and criticism. So people want to know if the way forward in difficult times means strategic modification. It is about time inter-Korean relations get over the game of “hostile coexistence.” Let’s hope that President Lee draws a useful strategic map.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Chang Dal-joong
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