[viewpoint] After 60 years of cease-fire

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[viewpoint] After 60 years of cease-fire

On July 27, 1953, the two Koreas, under international mediation, laid down their arms and signed an armistice agreement to put a halt to the three-year bloody war. Next year will mark the 60th year since the two Koreas have been at war without a peace treaty. The deadly attacks on the South Korean naval ship Cheonan and the island of Yeonpyeong underscore the fragility of the cease-fire arrangement. We should look back on our twisted six decades to use the momentum to replace animosity and tension with lasting peace and reunification.

This year could provide a watershed on the Korean Peninsula with new leadership in many nations. North Korea has a new, seemingly eager young leader, Kim Jong-un, and Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin returned to a third term as president. China’s Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to take over the presidency after President Hu Jintao steps aside in the country’s once-a-decade political transition this fall and the United States and South Korea elect presidents in November and December, respectively. Japan may hold a snap election to replace the Lower House of the Diet within the year.

This rare synchronized leadership change in six countries with stake in the Korean Peninsula could signal a turning point in their common interest in geopolitical issues. A breakthrough in the Korean issue could also prevent the danger of a post-cold war contest between the United States and China, which are already showing signs of tension. Having lost the momentum in turning the course toward unification during the last historical turning point 20 years ago, when the ideological warfare between the powers of the U.S-led Western societies and the communist world ended, we must take a more aggressive posture so as not to miss a valuable second opportunity.

The people, political parties and presidential candidates getting ready for leadership roles should unite and focus on devising a new policy on unification to maintain a leading role in reunifying our land. A successful and effective unification policy that can draw support from home and abroad can only be possible based on a broad consensus among differing political powers. Germany has already set a model example of political unity with its successful reunification. Instead of a clamorous debate, politicians should work on a discreet, detailed and productive road map.

For ideas, they should look back on the trajectory of South Korean politics on inter-Korean relations over the last two decades. In 1989, South Korea drew up guidelines for the peaceful coexistence of the two states for eventual unification based on public and political consensus. The basic idea was to acknowledge a two-state system in one nation, with South and North Korea both working toward an incremental establishment of a single nation.

Fortunately, North Korea responded positively and in 1991 signed the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement on reconciliation, nonaggression, exchanges and cooperation as well as a joint declaration on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The two Koreas drew international support by joining the United Nations together. North Korea’s nuclear campaign escalated into a near state of war until former U.S. President Jimmy Carter met with North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in June 1994 and helped to work out a nuclear deal, which led to the two leaders of the Koreas to meet in Pyongyang.

At the time, the two Koreas were under pressure to join the global trend of ending ideological warfare after Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Chinese President Deng Xiaoping changed the course of world history through opening their countries to economic and, in Russia’s case, political reforms. But that course was upset by Kim Il Sung’s sudden death on July 8, 1994. Over the following 18 years, the two Koreas kept up their love-hate relationship and the new leaderships coming to power soon will need a new framework for inter-Korea relations to work toward any kind of peaceful unification.

North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong-un hopefully has inherited his grandfather’s aspirations to open and reform the country, and the newly elected South Korean president should take an aggressive initiative on unification policy. Aspiring presidential candidates are advised to pay heed to a broad pool of suggestions, including some of creative ideas floated by the Korean Peninsula Forum reported in a July 24 article in the JoongAng Ilbo.

Inter-Korean relations can move forward only through dynamic breakthroughs like endorsements of North Korea’s normalizing ties with the U.S. and Japan, North Korea’s complete dismantling of its nuclear weapons program to balance out the military capacity of the two Koreas and comply with international demands. Then the armistice can be replaced with a lasting peace treaty. We hope the new president will be ready to declare an innovative policy on unification on July 27 next year at the ceremony commemorating the 60th year of the cease-fire.

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

by Lee Hong-koo
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