A lesson from her fatherNorth Korea’s nuclear war threat is escalating. Pyongyang even declared that it would nullify the inter-Korean nonaggression agreement and scrap the armistice. Two generations after the 1950-53 Korean War, claims that the armistice is dead and the nuclear threats mean that the two pillars of the Korean Peninsular peace - the truce and a non-nuclear Korea - are in pieces on the ground.
The peninsula is home to the highest level of nuclear tension in the world. This can be seen as its second nuclear crisis after the elevated nuclear tension right after the Chinese intervention in the Korean War. What has that unprecedented tragedy taught Koreans about peace and life? Why are we facing a critical nuclear threat after the end of the cold war and in an era of globalization and democratization?
North Korea claims that it only pursued nuclear armaments because of threats from the United States and that it would have already been invaded if it did not have those nuclear weapons. But that’s groundless. Even when the North did not have nuclear weapons, it never sauffered military aggression by the United States and the South. Especially when North Korea was isolated as a result of the collapse of socialism, Washington and Seoul tried to embrace Pyongyang through engagement instead of attacking. In fact, the nuclear program of North Korea actually resulted in heightened military tension and a sense of crisis.
It’s about time we look into the core of the nuclear issue. We cannot give up on any avenue to peace on the peninsula, including prevention of the war, denuclearization, improvement in inter-Korean relations and North Korea’s entry into the international community and transition to a normal nation. Behind the nuclear issue of the past two decades is the isolation of North Korea and the collapse of its economic fortunes after the dissolution of the communist bloc. Another crucial factor is the longest sanctions by the United States in history - since June 30, 1950. The growing gap between the national strength of the South and the possibility of unification by absorption also encouraged the temptation to rely on nuclear arms as a last resort to defend the system. In the end, breaking the equation in which nuclear arms actually protect its system is the key to solving the problem.
Here, we need to illuminate how the United States resolved issues with the Soviet Union, China, East Germany and Vietnam. They either went to war against the U.S., have nuclear weapons or are a divided nation, and these factors are in common with the North Korean issue. The key to solving the problem is not these common factors but the differences. Those countries are different from North Korea in their improved relationship with America. Similar stories can be found with Ukraine, South Africa and Libya.
Therefore, we need to refer to the courses taken by the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam and East Germany. The clues for resolving the North Korean issue can be found in the alleviation of confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union and its reform and opening, normalization of U.S.-China relations and the opening of China, improvement in U.S.-Vietnam relations after the Vietnam War, resolution of the East German issues and the reunification of Germany.
America had a full-scale war against Vietnam but still actively pursued rapprochement. And the normalization was accomplished within one generation. Washington successfully normalized relations with Beijing without hurting the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, and that is a truly meaningful precedent in the three-way relationship among the U.S., North Korea and South Korea.
However, hostile relations have continued with North Korea for two generations. South Korea built diplomatic ties with China and Russia more than 20 years ago but North Korea has yet to establish relationships with America or Japan. The failure in improving international relations reveals the aggravated international environment concerning Korean issues. We should ask ourselves whether a post-cold war, pre-nuclear North Korea was more threatening than the Soviet Union, China, East Germany or Vietnam, and whether it was the best strategy to give up a golden opportunity to establish American, Japanese and South Korean missions in Pyongyang and vice versa.
If President Park Geun-hye can selectively learn from the Park Chung Hee era how to approach the North Korea problem, she needs to consider the integration of dialogue and protest, peace and security, the United States and North Korea, the nationalistic approach and the international approach. In the 1960s, a security crisis escalated as a result of military reinforcement in the North, its attempted attack on the Blue House, the armed penetration in Uljin and Samcheok and the abduction of the USS Pueblo.
But her father avoided a direct military response and attempted a change in the fundamentals of the inter-Korean relations.
After surpassing North Korea’s economic capacity, Park promoted the Declaration of Peaceful Unification in 1970, the Red Cross meeting proposal in 1971, the July 4 Joint Statement in 1972 and the June 23 Foreign Policy for Peaceful Unification in 1973.
Going back to the core of the problem, the international community needs to learn from the precedents of the Soviet Union, China, East Germany and Vietnam and actively pursue improvement in relations to resolve the nuclear crisis. Moreover, Seoul should avoid any direct military response and prevent a war to prepare a grand journey toward peace and unification of our divided land.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a politics professor at Yonsei University and a visiting professor at Free University of Berlin.
by Park Myung-lim