Look at the Ireland model

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Look at the Ireland model

Is it deja vu all over again - or are we at a genuine crossroads in intra-Korean relations?

For the first time in more than a decade, South Korea has been able to gain the psychological high ground over North Korea. But the question remains of what can the South do from that position?

The North Koreans have asked for negotiations with the South at a time and venue of Seoul’s choosing. The level of negotiations wasn’t clear from the start and once again we saw the usual bickering setting in from both sides. This looks all too familiar: some kind of “breakthrough” followed by squabbling that makes any kind of advance appear to be a sham.

While the differences between Ireland and Korea are obvious and need not be belabored, the negotiated strategy that resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which finally brought peace to that divided European nation, is worth considering.

Discussing the Irish peace process with current Irish ambassador to Korea, Eamonn McKee, who worked extensively on the negotiation and implementation of that accord, I realized that many of us have been looking at the possible road to peaceful reunification in a backward fashion.

Specifically, many diplomats and observers have presumed that once the major problems between the two Koreas are resolved, a comprehensive peace treaty may be possible with both sides recognizing the shared legitimacy of the two governments on the peninsula. In reality, over the decades, the two nations have stumbled from one crisis and setback to another, making many people doubt - for good cause - that the nation will ever be reunited.

In the case of Ireland, a reversed strategy took place. First of all, Northern Ireland (including the U.K.) and the Republic of Ireland established the legitimacy of both parties in each other’s eyes. That required the Republic of Ireland to amend its constitution to remove an unambiguous territorial claim on Northern Ireland. In exchange, Dublin received a working intergovernmental framework where the same representatives from both states would meet regularly to implement an agreed agenda of cross-border cooperation.

Given the lack of formal, mutual recognition by the Korean states, much of the peace process burden has fallen unfairly upon the South’s private and NGO sectors. As a result, the South’s government abrogates its fundamental responsibility to represent its citizens.

Meanwhile, the North keeps its citizenry on wartime footing, justifying its draconian rule on a myth that America’s puppet government will send troops north of the DMZ.

South Korea’s “Sunshine Policy” avoided the issue of getting some kind of mutual recognition by the two nations. Consequently, the lack of critical recognition created a multitude of problems that were too often foisted upon the private sector for resolution.

McKee says without a formal inter-governmental structure in place, “diplomatically, Korea has to approach each new issue as if for the first time.” In other words, Korea is a diplomatic Wild West, where the two nations go out onto the main street and shoot it out. There is no standing mechanism to resolve difficulties as they arise. Consequently, whenever the next friction occurs, it’s back to square one, usually with a different cast of characters, stepping into the O.K. Corral.

Perhaps we have reached a new stage of intra-Korean relations. Both nations have unintentionally reached a common place where neither country realistically has designs on the other, albeit for very different reasons.

Recently China applied new pressure on Pyongyang. This may have been part of its preparation for the summit between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama in California. Given all this, what may be a bold, new approach appropriate for where we are today?

First, Seoul needs to invite Pyongyang to a two-party negotiation to resolve how both parties may recognize the legitimate roles of each government in resolving disputes. If that could be achieved, an ongoing issue-resolving framework - including the same representatives from both nations whenever it meets - may be possible.

Second, it may be better to list all issues (short of nuclear proliferation) and resolve those issues privately one by one. Only after all issues are resolved would a formal agreement be made and announced. Otherwise, the resolution of one issue without an overall agreement on the other issues keeps the unresolved matters in jeopardy. Both sides may take temporary pleasure in achieving a “breakthrough” on a single issue. But a single breakthrough can be easily reversed if other issues remain unresolved, continuing to add friction between the parties.

In short, if we are facing a new situation, now may be the time for a serious rethink. Inter-Korean relations may need to ring-fence the nuclear issue if overall negotiations are to progress. The Irish experience offers no panacea, but its example could stimulate new, critical thinking.

*The author is president of Soft Landing Korea, a sales performance consulting firm, and senior advisor to IPG Legal.

By Tom Coyner
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