No time to waste for dialogueAlthough inter-Korean relations are known to be unpredictable, trying seems futile when the latest plan for talks, arranged after many years, collapsed. The disappointment is large because the expectations were high.
The conflict over the “rank” of chief negotiators was the main reason the talks fell apart. Stressing the importance of the matter, President Park Geun-hye made it clear that “formality governs substance.” She’s right. Formality begins with the courtesy of matching the ranks of the chief negotiators.
In Confucian philosophy, “observing ritual propriety through self-discipline” is taught as the key protocol for the harmony between universes, countries and individuals.
The followers of the Communist revolution used to believe “I am the only right person” and that disrespect still causes trouble everywhere by surviving as madness today, even though the revolution has disappeared. Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, who recently visited China as the special envoy of Kim Jong-un, ran wild by wearing his military uniform. After his discourtesy was strongly criticized, he changed into his party uniform when he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The episode was a rare case of interrupting the North’s disrespectful behavior.
Park’s remark, “formality governs substance,” is appropriate based on what we know. It seems that Park - or her aide - was inspired by German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In the “Critique of Pure Reason,” Kant wrote “Form without matter is empty and void; matter without form is blind.” And Park’s remark reflects the latter half of Kant’s statement.
While Kant stresses the importance of harmony and consistency between form and matter, Park is putting too much emphasis on the importance of form. She ignores that the genuineness of substance is reflected by form.
What are the specific matters that are governed by form in inter-Korean relations? They are the matter of survival of South Korean companies operating factories in the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the matter of longing of the aging, separated families who want to see their loved ones in North Korea before they die. They are not the kind of matters that can be just put aside with some noble philosophical comments.
The issue about rank is also tricky. The South wants Kim Yang-gon, the director of the united front department of the North’s Workers’ Party and power elite, but the South Korean unification minister is lower in his rank than Kim because he is a deputy prime minister-level official in the North. The North proposed to send the director of the Secretariat of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, an independent organ affiliated with the Workers’ Party, but that is far lower than the South’s unification minister.
Because the two Koreas have different structures and hierarchies in their governments, it is hard to match the ranks unless they agree to have their prime ministers or deputy prime ministers as chief negotiators. If one has to concede for the talks, the South, which has far superior national power than the North, must do so. Only after they meet and talk can trust be built.
A more fundamental problem is not the rank of the South’s unification minister, but whether he is truly an influential North Korea policymaker or not. How far does Park accept his policy recommendations? How often does she meet him? It is clear that the North is not seeing him as a real decision-maker; an observation that appears to be true.
Inter-Korean dialogue is a long process. Starting now, the unification minister should be treated with respect so that he can be considered an influential person in North Korean policy for the South. The 2002 visit by then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Pyongyang started with meticulous planning to groom his aide to be an influential person before preparing the summit for Koizumi. Seoul must thoroughly benchmark that strategy.
North Korea is trying to sit down at a table with the South for a dialogue that it doesn’t want to have. It was confirmed at the Korea-U.S. summit that the United States will reinforce and maintain its deterrence power for the South. At the U.S.-China summit, Chinese President Xi publicly stated that Beijing cannot recognize the North as a nuclear-armed state. As a result, Kim Jong-un’s position has weakened dramatically.
China’s determination to show no tolerance to the North’s nuclear arms program is expected to be reaffirmed at the South Korea-China summit later this month.
With a gesture of inter-Korean talks, Kim wanted to calm China down and prevent its relationship with the United States from further worsening while keeping face and resuming the operation of the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Kim, therefore, reluctantly agreed to inter-Korean talks but eventually ruined it by trying to use a stalling tactic.
Unless the North shows the least amount of respect, having a meaningful dialogue is impossible. But it is also a problem when the South’s intention to tame the North has deadly effects. The first step to build trust can only take place when the two sides meet and talk.
If the South really wants Kim Yang-gon to represent the North at the talks, Seoul must create a condition that he cannot resist, and sell it to the North. Using a little imagination, adjusting the title that Kim will carry as chief negotiator for the inter-Korean talks might be effective.
Blue House officials recently said the South has the luxury of time, but that is lame when we think about the businessmen and separated families who have high anticipation for the inter-Korean talks.
It is also a narrow-minded and unjust suppression of public opinion for the Blue House to condemn the critics who held both Koreas responsible for the collapsed talks.
* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie