Open a new Pacific era

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Open a new Pacific era

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Lee Hong-koo

With next year marking the 70th anniversary of the division of the Korean Peninsula, Seoul and Pyongyang publicly announced their positions about unification at the beginning of this year. During a New Year’s press conference, President Park Geun-hye expressed cautious optimism about unification. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un also made an “important proposal” on the issue. The two sides reconfirmed their different views about unification once again, but they still appeared to check on each other’s willingness for new dialogues.

Given the international community’s consensus that Korea’s decades-long separation and formal state of war - a critical threat to the Asia-Pacific region - cannot go on forever, the two Koreas’ recent stances appear natural. It is also a good sign that the two sides agreed to have the long-awaited family reunions at the Mount Kumgang resort. A new chapter may have opened for those families who have become exhausted by the long wait for unification.

After leaders of the countries directly involved in Korean Peninsula affairs - the Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States - coincidentally began to serve their terms a year ago, the synchronization led us to harbor a vague hope for an era of Asia’s rise in the global community and an era in which the Korean Peninsula could move toward reunification.

Despite active presidential diplomacy over the past year, Asia and the Korean Peninsula is still faced with dauting challenges. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strong retro-nationalism pushed the Asian dream into a crisis. The extreme instability and peculiarity of the North Korean regime - vividly displayed through Jang Song-thaek’s execution - reminded us of the rough road that will lead to unification. In such a frustrating moment, it would have been welcoming to see an attempt by America, China and the two Koreas to restart their talks and diplomacy.

The agonies that the Korean people suffered during colonization and the pain of division and the cold war were the byproducts of irresponsible dynamics among superpowers. Even in the 21st century, it is hard to find ways to resolve our separation and confrontation without considering the dynamics of the superpowers.

Therefore, achieving reunification “independently” doesn’t mean what it should. It means we have to use the opportunities provided by international politics to push forward a creative resolution that can meet the interests of all the parties involved - not just the Koreans themselves.

Until now, there was a difference in the views about “independent reunification” between the two Koreas. One country actively participated in the wave of globalization, and its prestige was heightened in the international community, while the other refused to join the current of our times and chose isolation. The difference in the views reflected the difference in those two situations.

Expectations are high this spring that the relations between America and China - which both seek peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region - and the two Koreas’ ties - which seek to find a dramatic turning point that leads to a peaceful unification - will form an organic link and usher in an era of new dialogue and diplomacy.

In a sign of noticeable progress, U.S. State Secretary John Kerry, who had focused on Middle East issues, will soon visit Korea and China to discuss Asia issues, including the Korean Peninsula.

The summit in California between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping last June was seen as a positive start, but we ended up with unclear, opaque results. The two leaders will meet again in The Hague during a Nuclear Security Summit in March. I hope they will find a more concrete clue to solving the conundrum on the Korean Peninsula.

As pointed out by Dr. Jonathan D. Pollack, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, although North Korea is often referred to as a buffer state for China, it is actually China that acts as a buffer state for North Korea “for Beijing continues to be Pyongyang’s primary enabler.” To normalize this abnormality, the time has come for China, the United States and South Korea to have constructive talks.

For a strategic balance between China and America in Asia, South Korea, which is capable of maintaining smooth communications with both sides, can play an appropriate role, Peking University Professor Zhu Feng said, according to the Dong-A Ilbo on June 23, 2013.

To satisfy productive and constructive U.S.-China relations - in other words, to achieve Obama’s rebalancing strategy - and Xi’s new model of major-country relations, joint efforts to diplomatically resolve the Korean Peninsula issue - the last remaining legacy of World War II - is pivotal.

When you draw a circle with a 1,300-kilomter (808-miles) radius with the Korean Peninsula at its center, a global hub of economy and culture with a 700 million population emerges. What will rebalancing and a new model of major-country relations mean when they maintain the danger of a nuclear war in this important region?

As the two Koreas already promised a nuclear-free unification under the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, they must join diplomatic efforts with the United States and China to open a new Pacific era.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 10, Page 31

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

By Lee Hong-koo

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