Hitting the reunification ‘jackpot’

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Hitting the reunification ‘jackpot’

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Park Sung-soo

President Park Geun-hye’s recent remark that Korean reunification would be “the jackpot” has hit a chord with the masses, winning nearly 70 percent of public support. But the statement will likely end up being empty political rhetoric if the government fails to present a concrete road map and implementation plan to lead North Korea toward reconciliation and cooperation.

No doubt reunification is the aspiration of the whole nation and an ultimate policy goal. One of the major reasons for the progressives taking the lead in unification discourses in the past is that the conservative camp’s unification formulas were abstract and lacked concrete implementation measures. In contrast, the progressive camp presented a rosy picture, promoting economic and social integration of both Koreas by persuading the North to reconcile and cooperate through the implementation of various exchanges and cooperation programs.

The progressives’ North Korea policy, characterized by “flooding Pyongyang with hefty assistance,” was a failure. Nevertheless, it is not possible to resolve tangled inter-Korean relations with the “pressure tactics” and the “reciprocity principle,” adopted by former President Lee Myung-bak and succeeded by President Park. The Sunshine Policy of the liberal governments failed to prevent Pyongyang from conducting nuclear tests, developing nuclear weapons and missiles, and launching military provocations in the Yellow Sea. It only ended up strengthening the dictatorial rule of the despotic regime by providing it with generous economic assistance. However, it eased, to a certain degree, the level of tension on the peninsula and helped to promote exchanges and cooperation projects.

Reunification is a national goal, but the process is also important. People often compare the costs of unification with its profits and argue that the profits are more than twice the cost. But the reunification costs they quote only include the expenses needed for the gradual economic and social integration after the North agrees to reunify. It does not include the astronomical costs of reconstruction. The enormous cost of restoration is not the only thing that matters. Even more serious is that it will take longer than a generation to heal the political, social and economic wounds from the regime’s collapse. To hit “the jackpot” with reunification, therefore, both Koreas must agree on a peaceful and gradual reunification first.

In the meantime, people evaluated President Park’s leadership highly as her government upheld the principle of inter-Korean negotiation while maintaining resolute attitudes toward the North. But it helped fuel a negative understanding of the North, causing people to be skeptical of reunification.

Fortunately, the president’s remark - “reunification will be the jackpot” - has helped change people’s negative attitude toward reunification. Now, the government must demonstrate that it is trying hard to build trust on the peninsula by actively engaging in negotiation and dialogue with the North. Promotion of reconciliation and cooperation with Pyongyang is not exclusive to the progressives.

The trend of offering Pyongyang generous economic aid, which lasted 10 years under the liberal governments, failed because the “broad-minded” leftist politicians, who became tame to the North Korean negotiation tactics, handed over leverage to the North, the beneficiary. They exaggerated the North’s “needs” and competed among themselves to show “bigger kindness” to Pyongyang. If they had provided assistance to necessary projects on a selective basis, following rules and observing due process, North Korean authorities would have realized that the South would not listen to their preposterous claims, even if the South offered economic assistance profusely.

There are five factors that contributed to German unification. They are Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, the Basic Treaty signed in 1972, East Germany’s willingness to cooperate with the West, 17 years (1973-90) of inter-German exchanges and the Soviet Union’s advice to improve relations with the West. Of the five, the two Koreas have achieved three. South Korea adopted Nordpolitik in 1988 to establish diplomatic ties with former Eastern European countries, the USSR and China. The two Koreas signed the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement in 1991, and there are records of exchange and cooperation accumulated during 10 years of leftist governments under former Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

The two missing factors are North Korea’s lack of will to cooperate and China’s unwillingness to advise the North to cooperate with the South. Despite the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement, the June 15 North-South Joint Declaration and the Oct. 4 Declaration, North Korea does not show willingness to cooperate with the South. There are some problems with China’s North Korea policy, too. China is still holding back because of the buffer zone theory of the cold war era and worries that a rush of North Korean refugees across the border from a sudden change in the North would ruin its economy. China should be reminded that the U.S. Forces in South Korea will not be deployed beyond the 38th parallel even after the two Koreas are united. It must also recognize that an effective way to prevent the rush of North Korean refugees across the border is encouraging Pyongyang to promote exchange and cooperation with Seoul.

When President Park talks about South-North relations, she is often quoted as saying, “It takes both hands to clap,” meaning that her signature trust-building process cannot make progress as long as Pyongyang does not listen. Of course, the North is not willing to accept the South’s cooperation proposals, but our government also tends to settle for a passive measure of reciprocity. The government must persuade North Korea to engage in reconciliation and cooperation by promoting various cooperation projects. It should also launch diplomatic efforts to persuade China to pressure the North to promote the South’s cooperation projects.

*The author is a visiting professor of communications at Sejong University.

By Park Sung-soo

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