Former ministers advise on improving ties with North, Japan

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Former ministers advise on improving ties with North, Japan

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule as well as the division of the Peninsula, yet Seoul’s relationship with Pyongyang and Tokyo remains dismal.

Relations between North and South Korea are especially convoluted. In his New Year’s Day address on Thursday, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un claimed he was open to talks with South Korean President Park Geun-hye - a statement that was particularly questionable given the atmosphere.

As always, uncertainty, instability and mistrust dog the peninsula’s sibling nations.

But 2015 also marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral ties between South Korea and Japan - another regional neighbor with which Seoul has not been on the best terms. The relationship is frigid, perhaps even at an all-time low.

To gain some perspective on the Korea and Japan’s trajectory, the JoongAng Ilbo recently spoke with 10 former South Korean ministers, who presented their views on Tokyo and suggestions for improving relations with Pyongyang.

Five former unification ministers, Kang In-duk; Lim Dong-won; Jeong Se-hyun; Lee Jong-seok; and Yu Woo-ik, were questioned on what strategy Seoul should take in handling North Korea’s aggressions. At the same time, five foreign affairs ministers, Han Sung-joo; Gong Ro-myung; Lee Joung-binn; Song Min-soon; and Yu Myung-hwan, spoke on how to resolve the complex, tangled relationship between Korea and Japan.

Those experts also elaborated on who they believe needs to reach out first as well as the roles of the public and the international community.

The group generally viewed this platinum anniversary as a golden opportunity for Korea to improve relations with its neighbors.

However, some ministers contended that a new strategy must be sought for a breakthrough with North Korea.

North Korea’s provocations and regressive actions come as the isolationist regime calls for Seoul to lift the May 24 sanctions, which South Korea imposed as a punitive measure after Pyongyang torpedoed the Cheonan warship in March 2010, an incident that killed 46 sailors.

The regime is also looking to resume the tourism program on Mount Kumgang, which has been suspended since 2008, when a young South Korean tourist was fatally shot by a North Korean soldier.

A few, like former unification minister Jeong Se-hyun, saw this year as the last opportunity for the Park Geun-hye administration to substantively approach North Korea and improve ties.

The five former unifications ministers generally viewed President’s Park push for unification last year as a positive, but also warned against building up a vision without a clear plan.

“[President Park] spoke of a ‘bonanza’ after unification,” said former Unification Minister Kang In-duk said. “But she didn’t present any actual steps toward unification.”

Other ministers - Lim, Jeon and Lee - called for a policy of reconciliation and cooperation with North Korea, while Kang and Yu warned that rash policies could instead have an adverse effect on relations with Pyongyang.

However, they were clear to emphasize the need for the South Korean people to embrace a precise picture of unification, and that improvements in ties must be achieved for the future of the people.

The five ministers generally backed a quiet unification process, one where the president vests more power in the Ministry of Unification and expands its role in the process, while decreasing the burden on the head of state, and also increasing Korea’s role on the international stage through its relationship with the North.

“From a purely economic position, we need to pioneer a way away from limitations that the Korean economy is facing by building a path that breaks through the truce line and spreads throughout the continent,” former Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok said.

Still, the group was split over whether to hold an inter-Korean summit with leaders from both nations. Jeong and Lee both noted that the Park administration would pass its halfway point this year, and that there was a chance that the possibility of a meeting could quickly lose momentum. A leaders’ summit, they said, must ideally happen within 2015.

Yu had different thoughts.

“We should refrain from a leaders’ summit just for the sake of one, to snap a photo,” he said.

Others were hesitant about the Park government’s ability to manage inter-Korea relations. “While the intention to improve relations seems present, there is a lack of ability to manage it,” Lim said.

The former foreign ministers instead pointed toward resolving relations with Japan as Seoul’s biggest diplomatic task for this year, which marks five decades since the 1965 normalization treaty was signed between both countries.

“From our perspective, we cannot stay silent about the Shinzo Abe administration’s historical understanding,” said former Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan, “but whether the Japanese right-wing will accept our requests is unclear. ... Even so, Korea-Japan relations are a key diplomatic link, so realistically we must try to increase contact and actively improve relations.”

“We have to plan a Japan policy for the next 50 years,” former Foreign Minister Gong added, “for those living in 2065, not for those living in 2015.”

At the same time, “to enable North Korea to accept our policies, neighboring countries, especially China and Russia have to cooperate, and even if relations with Japan are not good, they have to be managed in such a manner that such cooperation is still possible,” said former Foreign Minister Han.

Additionally, most in the group said it was important to take into consideration “unification diplomacy.”

“The key to unification diplomacy is for conditions to be made so there is no big gain for any single country nor any disadvantage for neighboring countries,” said former Foreign Minister Lee Joung-binn, “so that there is no country that will ‘absolutely oppose’ [unification.]”

Former Minister Song Min-soon added, “By pursuing an aggressive policy of compromise with North Korea, we need to increase North-South contact, and through this enable a vision for the United States and China to share greater profit from the Korean Peninsula.”

To resolve Korea-Japan relations, the ministers noted that, in regard to the historical issues riddling both countries, Japan was the assailant.

Japan’s refusal to apologize for its wartime recruitment of Korean women as sex slaves at military “comfort stations” has been a particularly thorny issue.

However, the five foreign ministers also expressed concerned that Korea-Japan relations could be stifled should Seoul continue to blame Tokyo. Yu said that it was ultimately important to “read the bigger picture” and that the “worsening of Korea-Japan relations could strain the core of Korea’s diplomacy - its alliance with the United States.”

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