Running out of excuses
When I was serving military duty, I was in charge of administrative work. At first, I was worried about planning events and projects. But it turned out to not be as challenging after learning the know-how from a predecessor. The military mostly repeated the same events monthly or annually. If we were to hold an ice skating competition, I only had to change the date and update the names from last year’s materials. If I suggested a new program or tried to add something, my first sergeant would say, “Are you going to take all the accountability if things go wrong?” So I wouldn’t dare change the existing routine.
Memories from 30 years ago came back to me as I noticed a resemblance in the Ministry of Unification and its coordination of the family reunion. In the course of preparing for the event, the ministry failed to deviate from the old setup of 100 family members from each side meeting in Mount Kumgang. It never even mentioned having families visit Seoul and Pyongyang or expanding to 200 to 300 people. In the end, the people in their 80s and 90s and their accompanying family members had to go through the inconvenience of spending a night in Goseong, the northernmost town in Gangwon Province, before going to the North.
Expanding the size of the reunion became an empty promise. It was actually even smaller than before. Among the 100 South Koreans selected for the reunion, many gave up due to health reasons, but authorities did not have backup plans. In the end, only 90 reunited with families in the North. Displaced people and related organizations were frustrated because more people could have reunited with their families if substitutes had been selected.
Another chronic problem is the ministry’s submissive attitude towards the North. Reporters covering the reunion had their laptop computers confiscated by North Korean authorities. The devices that contained sensitive information and material on North Korea were in the hands of North Korean security agents for several days. This has never happened in the previous 19 reunions, but the ministry only explained that it had expressed regret and demanded the computers be returned. And they offered a lame plan to lease new laptops for temporary use. North Korea also tried to check backpacks containing videotapes, which hindered broadcasting of the event. The ministry again responded passively.
Other problems were revealed while visiting the exhibition of the Manwoldae palace site in Kaesong in mid-October. North Korea picked on a report by a South Korean broadcaster and banned a reporter from visiting the North. An invitation from a moderate conservative professor of North Korean studies was also not approved. When Pyongyang picked and chose media and scholars as they wished, the South Korean authorities excluded the persons Pyongyang rejected. A bad precedent has been set.
So it is hard to expect Seoul to point out North Korea’s irregular behavior or violation of agreements. No claim was made when North Korea stole hundreds of South Korean buses in Mount Kumgang that should have been used to transport the families. The food aid, which adds up to more than 1 trillion won ($876 million), has been in arrears for years, but no further action has been taken other than a letter. Critics say the government is slack in managing taxpayers’ money.
The events organized by the Ministry of Unification for the 70th anniversary of Liberation Day show poor planning and execution. The “reunification song for the new era” campaign, which cost hundreds of millions of won, is a classic case. Composer Kim Hyeong-seok and music director Kolleen Park worked with popular singers and groups like Wonder Girls, EXID and EXO, but no one has ever heard of the song. We can expect nothing when bureaucrats are involved in a project.
The prior announcement of legislation to establish the Peace and Unification Foundation was made in August, but citizens remain aloof. The purpose of the foundation, to commemorate the figures and organizations that contributed to reunification, and to collect related materials, earned little support. The Institute for Unification Education under the Ministry of Unification is redundant and a waste of the budget. The Presidential Committee on Unification Preparation is ridiculed as a “Committee on Unification Seminar Preparation,” and the legislation attempt is criticized as having ulterior motives. In the past, the Ministry of Unification has promoted the Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation Corporation and the Unification Jar, only to scrap them.
You may think I am exaggerating to compare the central government offices to the military in 1988. Some give high marks for changes after Minister Hong Yong-pyo’s appointment, including high-level contacts and the Aug. 25 agreement. But riding on the Blue House’s North Korean drive is different from making progress as the ministry in charge of reunification policy.
The press pool of the Unification Ministry issued an unprecedented statement criticizing North Korea’s media control attempt through confiscation of laptops and selective invitations. The reporters also pointed out that North Korea’s unreasonable intervention is intensifying. It is unfortunate that the authorities are swayed by North Korea and shunned by the public and media. Officials need to review where things went wrong. People expect a determined voice from the ministry to make things possible instead of excuses about the special situation of dealing with Pyongyang.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 28, Page 32
*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo special writer for unification.
by Lee Young-jong