It’s not a question of unification
A dark cloud has settled over the Korean Peninsula - the crisis concerning North Korea’s nuclear aims. And another dark cloud is moving quickly toward us in the form of potential conflict between China and the United States.
North Korea conducted its third nuclear test two years ago, and it became a game changer, escalating the status of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program from the development stage to the production and deployment stage. The North has now secured enough nuclear warheads and missiles capable of attacking the South, and it is still expanding its capabilities.
The military and intelligence agencies of the United States and South Korea reportedly conducted a war game simulation on the Korean Peninsula. The scenarios differed, but they both assumed that the North would use weapons of mass destruction, incurring up to 10 million casualties and $1 trillion worth of damage. In other words, a second war would reduce the Korean Peninsula to the Stone Age.
The North’s nuclear program cannot be ignored any longer; the leaders of South Korea and the United States recently issued a joint statement on North Korea, clearly stating that the two countries will “commit to addressing the North Korean nuclear problem with the utmost urgency and determination.”
Meanwhile, tensions between the United States and China have escalated in East Asia. The conflict started from the determination of China, based on its economic rise, to close the century of disgrace and redefine the existing political and military order of East Asia centered on the United States.
China demands a “new type of great power relations” with the United States. By expanding its “core interests” in the South and East China Seas, Beijing is advancing on a direct collision course against Washington and Tokyo.
Korea, which maintains close relations with both countries, may be dragged into the conflict, and the problem is that inter-Korean confrontation and North Korea’s nuclear crisis are linked. Military tensions between the two Koreas reached a new peak in August after the North planted land mines in the demilitarized zone that maimed two South Korean soldiers, but the situation was resolved after Beijing’s warning to Pyongyang and Washington’s strategic deterrence. But in the world of international relations, there are no free meals.
President Park Geun-hye expressed her appreciation of China’s role during talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and attended Beijing’s lavish military parade on its Victory Day, making her the only present head of state among U.S. allies.
In the Korea-U.S. summit, which took place only weeks later, U.S. President Barack Obama demanded Korea pay for its leanings toward China. He publicly pressured Korea to raise its voice if China were to violate international norms. If the flame of the U.S.-China conflict moves to the Korean Peninsula, Seoul’s position will inevitably worsen.
The resolution to these double crises is to link the North’s denuclearization and the establishment of a peace agenda, and accomplish them at the same time. The peace agenda will include a peace treaty between the two Koreas and normalize the North’s ties with Japan, the United States and the Northeast Asian peace and security regime. Basically, it is mutually securing the security of both Koreas to achieve peaceful coexistence.
When an agenda for peace is established, the hostilities toward the North will be resolved, and the North’s need for nuclear arms will no longer be relevant. These resolutions are already included in the Geneva agreement between Pyongyang and Washington, which Seoul supports and accepts, and the Sept. 19 agreement from the six-party talks to denuclearize Pyongyang.
And yet, those landmark agreements failed during their execution. South Korea and the United States pressured the North to give up its nuclear arms first, rather than stressing peace. The North also broke these agreements and continued developing nuclear technology.
Recent signs indicate that the concerned countries, which exercised strategic ignorance until now, are returning to the proper resolution. Ahead of the U.S.-China summit, Xi stressed the importance of a peace treaty and the normalization of ties. Daniel Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, also said that various assistance, including a peace treaty, diplomatic normalization and economic aid, will be provided to the North if Pyongyang dismantles its nuclear arms.
The idea of a peace agenda, however, requires a fundamental shift because the two Koreas and its neighbors will have to abandon hostilities, which they have become used to, and secure a peaceful coexistence. A peace treaty, in fact, is relatively simple. North Korea’s forming of diplomatic ties with the United States and Japan will not be surprising. Transforming the role of the U.S. Forces Korea and keeping these forces on the peninsula are also not a difficult dilemma.
The true challenge is that the two Koreas must simultaneously revise propositions that were valid for 70 years under the Cold War regime. The North must give up on the idea of a Communist unification, and the South must give up on unification through absorption.
As long as the South promotes its initiative of unification, the North, which comprises only 2 percent of our economy, will be cornered, and it will eventually end up trying to find an asymmetrical exit like its nuclear program. Ironically, the unification policy would actually become the obstacle of unification and encourage confrontation.
German unification came not as an outcome of a unification policy, but an outcome of the policy to find a peaceful coexistence.
The South is currently facing the windows of crisis and opportunity at the same time. Unless it opens the window of opportunity speedily and proactively, the crisis will consume the peninsula. We must not allow our liberal democracy and prosperous market economy to be threatened by the North’s nuclear program and tensions between the United States and China.
For the sake of peace and prosperity on the peninsula, now is the time to take the road we have never traveled. The answer will be simultaneous denuclearization and a peace agenda.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 6, Page 33
*The author is a professor in the College of International Studies at Kyung Hee University.
by Kwon Man-hak