Into the peace orbit
Doubts and counter-arguments were raised about my column, “Systemizing the division,” published in the JoongAng Ilbo on Sept. 14 and the Korea JoongAng Daily the following day. Critics said that systemizing the division would make Korea’s division permanent and discourage dreams for a quick unification. The arguments were particularly strong from the elderly, who have little time left in their lives and yearn for unification.
And yet, we cannot accept a unification strategy that comes with the possibility of war. That’s why we need to maintain our reason and remain calm and composed instead of being unreasonably rushed. Recently, possibilities of a change in the North Korean regime have been frequently discussed, as well as the South’s limits in dealing with an abrupt unification after a contingency in the North. Therefore, we need to expand our consensus on those issues.
We have heard for a long time that a regime like North Korea deserves to fail and that its collapse is all but inevitable. Recently, however, we see increasing arguments that the North, sadly, won’t fall easily, as Prof. Stephan Haggard from the University of California, San Diego, graduate school wrote in a recent column. Since Kim Jong-un took power, the North Korean government attempted to carry out a radical experiment to change its system to win over the people and the young, and that appears to have helped lengthen the lifespan of the dictatorship.
The experiment is to ease controls over economic activities, starting with the elite class in Pyongyang, while emphasizing new technologies. What may be called a “North Korean populist experiment” has boosted the functioning of markets and revitalized the North, according to many who visited, including workers from international organizations. We can speculate that it is Kim’s dream to become a supreme leader popular with the people, particularly the young.
Although we acknowledge the remarkable changes in North Korean society, we need serious academic research to judge if the changes are meant to strengthen democracy or dictatorship. In their book, “Mongering North Korean Democracy for Inter-Korean Peace,” Korea University Prof. Im Hyug-baeg and Jae H. Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins University, provide a rather optimistic view that the dictatorship of the North, which has lasted more than 70 years, is about to choose a strategy to open up the country and introduce a market economy and therefore choose the path of democratization in order to maintain the regime. The authors said the choices of the North Korean ruler and the responses of the people may produce an unexpected outcome. As many dictatorships attempted to change after the Cold War, the North could be entering, albeit belatedly, the moment of decision-making.
We must carefully observe the changes in the North and maintain patience to refrain from rushing to unification. Most of all, we must not take lightly the warnings of many economists, including Seoul National University economics Prof. Kim Byung-yeon, that the South won’t be able to handle the enormous shock from unification, particularly the financial shock.
Without confidence or determination to endure a potential fiscal collapse, drastic tax hikes and a massive exodus of foreign capital, the temptation to insist on “unification as soon as possible” must be resisted. The issues of guaranteeing North Korean people’s freedom of passage and migration to the South after unification also remind us that prudence and steadiness are important virtues in the process of unification.
Emphasizing peace and calling for prudence in the progress of implementing a unification policy never means treating lightly an aggressive strategy and enthusiastic attitude to push it forward. A policy against war, violence and terrorism for the Korean Peninsula, Asia and the world must be kept as a consistent principle for Korea’s diplomatic and unification strategies. Expectations for changes in North Korea are also based on this principle of peace. For our peace strategy to succeed, a national consensus and stability in democratic politics are prerequisites to support and materialize it.
Helmut Schmidt, chancellor of West Germany from 1974 to 1982, died earlier this month, and I pay tribute once again to the German leaders’ achievement of maintaining a cooperative partnership between the ruling and opposition parties. Without such bipartisan cooperation, German unification was probably impossible. When the leaders of the ruling and opposition parties do not have the ability to share serious challenges that history brings — such as unification — and the ability to harmonize their positions and refine strategies, it is easy to guess where the country’s future is heading.
Evaluating changes in the North and making decisions on unification strategies are the tests we must go through. Right now, we are in desperate need of a political system and leaders who can quietly discuss and produce a solid agreement. In order to establish a successful unification strategy and push it forward, the media also needs to adopt a new practice of quietly observing and helping the progress of the situation, rather than indulging in the aggressive competition of real-time news reporting.