Korea at a crossroads
The 20th century was defined by military advancement. Many countries gained independence through revolutions and were able to go on to achieve modernization. But the Korean people missed this opportunity as a colonial territory under Imperial Japan.
Korea was liberated in 1945, though another tragedy quickly befell us. The division of the peninsula was history’s divine punishment, and we fell behind in overcoming that division.
Germany accomplished reunification in less than 50 years. And for a split nation like Korea, reunification must be the universal goal.
The journey to reunification is like a relay, wherein one runner takes off at full speed to pass the baton to the next runner. So in Korea’s case, each runner must sprint like Olympian Usain Bolt.
The South has had 10 runners since its founding in 1948. Who ran fast, and who ran slowly?
Our first president, Syngman Rhee, faced the challenge the most desperately. He fought against Communists before becoming president, and while he was in office, the country was at war.
He wanted to unify the country by advancing northward, but the intervention of Chinese forces thwarted his plan. Instead, he built a strong alliance with the United States and prevented a Communist-led takeover.
In the end, South Korea’s liberal democracy should absorb North Korea’s Communist system. In that sense, President Park Chung Hee prepared the foundation solidly. During his term, the South Korean economy surpassed North Korea’s, and Park was determined to retaliate. When North Korea provoked the South in 1973, 3rd Infantry Division commander Park Chung-in bombarded a North Korean encampment.
Chun Doo Hwan seized power amid chaos and focused on maintaining the status quo. He did not retaliate over terror attacks. While special envoys were exchanged, it was not meaningful progress.
Chun prioritized managing his administration rather than moving along inter-Korean relations.
The subsequent Roh Tae-woo administration saw the fall of the Eastern European Communist bloc and German reunification. He besieged North Korea with a northward foreign policy, but North Korea remained isolated and Pyongyang hid its nuclear program.
President Kim Young-sam was the first leader to approach North Korea naively and fail. He appointed two officials friendly to North Korea in key posts. In the inaugural address, he said, “No ally is better than our own people.”
He also repatriated Lee In-mo, an unconverted long-term political prisoner, to North Korea with conditions. His North Korea policy came at a harsh price, and North Korea officially declared its nuclear development.
Kim Dae-jung had the chance to pressure North Korea to change. From 1994 to 1996, the North Korean people faced famine and starvation. If the Kim administration had targeted North Korea’s desperation, the fate of the Korean Peninsula could have been different. But he pursued the Sunshine Policy and offered $450 million for an inter-Korean summit. The money could have been used for nuclear development and served as a lifeline for Kim Jong-il.
President Roh Moo-hyun was not wary of this nuclear development, and rice, fertilizer and cash continued to flow into the North. Pyongyang’s dialogue was a disguise for its nuclear development, and in 2006, North Korea claimed to have successfully conducted a nuclear test.
President Lee Myung-bak’s North Korean policy was relatively strict. At first, he was tempted to negotiate with Pyongyang. But soon, he got back on track. The May 24 sanctions were the stick Seoul had used since the 1980s. But Lee was limited. If he had retaliated more strongly against the attacks on the Cheonan warship and Yeonpyeong Island, it may have been a wake-up call for the regime.
President Park Geun-hye was initially obsessed with the possibility of inter-Korean talks early on in her term. She proposed a trust-building process on the Korean Peninsula, but soon came to realize how solemn the situation really is.
Considering the damages and sacrifices, shutting down the Kaesong Industrial Complex was a stronger punishment than even the May 24 sanctions.
However, the tragedy that is North Korea is reaching its last chapter. Kim Jong-un is trapped in fear, and South Korea has closed all doors.
Otto von Bismarck, who orchestrated German unification in 1871, once said, “A statesman must wait until he hears the steps of God sounding through events, then leap up and grasp the hem of His garment.”
Many of Korea’s presidents have missed the hem. Can Park grasp it? JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 17, Page 31
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Jin