The road not takenFrom July 25 to 27, 1994, the first-ever inter-Korean summit was scheduled to take place in Pyongyang. It was supposed to be a venue for historic dialogue between the two Koreas — separated after the liberation and war — as they were facing yet another possible clash. But the summit was not realized after the North’s leader Kim Il Sung suddenly died on July 8, 1994. It was a very unfortunate twist of events not only for then-South Korean President Kim Young-sam — who had been preparing for the trip to Pyongyang with the hope of changing the flow of history and the Korean people’s destiny — but also for the South Korean people, who had hoped for an opportunity for peaceful unification.
I do not intend to revisit the disappointment, frustration and regrets of that summer, but South and North Korea are once again at the crossroads of war and peace 22 years later. Under such circumstances, we can try to find a clue to achieving peace by recounting the lead-up to the preparation for that summit.
As the post-Cold War era and globalization of markets and information came together, China and Vietnam — both communist states in Asia — boldly accepted the new waves. South Korea’s historic democratization in 1987 and the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 represented the government’s determination to fully ride the wave of globalization.
At the time, South Korea formally adopted an unprecedented unification formula based on one Korean community — admitting the coexistence of the two systems in the two Koreas — thanks to a bipartisan agreement and public support in 1989. More dramatic progress for peaceful unification such as the 1991 inter-Korean Basic Agreement, the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the two Koreas’ simultaneous joining of the United Nations followed.
Nevertheless, the positive energy dissipated with the first North Korean nuclear crisis only one year later, due largely to two factors.
First, our diplomacy had limitations because it failed to create a firm international assurance of a system for peaceful unification — despite those three remarkable achievements we had made. If the United States and Japan had established diplomatic relations with the North in 1992, when the South normalized relations with China after the Soviet Union, and if an agreement had been made among the concerned countries to assure the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, today’s crisis could have been prevented.
At the time, the United States was the only superpower, but it failed to play a leading role in establishing a peace system on the peninsula. We also failed to strongly urge Washington to adopt such a policy. It is regretful to see the limits today.
Second, when the entire world was trying to adjust to the end of the Cold War and the progress of globalization, Pyongyang insisted on its own to pursue a path to becoming a nuclear state. That was an inappropriate choice on North Korea’s part, fearing peace more than war.
At the time, even China joined the wave of globalization after Deng Xiaoping’s historic decisions. The North’s extremely exceptional step toward nuclear development looks like a total failure that may trigger a war, in addition to the bigger price it has to pay.
The warning by then-U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry of a possible military action against the North’s nuclear project in 1993 and President Kim Young-sam’s position that a military action must be prudently considered as it could trigger a full-scale war on the peninsula both contributed to coordination of policies between the two allies.
Then-opposition leader Kim Dae-jung’s urging of Washington to have a dialogue, including high-level talks, with Pyongyang reflected our national consensus for a peaceful reunification. As a result, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang and met with Kim Il Sung in June 1994, which led to the agreement that an inter-Korean summit would serve as a breakthrough for the Korean Peninsula issue, while Washington and Pyongyang will work jointly for peace. It was extremely dramatic progress.
Above all, Kim Il Sung admitted to the limitations of the North’s exclusivism policy and agreed to participate in globalization and realize a peaceful unification agendas agreed on between the two Koreas. That was a truly great step toward unification.
After the 1994 inter-Korean summit was scrapped, affairs on the peninsula appeared to be headed toward war rather than peace. The so-called strategic patience of the United States and the strategic ambiguity of China turned blind eyes to a worsening situation. If the current situation continues, the peninsula and Northeast Asia will become a venue for a nuclear arms race. In the face of immense risks involved, Seoul must aggressively push forward its diplomacy for peace.
It is time to remember that the two Koreas — when they were at the crossroads of war and peace 22 years ago — endeavored to find a clue to resolving their conflicts through diplomacy, including a bid for an inter-Korean summit.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 23, Page 27
*The author, a former prime minister, is an adviser to the JoongAng Ilbo.