Think the unthinkableEgon Bahr (1922-2015), the architect of Ostpolitik — West Germany’s Cold War policy of rapprochement with the Soviet Union and its socialist bloc — urged his staff at the planning department of the foreign ministry to think the unthinkable. His bold thinking helped mend ties with Moscow through landmark deals such as the Treaty of Moscow and Treaty of Warsaw in 1970 and the eventual Basic Treaty of 1972 that laid the groundwork for reunification. The byproducts of collective creativity became stepping stones on the path to German unification.
President Moon Jae-in has come into office at a time when border and regional tensions are at a very high level. Preventing a war through a preemptive attack either from North Korea or the United States is his most important role. A bad peace is better than any kind of war. But even Moon, who inherits the engagement policy of earlier liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, won’t easily succeed in rapprochement with North Korea when there is heated talk of striking the North militarily and triggering a regime collapse from Seoul and Washington.
Moon and his critics should be aware of the limitations of the Sunshine Policy, an engagement initiative that utterly failed to get North Korea to quench its nuclear ambitions ever since they surfaced in 1993. Its mechanisms would hardly ensure denuclearization or peace or push inter-Korean relations out of their bottleneck. Third-generation ruler Kim Jong-un’s control over the state is getting only stronger instead of waning. To break out of the security logjam, I recommend several steps.
First of all, the new president must look beyond his supporters and ideological camp to recruit the best minds for his security and foreign affairs team. If the president is willing to open his eyes and ears, that shouldn’t be too difficult. Korean issues have become global issues. The foreign minister should be promoted to the deputy prime minister level. Together with the chief security adviser, top diplomats should be busy on the stages of Washington, Beijing, Moscow and Tokyo. If conditions are met, a special envoy should be sent to Pyongyang. The president could also mobilize a secret team.
Second, it would be foolish to pull the plug on all the policies of the past conservative governments. As the North Korean policy of liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun wasn’t entirely perfect, the policy under conservative presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park also was not entirely wrong. Moon could moderate Lee’s policy of first demanding denuclearization and opening in return for economic cooperation and aid to help North Koreans earn an average income of $3,000 by first offering economic aid in return for opening and denuclearization. It may be risky to put off denuclearization as the ultimate goal, but would nevertheless be a practical approach. As it turned out, U.S. President Donald Trump already proposed dialogue in return for a nuclear weapons freeze — not complete denuclearization.
Park’s idea of a trust-building process is also worth building on. It too is based on dialogue — trust cannot be built without it. The former administration failed to put the vision into action and inter-Korean relations have never been so bad as when her term abruptly came to an end. Moon must select the best of the engagement policies of the liberal governments and the trust-building process of the conservative governments to devise the most workable plan.
Third, the new administration must come up with a farsighted, comprehensive and innovative design to open up North Korea. It must look beyond the Korean internal borders and look to neighboring countries. North Korea shares a border not only with the South, but also with China and Russia.
Urban designer Kim Seok-chul in 2012 proposed turning the North’s northeastern area around the mouth of the Tumen River — which brings together the frontiers of North Korea, China and Russia — into a regional trade and industrial hub with South Korea contributing to the building of a town dedicated to industrial innovation. China could contribute a tourism section and Russia a petrochemical and chemical industrial base. Japan could create a port city there.
Under his “Grand Design,” the multinational border city would be connected with the transcontinental railways of Siberia and China to stretch to Europe. His design is a broader version of former president Roh’s vision of inter-Korean development of the Yellow Sea.
The U.S. and North Korea are considering the option of dialogue with a backdrop of a looming North Korean nuclear missile threat and U.S. strategic assets deployed around the peninsula. Choe Son-hui, director general for North American affairs at North Korea’s foreign ministry, indicated that Pyongyang is open for talks with Washington. The scenario of Pyongyang-Washington talks over a nuclear freeze and eventual normalization of diplomatic ties and a peace treaty may be in the making.
Seoul must find its role in this process. We must pressure Washington and Beijing to come up with the toughest-yet sanctions without loopholes this time, including China’s stopping of oil supplies to the North. We also must start inter-Korean dialogue from the working level to come up with our own roadmap to peace and to ensure our role in the process. We cannot be frozen out and we must not waste time. There has never been a better time for a dialogue. We could turn terms favorable once a dialogue process has been established and allowed to develop some roots.
If the new Blue House and ministries of foreign affairs, national defense and unification follow in the footsteps of previous administrations complacently and blindly, we cannot expect a creative and revolutionary breakthrough in the current crisis, which is desperately needed to carve out a path for our ultimate unification. Brooding over useless and failed measures of the past is the very practice that should be stopped right away.
JoongAng Ilbo, May 19, Page 35
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.