Beware of nationalism
The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
It must have been President Moon Jae-in who awaited the results of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s fourth Pyongyang visit more anxiously than anyone. It could determine the success of Moon’s North Korean nuclear affairs mediation between Pyongyang and New York. While it is yet to be determined whether Pompeo’s trip to Pyongyang would deliver a big deal or a small deal — or no deal — it is clear that the stalled negotiations between the United States and North Korea have been saved from a rupture by South Korea’s mediation.
The second U.S.-North summit seems to be just a matter of time. After facilitating the first Singapore summit through mediation, South Korea has once again resolved the deadlock in U.S.-North Korea talks over denuclearization. Moon deserves to feel confident as a diplomatic mediator.
During his New York visit last month, Moon garnered great attention with confident moves. In an interview with Fox News, he smoothly answered some obnoxious questions. It was especially impressive that on the stupid question of which comes first — denuclearization or reunification? — he answered “peace.” In addition to the accomplishments from his Pyongyang summit, those knowledgeable in the Blue House affairs say that Moon has solid expertise in the matter. Aside from National Intelligence Agency chief Suh Hoon, not many are on the level of Moon on the issue. His research and insight into Korean Peninsula affairs combined with accumulated field experience might have made him an expert on the issue.
Just as Moon said, what matters the most to South Korea is peace. The Panmunjom Declaration and Pyongyang Declaration paved the way for peace on the peninsula. South and North Korea pledged not to wage another war. The South and North Korea Military Agreement by defense ministers adopted as a supplementary document of the Pyongyang Declaration contains military measures to prevent a war. That’s why the declaration is considered a virtual end-of-war declaration between the two Koreas.
However, it is not sufficient. When a peace agreement is signed among the two Koreas, the United States and China, permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula can be guaranteed. The North Korean nuclear issue should be resolved. While Pyongyang expresses a will for denuclearization, it says it is only possible when Washington demonstrates trust toward North Korea. Pyongyang claims that the first step for the U.S. to build trust is the end-of-war declaration. South Korea needs to facilitate a deal between Pyongyang and Washington. That’s why Moon’s role as a mediator is necessary and important.
After peace and prosperity will come reunification, but reunification is a distant goal. It is questionable whether reuniting the two countries would be necessarily good. Two countries can live together yet separately by maintaining two states and their separate political systems with free travel, exchanges and cooperation with one other. While some advocate South Korea-led reunification, that would be like bringing down North Korea and reunifying through absorption. When free exchanges, cooperation and travel restores homogeneity and the two countries become similar enough, reunification may come naturally.
What we need to be wary of in the long journey to peace, prosperity and unification is excessive expression of nationalistic desire. The leaders of South and North Korea boldly speak of national self-reliance, self-determination and unity. Before 150,000 North Koreans, Moon said, “Korean people are outstanding, strong and love peace. We have lived 5,000 years together and 70 years apart.” In the seven-minute speech, he mentioned the Korean people nine times.
After adopting the Pyongyang Declaration, Kim Jong-un said, “We will clearly see how Korean people will bring their own future by themselves after going through the sufferings and misfortune of being oppressed and separated.” He showed confidence that South and North Korea can persuade powerful neighbors when working together. The electrifying moment of Moon and Kim holding hands at Mt. Paektu was a symbol of their nationalistic desire.
If we really want peace, we need to refrain from openly expressing nationalistic desire. It is not only dangerous but backward to advocate ethnic unity in an era of diversity. It could be asking for trouble.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 9, Page 27