Starting with a basic treaty
The author, a former visiting professor at Kangwon National University, is chairman of the Korean Peninsula Forum organized by the Korea Peace Foundation.
North Korea is a nuclear power despite the international community’s reluctance to accept it. In the eight Congress of the Workers Party of Korea (WPK) in January 2021, the country revised its party rules to demonstrate a determination to “protect peace for the Korean Peninsula, drive out the United States, and advance unification of the fatherland” with strong military power from nuclear weapons. To achieve the goals, the recalcitrant state persistently developed strategic and tactical weapons to upgrade its nuclear capabilities for a preemptive strike or a retaliation, as seen in its repeated test-firing of hypersonic missiles in January.
Strategically, nuclear weapons are a very useful tool for North Korea as they can neutralize a huge gap in national power — and a critical imbalance in its conventional arms race with South Korea — all at once. North Korea also can use the weapons as an effective means to lead inter-Korean relations: they help North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sustain his regime in Pyongyang, respond to the U.S. and maintain its independence while enjoying backing from China.
Therefore, the Kim regime will not give up nuclear weapons by choice unless he is convinced of the survival of his regime, system and state even without nukes or concludes that the weapons backfire. In history, no dictator voluntarily abandoned nuclear weapons with good intentions. The solution to the conundrum lies in helping North Korea make a strategic decision to abandon them by changing the frame of inter-Korean relations while building diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang.
Transforming the diehard nature of inter-Korean ties can start with a cool-headed assessment of the past. Since the early 1970s, 667 meetings, including summits, have been held, and 167 agreements, including the 1991 Basic Agreement between the two Koreas, have been signed. If the historic basic agreement which took effect the following year had been put into action by the book, their relations could have changed remarkably. Yet confrontation still goes on as the two countries failed to establish a normal relationship despite countless deals.
Inter-Korean dialogue was often interrupted by Seoul’s own political purposes or Pyongyang’s calculations. Mutual cooperation and human and material exchanges were mostly led by the North’s unilateralism. South Koreans were once allowed to tour a resort in Mount Kumgang and operate at the Kaesong Industrial Complex, but they fell short of promoting mutual understanding or failed to strengthen economic interdependence. Despite Seoul’s aid for food and fertilizers, North Korea did not change its outmoded agricultural sector nor establish normal trade systems in the country.
I am not proposing we stop offering humanitarian aid to North Korea. Human exchanges and economic cooperation are certainly aimed at building mutual trust and easing tension toward the goal of boosting economic interdependence and eventually achieving common prosperity.
It depends on change in North
But such steps fell short of helping achieve the government’s policy goals. Many agreements were invalidated because the inter-Korean relationship was not reciprocal nor normal. Normalization of the strange relationship does not mean a resumption of suspended talks or doing things as North Korea wants. Instead, it means a settlement of deals in a bilateral and reciprocal way. Atypical inter-Korean ties can be attributed to the North’s unilateralism, but past South Korean governments also should be held accountable for their tendency to deem even a unilateral accomplishment of exchange and cooperation as solid proof of improved relations.
A fundamental reason for persistent confrontation between South and North Korea is their unique perception of their relationship. For instance, the 1991 Basic Agreement defined the relationship as an “extraordinary” one, which shapes tentatively on the way to unification. The definition reflected their own political need to unify the divided land. As long as the two countries with so divergent ideologies and systems take such dissimilar approaches, they cannot fundamentally change the status quo. The two countries’ constitutions — and the North’s Workers’ Party Rules — do not consider the other as a “state” even though they are separate sovereign entities. For instance, South Korea established diplomatic relations with 191 countries while North Korea did it with 160 countries. It is time to first recognize such a reality.
South Korea’s unification policy is basically aimed at bringing about changes in North Korea by improving relations with it. But improving relations is not about accepting the North’s unilateral behavior in return for mutual exchanges and cooperation. Instead, it means Pyongyang must change its behavior and systems so that it can benefit both sides.
If a desire for regime change is methodically suppressed like in North Korea, you can hardly change the fundamentals of inter-Korean relations. Only when the North Korean system changes and inter-Korean relations are normalized can peace and coexistence arrive — and only when both sides establish an elaborate system for peaceful coexistence can a path to peaceful reunification be opened.
Definitions of the people
A paradigm shift in inter-Korean relations must start with accepting the existence of two states in the Korean Peninsula. Based on the recognition, both sides must zero in on their relations for long-term national development instead of a narrow-focused nationalism. Amid the prolongation of the division, nationalism primarily serves as a vehicle to trigger conflict and division. Inter-Korean relations are also turning into international relations. If the two countries choose to dismiss such a reality and stick with their ethnicity-based approach, it will also provoke caution from the parties involved.
South and North Korea perceive the concept of the people differently. While South Koreans regard it as the same ethnic group sharing the same tradition, language, culture and customs, North Koreans basically regard it as a group of socialists led by North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il while sometimes using it in the traditional way. The phrase “between our people” — contained in the June 15 South-North Joint Declaration in 2000 between President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il — also reflects the North’s double-edged concept of the people. But adhering to the emotional definition of the people can help the two countries to deviate from international norms on behavior as a state. Moreover, members of South Korean society today cannot be defined by the traditional concept of ethnicity alone because of its ethnic diversity.
I propose the following policy guidelines for both sides to build normal inter-Korean relations. First, South Korea must draw up two-way policies which can reflect the North’s policies to defend its systems and reflect its nuclear power status. Second, an integral leadership — which can address an internal conflict over the government’s North Korea policy and build national consensus — is required. Third, a sustainable policy framework needs to be set as part of a national development strategy. Fourth, the government must find a way for the two countries with different systems and ideologies to find a path to peaceful coexistence. Fifth, the government must not hide the proposition that a transition to liberal democracy is only possible after the transformation of North Korean systems.
Reality of division
Based on such foundations, South and North Korea need to recognize each other’s national identity and maintain an “extraordinary bilateral relationship between two states” until their unification. Let’s stipulate such a relationship in a basic treaty befitting international laws. In the treaty, both sides recognize the other side as a state; either side does not represent the other side externally; and both sides must exercise their constitutional jurisdiction only within the boundaries of their territories. Of course, those propositions should be accompanied by corresponding actions to the treaty. Once the treaty goes into effect, both sides must develop reciprocal relations — as in normal diplomatic relationships — and follow international laws and norms to promote their exchanges and cooperation.
Mutual recognition of the other side does not necessarily mean the abandoning of unification. When striking the Basic Treaty (Grundlagenvertrag) with East Germany in 1972, West Germany informed the country in a separate document of the fact that the treaty was not incompatible with its goal of achieving unification of the German people based on their free will. This way, South Korea also can uphold the goals of unification as stipulated in the constitution. An inter-Korean basic treaty can serve as basic norms on their relationship until the moment of unification.
If the basic agreement is reached, South and North Korea can take a leading role in determining their fate, too.
Once the reality of the division has been accepted in a normal way, neighbors and interested parties — such as the United States, China, Japan and Russia — will be able to implement their Korea policies in a balanced way, not to mention facilitate the formation of a system for peaceful coexistence on the peninsula after dramatically reducing Pyongyang’s reliance on nuclear weapons.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.