[Column] Resetting the inter-Korean relationship

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[Column] Resetting the inter-Korean relationship

Lee Baek-soon

The author is a former Korean Ambassador to Australia.

Inter-Korean summits have been held three times in the past 20 years by three presidents, Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in. When they visited Pyongyang and Mount Baekdu and when the South and North Korean athletes made a joint entrance at the Sydney Olympics with the Korean Peninsula flag, and when the North Korean cheering squad visited the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, we became emotional out of the euphoria that unification may be near.

But it is time to wake up from unrealistic fantasies. Bloody war — not a rosy reunification — is hanging over us. If you don’t recognize this situation accurately and vaguely advocate reunification or engage in wishful thinking that North Korea can be absorbed or collapse on its own, our national security will grow more dangerous with a growing possibility of war.

It is easy to see how challenging it is to realize the unification of the two Koreas or to promote friendly cooperation with North Korea, if you look at the latest international situation. First, North Korea has become a de facto nuclear power with no possibility of abandoning its nukes, though you may not want to admit it. Then, reunification becomes impossible. It is impossible for North Korea holding nuclear weapons to reconcile with the U.S. And there is no possibility that Japan would support unification of the Korean Peninsula with a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Second, the new Cold War structure surrounding the peninsula will only intensify. As the hegemony contest between the U.S. and China will extend, the confrontation between the southern triangular alliance of South Korea, America and Japan and the northern triangular alliance of North Korea, China and Russia will only grow worse. That means the external centrifugal force preventing reunification of the peninsula will become stronger as the internal core power of reunification weakens.

Third, North Korea threatened to preemptively use nuclear weapons after making its status as a nuclear power a fait accompli in September 2022. The country could be convinced that it can turn the tide with its nuclear weapons. Furthermore, if North Korea believes that it can make South Korea surrender through a nuclear threat or limited use of nuclear force, it won’t come to the negotiating table readily.

Considering these circumstances, it is time to think about ways to reestablish inter-Korean relations in a new frame rather than blindly pursuing reunification, reconciliation and cooperation. In other words, I propose we deviate from the “tentative special relationship pursuing reunification” as defined in the 1992 Basic Agreement and create a “relationship between normal states.” As both South and North Korea are UN members, it could be better to remove all the costs and risks arising from the “unusual special relationship” while regulating the bilateral relations according to the UN Charter.

In fact, when the two Koreas joined the UN together in 1991, it was internationally recognized that two countries exist in the Korean Peninsula. This is a grim reality. Since the two countries are members of the UN, their relationship must follow Articles 3 and 4 of the UN Charter, which says, “All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.”

There would be considerable benefits if we switch to relations between normal states. North Korea constantly claim that it considers the U.S. as its biggest security threat as the U.S. recognizes the North not as a state but as a “regime that must collapse.” Therefore, treating North Korea as a normal state and demanding it comply with obligations as a UN member would be advantageous to induce a change of attitude from the recalcitrant state across the border.

South Korea has wasted its diplomatic and security assets too much for the North’s denuclearization and unification diplomacy. South Korea must not adhere to the unattainable unification and reconciliation which sucks up its precious assets just like a black hole. When we switch to a normal state-to-state relationship and the peninsula is more stabilized, South Korea can focus on getting through the harsh international situation.

When South and North Koreas switch to the relationship between normal states, they will not interfere with internal affairs, not make armed provocations, and be less hostile. If North Korea provokes us, South Korea can respond just as any other country does. Then, the peninsula situation will be stable and the rest of the world also would not try to take advantage of our situation. Rather than changing the inter-Korean relationship with the “bold initiative” conditioned on the denuclearization, the relationship must change into one between normal states. Seeking stabilization on the peninsula and avoiding a war will be a bolder — and more creative — idea.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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