Millennium Post

Korean Unification: Issues and Challenges

This August 15 would be the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Korean peninsula from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. After seven decades of the division of Korea into two halves, it seems the road to a peaceful unification of the peninsula appears to be getting bumpier. The partition of Korea into the two competing political systems has made North Korea the Achilles heel of Northeast Asia’s regional stability today.

At this juncture, last week’s goodwill visit of the widow of late President Kim Dae-Jung of South Korea, Lee Hee-ho to Pyongyang became significant since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un personally approved of the visit. Since Seoul stated that there was ‘no special message’ for the lady to deliver to Pyongyang, the ex-first lady returned to Seoul without meeting Kim Jong-un. With this act, it seems that South Korean leadership missed another vital opportunity to mend its relations with its northern neighbor, as Seoul’s relations with Pyongyang have touched an all-time low under the Presidency of Park Geun-Hye.

In its present context, it is necessary to learn that historically speaking,after the end of the Cold War, a major impetus in inter-Korean relations has shifted towards an internally driven dynamic on the Korean Peninsula itself, especially under the initiative of South Korea’s liberal progress across time.
In general, the patterns of inter-Korean relations need to be understood in line with the Presidencies of the Republic of Korea and their political affiliations. Broadly, in South Korea, the political parties have been divided into Conservatives and Progressive Liberals. In the past, the policy of reconciliation and peaceful coexistence towards North Korea was pursued under the Progressive Liberal rule. The ‘Sunshine Policy’ of Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-hyun’s ‘Peace and Prosperity’ policy ensured some phenomenal positive developments between the Koreas for a decade (1998-2008). 

Moreover, the Presidents of South Korea visited Pyongyang and also participated in summit meetings in 2000 and 2007. While dealing with Pyongyang, they even tried to balance their relationship with the Washington as well. Between 1995 and 2007, South Korea provided a total of 2.03 trillion Won (US$1.74 billion) worth of rice (2.66 million tons) and fertilizer (2.55 million tons) to North Korea.
However, conservative President Lee Myung-bak stopped aid to North Korea soon after his ascension to power in 200, thus ending the Engagement Policy initiated by previous liberal governments. His successor and the first lady president of South Korea Park Geun-Hye allowed hydrogen balloons from South Korea to cross the demilitarized zone and deliver anti-North Korean materials and always linked her policy of ‘trustpolitic’ with the North Korea’s nuclear issue.At the economic front, the ‘May 24 Measures’ against North Korea after the suspicious Cheonan corvette incident, the overall trade relations between the two Koreas touched all time low. In this corvette attack, South Korea claimed that one of its warships was sunk by a torpedo by a North Korean submarine. Nevertheless, Pyongyang firmly denied its role in this attack and appealed for <g data-gr-id="76">joint-investigation</g>.

The ‘May 24 Measures’ like sanctions suspended all major economic co-operations between two Koreas. These Measures included barring North Korean ships passing through South Korean waters, prohibiting South Korean citizens’ visits and any new investments in North Korea. The measures included the adoption of a military posture of so-called “proactive deterrence,” a series of hard-line economic measures and a coordinated regime of sanctions. North Korea appealed on numerous occasions to lift the May 28 Measures. The inter-Korean economic engagement is a prerequisite for peace and stability and peaceful unification of two Koreas. 

Further, the prospective Mt. Kumgang tourist resort that opened in 1998 as a symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation and economic cooperation has been suspended since 2008. The tourist project is thought to be one way for the North Korean government to receive hard currency from abroad. The official currency of the tour is neither the South Korean Won nor the North Korean Won, but the US Dollar. South Korean tourists first started visiting the mountains in 1998 and continued till 2008, and over 1.93 million made the trip. Seoul banned all tourists from visiting the spot after a North Korean guard shot a South Korean woman tourist trespassed into an off-limits area in July 2008. The lifting of the ban on South Koreans to the tourist site is one of the key positive measures to normalize ties.  In conclusion, perhaps, the key to successful engagement is the articulation of a clear and consistent North Korea policy in the South, with support from the other great powers, especially the United States and China. To reach this point, there should be more active communication and networking between Conservatives and Liberals to promote a consistent North Korea policy so that the South’s stance does not radically differ according to changes in government. 

Sudhakar Vadi is a Research Assistant at the Centre for East Asian Studies (CEAS), JNU, New Delhi.
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