|The Korean Peninsula has been suffering from division for the last 70 years since the Korean War broke out in 1950, the year The Korea Times published its first issue on Nov. 1. The division of North and South Korea has been the main factor behind ideological conflict domestically, and complications in the dynamics of diplomacy. On the occasion of the newspaper's 70th anniversary, The Korea Times conducted interviews with four international experts on how to seek a breakthrough on issues in and surrounding the peninsula, and find the last piece of the puzzle to usher in the next 70 years of unity. Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
2 Koreas, allies urged to embrace differences for harmony on Korean Peninsula
By Kang Seung-woo
Seven decades ago, war broke out on the Korean Peninsula, leaving scars that linger to this day. The continued division of the two Koreas is one of the longest unresolved separations of a people in modern history.
For most of the division, the two Koreas have been enemies, but in the last two to three decades the two nations have made some progress in bettering relations with several inter-Korean summits. In particular, the most recent between President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018 presented the rosy prospect of a unified Korea.
However, the peaceful ambience was short-lived, as peace on the peninsula was unattainable through efforts just by the two Koreas as it involved the much more complicated issue of Pyongyang-Washington negotiations regarding the North's nuclear programs. Plus, the domestic divide among South Koreans over the North Korea issue has also played an adverse role in improving inter-Korean relations.
"Prior to the 1980s, South Korea and North Korea had hostile relations that sought to change the status quo by achieving unification by force, but since the end of the Cold War in 1991, inter-Korean ties have turned to maintaining the status quo due to the growing gap in national power," said Kim Jung, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
"In the 21st century, relations between South and North Korea are trapped in a repeated cycle of rapprochement and confrontation."
Park Won-gon, a professor of international politics at Handong Global University, said that even though the two held a historic first summit in 2000, little progress in inter-Korean relations has been seen since then.
"The recent inter-Korean reconciliation in 2018 was short-lived as tensions on the Korean Peninsula are escalating once more," Park said.
The Korean War was a result of the Cold War, and the Korean Peninsula issue has always involved talks among and the interests of neighboring countries, and in recent decades has become an international issue along with Pyongyang's nuclear programs.
However, opinions differ with regard to whether neighboring countries need to "interfere" in the North Korea issue.
"Issues surrounding the Korean Peninsula have never been purely domestic since Korea was incorporated into the modern international community. In that sense, we need to acknowledge that neighboring countries' involvement in addressing the North Korean nuclear armament issue is natural," Kim said.
Emanuel Pastreich, the president of the Asia Institute, disagrees. "They must be involved in planning for peaceful international relations in Northeast Asia, but that is a bigger topic than North Korea. It is a mistake to say that all countries must be involved in every aspect of North Korea policy," he said.
Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University, said the situation between North and South Korea is different from that between East and West Germany. "While West German successfully integrated into the European community, Northeast Asia lacks comparable institutions. Unified Germany became the largest economy in Europe, surrounded by many other states. But even a unified Korea would be surrounded by the larger powers of China, Japan and Russia."
Analysts point out that South Korean administrations have failed to come up with effective policies in handling the North's fickle behavior and attitude.
"North Korea's provocations and inter-Korean conflicts worsened relations. Continuing humanitarian aid to the North is the only thing that the South can show consistency in, in terms of its policy toward the North. As a result, South Korea's North Korea policy cannot move forward beyond the limit of responding to the North's attitude," Park said.
Between the North's provocations and reconciliatory gestures, the two Koreas have vacillated between conflict and reconciliation. Unexpected incidents between the Koreas also have triggered internal disputes among South Koreans, as evidenced by the recent killing of a South Korean official by North Korean military personnel. Along with the ideological divide between conservatives and liberals here, all these factors have prevented the South from pursuing a consistent North Korea policy.
Experts say North Korea needs to become more forward-looking.
"The North needs to take a forward-looking approach rather than focusing on maintaining the security of its regime. In that respect, it is important for North Korea to demonstrate flexibility toward the South and the U.S.," Kim said.
On the South's side, the analysts said it needs a long-term, institutionalized approach that achieves a consensus between conservatives and liberals so it can be pursued regardless of administration changes.
"If we want consistency, we need a long-term plan, we need a system in which experts can work together with those who understand Korea's political realities to formulate effective policies," Pastreich noted.
"On the South's side, whenever the nation goes through a change of administration between conservatives and progressives, its policies in dealing with the North change to an extreme degree, which is a barrier to advancing inter-Korean ties. Many experts concur that an independent bipartisan organization should be established to push ahead with a consistent North Korea policy regardless of who wins the presidential election," Kim Jung said.
Park advised South Koreans to narrow their differences in perception of North Korea, although this will not be easy.
"North Korea gives us a dual image. North Koreans are our fellow countrymen to embrace, but at the same time, they are the biggest enemy threatening us. In addition, the South's policy for unification contradicts its overall policy on North Korea given that the former is to break the current situation while the latter is to maintain the status quo," he said.
"In the end, the only way to reach a national consensus among South Koreans on the North is to choose either a unification policy or a North Korea policy."