Park Geun-hye will next month be sworn in as South Korea’s new President and will inherit one of the best performing economies in Asia and a country that is now culturally punching above its weight. While she inherits some very positive aspects of her country’s affairs from her predecessor, she also take on his debts. And after five years of Lee Myung-bak, the biggest debt for Park’s administration will be North Korea.
Since 1997, South Korea has straddled between a more favorable attitude toward North Korea (with its Sunshine policy) to more recently adopting what can only be called a deep-freeze policy (there being no interaction unless Pyongyang made the changes that Seoul felt were necessary). This column does not aim to fight the battle of supporting Kim Dae-Jung’s approach over Lee Myung-Bak’s, but instead aims to highlight that while relations between the two Korea’s are at the moment hostile, there is a way for the new President to move this issue forward should she wish to do so.
Last week, I wrote about how the experience of Ireland could provide a model for a Korean reconciliation and in this column I want to elaborate further on how this can be achieved. Indeed, today is a very appropriate moment to write this article as it was on this day 48 years ago that the first meeting in four decades took place between the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, Terence O’Neill, and the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic (Taoiseach) Seán Lemass. The O’Neill/Lemass Belfast summit is generally recognized in Irish history as the beginning of the thaw in the Irish cold war which had persisted between both states since the partition of the island in 1921. Before the summit in 1965 the Irish government regarded Northern Ireland as an illegitimate state imposed by the colonial master, Britain. And while the Irish Republic exerted a territorial claim over Northern Ireland, the Unionist government in Belfast refused any direct meetings at a leadership level.
During the fifties Europe saw countries like France and Germany come together to form close economic links, who just a decade earlier were engaged in war. On the edge of Europe though was a small island where both the Premiers of the two governments could only communicate with one another via press release. Thankfully all that changed on 14th January 1965, when the two Premiers met one another in Belfast to discuss how they could co-operate on issues such as tourism, commerce and energy.
So did either government give up any of their constitutional aims toward one another to make this happen? The short answer was no. The Irish government still had the goal of Irish reunification central to its constitution, while the Northern Irish government still viewed repelling that very same goal as central to theirs. Put simply, both leaders put their political goals aside, explaining to the public that ‘our talks…did not touch upon political or constitutional questions.’ The focus of these summits would then solely be related functional co-operation between the two governments. Within two short years of that first January meeting, agreements were reached on joint ventures in tourism, electricity and enhancing cross-border trade.
It was not all plane sailing, though. As The Troubles in Northern Ireland began in 1969, relations between the two governments did eventually cool off. It would take another twenty years of political initiatives to get to the improved relationship we see today. But in 2013, we have an Irish government that in 1998 renounced its territorial claim on Northern Ireland and a North-South ministerial council to oversee co-operation between the two administrations. In Northern Ireland we also have former skeptics of co-operation with the Irish Republic like the current First Minister, Peter Robinson saying last year in his Carson lecture, “I value the relationship I have with the present Irish Government – and though we will not always agree – I know we can work together to the benefit of our people.” This process of normalizing relations began 48 years ago today.
So why on earth should Park Geun-hye or anybody who’s interested in Korean reconciliation care about what happened in Ireland nearly half a century ago? After the summit between Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il there has been a great deal of cynicism about the ability of formal co-operation to break down barriers. While I would not argue that every aspect of Ireland’s experience fits with Korea’s, I would urge readers to remember that where Ireland is today has been five decades in the making.
No peace and reconciliation project is perfect; both states of Ireland are not perfect. We still have many parts of our community that feel deep feelings of bitterness and mistrust. But looking back the Ireland we have today is immensely better than the country that existed fifty years ago and that in large part began with that ground breaking meeting between Lemass and O’Neill in January 1965. If the incoming Park administration in Seoul wants to begin a new dialogue with North Korea then it must be in it for the long haul. The fear of failure will be palpable, but to fail at anything you at least have to try first. Ireland’s example shows that small steps initially can yield big results in the end. Throughout the late 20th century South Korea showed the world that in terms of economic development everything moves faster in Korea. Now President-elect Park has the opportunity to show that in the 21st century when it comes to reconciliation that same sense of urgency is not just limited to the economic field.