South Korea’s new government should work to re-open inter-Korean economic projects, but must make sure hard currency does not fall into the hands of the regime and that international sanctions are respected, Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) Director Son Gi-woong told NK News in an extended interview at the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity in early June.
“Unlike the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang tour, the South should stay away from providing any hard currency to the North,” he said. “It may be used in weapon development.”
Dr. Son, who was recently appointed the 15th director of the South Korean government-funded KINU, also suggested that a joint construction project with the North on the DMZ could serve as the first step towards reconciliation: what he believes to be key to the denuclearization of the North. He also discussed the possibility of compromising with the North on the May 24 measures, the importance of human rights, and how to encourage South Koreans to be more enthusiastic about unification.
NK News’s participation in the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity was assisted financially by its organizers
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length
NK News: Do you think North Korea is interested in engagement?
Son Gi-woong: First, I have a little bit of doubt about the term “engagement.” Currently, when we talk about how we should deal with the North, we either use the term “containment” or “engagement.” I would suggest replacing the term engagement with “reconciliation.”
Of course, President Moon will have to focus on the denuclearization of North Korea and make an effort to stop future provocations. But I also hope the side focus will be on restoring the trust that has been broken on the Korean Peninsula – through cooperation based on the reconciliation.
So, yes, the current government may use the term “engagement,” but context should be on reconciling with the North and restoring trust while expanding exchange and cooperation.
From this point of view, there is no reason for Pyongyang to go against the “reconciliation” and “cooperation” with Seoul.
“Not a single South Korean would be willing to attack the North preemptively”
NK News: Most North Korean government officials are sanctioned. How will the South engage with them?
Son Gi-woong: Under Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, the North claimed that its possession of nuclear arsenal was a “necessity”, as it prevented the U.S. and ROK’s military actions against North Korea – that is what Pyongyang is infusing to its people.
By creating external threats, Pyongyang could unite the North Koreans under the single banner of the military, a strategy that has long been part of the North’s national policy. But, as you may know, not a single South Korean would be willing to attack the North preemptively.
And without the South Korean government’s consent, the U.S. cannot conduct military attacks on North Korea – including preemptive strikes. This makes the North’s claim that the U.S. and South Korea is trying to attack it groundless.
The international sanctions imposed against Pyongyang are based on legitimate concerns. What the international community and South Korea is telling Kim Jong Un is that the North can still prosper peacefully, cooperate and coexist without the development of nuclear weapons and military provocations.
Former Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations were focused on “containing” North Korea. But while will still have to continue pushing the North towards denuclearization, the Moon administration should also make clear to the North Korean public that the South has no intention of carrying out attacks against the North.
By pursuing both containment and reconciliation in parallel, South Korea can encourage internal changes from North Korea and its people as well. Amid this new progress, the chance to resolve Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal issue may come to the surface.
NK News: Would it be possible to go around the May 24 measures?
Son Gi-woong: That is a very important question. Even though the May 24 measures were introduced in President Lee Myung-bak’s era, the Moon administration will not be able to just terminate then.
The focus of those measures is “North Korea should apologize for the sinking of Cheonan and promise to avoid a recurrence,” and I think that the new government could find a compromise: for example, instead of focusing just on the “apology and the promise to avoid a recurrence,” a roundabout way it may look like this:
“While the South and the North could not reach an agreement on the unfortunate incident including the sinking of Cheonan… but to improve inter-Korean relations, the two sides have agreed on the peaceful development of the zone in DMZ –the symbol of conflict and disputes – that the two parties can participate to build.”
This is my personal opinion, and despite the May 24 measures, if we can reach an agreement with the North to turn part of DMZ into a joint construction project, then we can revitalize inter-Korean cooperation.
But future cooperation with the North must be different from the ones we had in the past.
For example, unlike the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the Mount Kumgang tour, the South should stay away from providing any hard currency to the North. It may be used in weapon development. Instead of cash, we could send “merchandise on the spot” as an alternative.
Should the South start sending massive hard currency to the North for the better inter-Korean relations, Seoul will not only face harsh domestic resistance but will also be running the risk of violating UNSC sanctions against North Korea.
NK News: Will Moon administration increases its pressure on cases of human rights violations by the North Korean government?
Son Gi-woong: The South Korean Constitution outlines that all of the people in the South and the North are our citizens. In that sense, North Koreans are a part of us, and the South Korean president should remain concerned about North Korean human rights issues.
“Future cooperation with the North must be different from the ones we had in the past”
Also, at the same time, we should also discuss the South Koreans abducted to the North and the Korean War POWs detained in North Korea. In both cases, the Pyongyang government is illegally violating those people’s civil liberties.
The North Korean human rights issue, whether it impacts future inter-Korean relations or not, is a universal value of humanity, the value that the South Korean constitution also recognizes.
So, the internal and international efforts in understanding the North Korean human rights situation must be continued. However, when and how seriously the South would bring up the North Korean human rights may be decided based on politics.
NK News: Unlike North Koreans, the South Korean youth’s interest in Korean unification is rather low. How can we resolve this?
Son Gi-woong: For South Koreans, what is more important than “unification” is what we are trying to achieve through it.
Unification can’t be our ultimate goal, but instead, freeing the whole of the Korean Peninsula and creating a democracy, where human rights are respected and proper welfare is provided for the people, should be the objective.
While the level of interest in unification may be high in the North as a result of political and ideological education, I don’t think the “unification” they want would be based on freedom, human rights, and welfare – as ours is.
Yes, it is true that South Korean society has a problem that the younger generation has a lower interest in this issue than older generations, and this is partially due to the economic hardship they face. But that shows us the direction of how we should approach them about this topic.
Instead of just emphasizing the unification, we should say that freedom, human rights, democracy, and welfare – things that South Korean youths care about – can only be achieved through unification.
NK News: What do you fear the most in terms of Inter-Korean relations?
Son Gi-woong: The North’s nuclear weapons issue is an international matter that can’t be resolved solely by Seoul alone. How can we resolve it? We need to make Washington, Beijing, and Moscow say with one voice to Pyongyang that it must give up nuclearisation.
Since 1993 the three nations have unanimously stood against the North’s development of nuclear arms, but over the last 24 years the three parties have had different opinions on “when and how” to make Pyongyang give up its program.
This disagreement has bought enough time for Pyongyang to develop the nuclear arsenal they have today. Korean unification is important for peace on the Korean Peninsula, but we have to keep in mind other nations’ perspective about this issue.
Will the unification of the Korean Peninsula mean peace for them too? Will Washington, Beijing, and Moscow be in favor of Korean unification? I doubt that will be the case.
So, while we may emphasize about the unification on the domestic front, internationally, Seoul’s diplomatic strategy should be focused on convincing the world that its goal is making the Korean peninsula into a better place, where freedom, human rights, democracy, and welfare is practiced.
Chad O’Carroll and JH Ahn contributed to this article.
Edited by: Oliver Hotham
Featured image: http://japanfocus.org/data/NKworkersatKaesongIndustrialPark.jpg
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