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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
The U.S. policy of pushing North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons through strengthening military and economic pressure is unlikely to succeed, Kim Yeon-chul, a professor at the Department of Korean Unification of Inje University and an advisor to the National Security Office (NSO), said in an interview with NK News earlier in the month.
“Washington’s various statements that North Korea will succumb if they strengthen pressure is unrealistic,” Kim said.
The U.S. approach, Kim argued, could miss opportunities to improve the situation on the Korean peninsula as it doesn’t “consider the character of the North Korean regime” and because previous experience suggests that pressure is not the sole solution.
Formerly a policy advisor to Minister of Unification Chung Dong-young under the late President Roh Moo-hyun, Kim now serves as an advisor on the field of unification affairs for the Blue House’s National Security Office (NSO).
“We are at a very crucial moment. There is no time to waste,” Kim said. “If we waste time, it’ll more difficult to seize the chance to solve the issue and costs will rise. Therefore, we should find the most efficient way based on more cool-headed and accurate judgment.”
Is his new book – “Reading the history of South-North relations anew: 70 years of dialogue” – Kim argues that concerned parties should deal with North Korea as it is, not as they would like it to be.
Kim’s book – published amid renewed dialogue and engagement between the two Koreas – gives an overview of the period from the 1950s to the Park Geun-hye administration, rating the history of inter-Korean relations depending on progress and form of dialogue.
In an interview with NK News following its release, Professor Kim discussed current inter-Korean talks, their historical background, and long-term prospects for unification.
NORTH KOREA AS IT IS
“South-North talks need to be viewed from a long-term perspective,” Kim said.
“We (Seoul) always suggested Washington meet and hold talks with North Korea,” he continued, discussing his experience as a policy advisor. “In general, most U.S. officials assessed the North as a counterpart who they can do business with.”
At least in Seoul, the Overton window appears to be shifting back to support for inter-Korean engagement, with the Moon administration putting significant effort into linking recent Pyongyang-Seoul rapprochement to talks between the North and the U.S.
South Korean President Moon early in the month said “the early resumption of dialogue between the United States and North Korea is absolutely necessary for developments in the inter-Korean relations” at a meeting with a high-level North Korean delegation.
Moon also this week said that the Trump administration should “lower its bar for dialogue” so that dialogue can take place.
“Without talks, it’s hard to find solutions,” Kim said. “Therefore, they should put efforts into resolving the issue dealing with North Korea as it is.”
“It’s very important to time engagement, so the U.S.’s maximum pressure policy can exert its full potential.”
“It will be very difficult… the gap is really huge”
But Seoul is still likely to face difficulties maintaining the atmosphere for dialogue after the Olympics, he said, despite the Moon administration’s plans to use the games as momentum for broader talks on the North Korean nuclear issue.
Despite the Moon administration’s stance of starting the dialogue on a nuclear freeze and ending with denuclearization, Kim admitted the distance from entry and exit will be “pretty far away.” But, he emphasized, dialogue is the “immediate goal.”
But how likely is this to take place? It currently seems like North Korea and the international community couldn’t be further apart: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has declared that his country has “finally realized the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force.” The international community, on the other hand, insists on the principle of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
“It will be very difficult,” Kim said. “The gap [between the two] is really huge.”
Not all inter-Korean dialogue is created equal, however: much of Kim’s book urges readers to recognize that there are various types of talks that can take place, from meetings intended to gauge counterpart’s intention to those intended for stopping exacerbation of tensions.
“As the going gets tough, and it’s difficult to come up with a solution, it is necessary to engage in exploratory talks to reduce those gaps,” Kim said.
“What is most important is to understand the North’s intentions,” he added, explaining that there will be a difference between Seoul’s expectations and what the outcome of any dialogue may be.
“In a sense, the situation can change at any time, depending on what Seoul can earn during the process when dialogue begins.”
“I think we should change to a way in which we elicit a response in advance, instead of simply responding to the North’s actions,” Kim said. “But the South’s leading role hasn’t been seen now: the inertia of the phase in which relations deteriorated has continued.”
But Kim thinks the Moon administration can “enhance its leading role” in using the PyeongChang Winter Olympics to reopen communication with the North.
In his book, Kim criticizes the Park Geun-hye administration for connecting the North Korean nuclear issue to the inter-Korean relations based on its theory that North Korea’s collapse was imminent.
That theory, he writes, considered sanctions to be an end, not a means: supporting negotiations while seeing the regime’s collapse as an imminent possibility could never have worked as a strategy.
The South Korean government, instead, should deal with inter-Korean relations and the nuclear issue “in parallel,” he said, much like the approach of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations.
It will “take considerable time and efforts to build trust again… there has been profound distrust and a process of confrontation.”
When asked by NK News whether Seoul could really pursue productive inter-Korean talks amid growing international pressure on Pyongyang, Kim said South Korea can use its diplomatic clout to bridge the gap between coordination with the international community and cooperation between the two Koreas.
“What is most important is to understand the North’s intentions”
“The amount of influence that Seoul can use to persuade North Korea is proportional to the significance of South Korea’s diplomatic role in the international community,” he argued.
But while President Moon has repeatedly stated that the improvement of inter-Korean relations “can’t go separately” from the issue of the denuclearization, some have cast doubt on whether Seoul has the capability to engage in talks on the nuclear program.
North Korea has repeatedly said that its nuclear issue is a matter to be dealt with between Pyongyang and Washington. This approach is often described as “Tong Mi Bong Nam” (通美封南): the North’s strategy of communicating with the U.S. while shunning South Korea.
The term was coined during the Kim Young-sam administration of the 1990s, when only North Korea-U.S. meetings were held without inter-Korean talks.
The North’s negotiation tactics are not new, Professor Kim says in his book: during the Kim Yong-sam era, Pyongyang attempted to manage the situation on the Korean peninsula putting an emphasis on the U.S. – North Korea relationship while inter-Korean ties deteriorated.
In order to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, Kim said the South needs to play an “active role in creating a virtuous circle” in the triangular relations between the South, the North, and the U.S.: only possible when inter-Korean relations work.
“The U.S. acknowledges the South’s role,” he said in the book. “But if the ability to persuade the North flies out the window, the U.S. no longer acknowledges the South’s initiative.”
The Kim Dae-jung administration’s leading role in the trilateral relations between the South, North and the U.S., he writes in his book, was “the crucial part” of its foreign and security policy, pointing out Seoul then began to develop a path towards peace under tough conditions.
“The Roh Moo-hyun government set the principle of resolving the South-North relations and North Korean nuclear issue in parallel, and declared the leading role of the South and put it into action in reality.”
He said the second inter-Korean summit in 2007 was also part of the process of creating an atmosphere for resolving the North Korean nuclear issue.
DE FACTO UNIFICATION
What, then, should be the final goal of Seoul’s policy toward North Korea?
In his assessment of 70 years of inter-Korean dialogue, Kim says the “realization of unification” should be gradual – what he calls “unification as a process.”
The concept acknowledges that some coexistence between Seoul and Pyongyang is essential, and that de facto unification can be achieved through changes caused by co-existence.
“While de jure and institutional unification emphasizes the procedural importance of the process of the unification, de facto unification focuses on the dynamics of the unification process,” Kim says in his book.
“The U.S. acknowledges the South’s role”
Essential to this gradualist approach will be progress in inter-Korean engagement. In January, the Ministry of Unification (MOU) announced a plan to boost inter-Korean exchanges through local governments and private organizations, and to expand multilateral exchanges into fields including forestry and sports.
Kim calls for Seoul to regularize the Inter-Korean Economic Cooperation Promotion Committee, to institutionalize economic cooperation, along with the regularization of the defense ministerial meetings between the two Koreas.
“It is necessary to gradually develop the institutional level of South-North confederation stage by stage, while reflecting the outcomes of the achievement of inter-Korean cooperation in each field,” he says in his book.
Seoul doesn’t need to suggest any final form for de jure and institutional unification while fulfilling de facto unification, he says.
“But it is necessary to look for the interim process of the unification process. And this is the South-North confederation.”
“This means the gradual and phased approach of the unification process. And it can be interpreted as an agreement of the ‘transitional process’ or ‘intermediate stage.’”
De facto unification, he believes, will be realized when the two Koreas achieve the development of a reciprocal relationship across various fields and when the basic characteristic of inter-Korean relations change from confrontation to collaboration.
And the realization of actual unification will “naturally bring opportunities for de jure and institutional unification.”
Calling for a concrete end goal of unification policy – like the Park Geun-hye administration’s “bonanza” claims – he says, is the wrong approach.
“Coexistence is differentiated from unification in the real political context. ‘Not giving’ the future vision of the unified country is considerate to the other side,” he said.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)