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Ramon Pacheco Pardo
Dr. Ramon Pacheco Pardo is the Korea Foundation-Vrije Universiteit Brussel Korea Chair and a Reader in International Relations at King's College London.
President Moon Jae-in gave two key speeches during his recent trip to three Nordic countries. His address at the Oslo Forum has been more widely reported, but the remarks at Sweden’s Riksdag were the more detailed.
Both speeches made specific references to the ways in which the case of Northern Europe can serve as an example for an inter-Korean peace process.
Trust was the key theme of Moon’s speech in Stockholm. He discussed three types of trust: between the peoples of South and North Korea, in dialogue to bring peace, and from the international society in North Korea.
Regarding trust between the peoples of both Koreas, Moon’s address at Oslo University had the title “Peace for the People.” According to this narrative, peace in Northern Europe and across Europe more broadly was achieved once the people saw its benefits.
The two examples that Moon gave in Oslo were Norway’s leading role in tackling transboundary environmental problems from the 1950s onwards and the East-West Germany “permanent legations” established with the German Basic Treaty of 1972.
These examples build on the idea of trust between the peoples, and the benefits derived from peace for the peoples of Northern Europe.
With regards to tackling transboundary environmental problems, the example of Northern Europe holds two lessons for Korean reconciliation.
The first lesson is how to deal with common environmental threats. Take the case of fine dust, which affects both Koreas. Any realistic solution will require cooperation between both of them as well as with third countries in Northeast Asia – especially China.
Northern European countries understood this. Thus they took the lead in promoting cooperation in this area regardless of any political differences they might have had – among themselves, but, more to the point, between democracies and communist countries.
This type of cooperation could start in earnest in the Korean peninsula even without a peace process.
The second lesson is the need to prepare to deal with environmental degradation in North Korea. Similarly to East Germany and, more broadly, Cold War-era Central and Eastern Europe, North Korea faces problems such as air pollution, deforestation and deteriorated water quality.
These would only get worse if sanctions on North Korea are eased and the country starts to attract factories relocating from elsewhere while mining activity increases.
Reconciliation of the two Koreas – never mind reunification – would result in a need to address this problem. This would require the kind of preparation that West Germany and Western Europe failed to do prior to the collapse of communism.
The costs of German reunification, estimated at up to €2 trillion, were inflated by the need to shut down old industries and clean the environment in East Germany.
In the case of Central and Eastern Europe, the EBRD adopted its first Environmental Policy at the first meeting of its Board of Directors in 1991. The bank was aware of the need to start working on improving the environment of post-communist European countries from the onset. Seldom discussed in public, improving environmental conditions in North Korea would be a priority in any reconciliation scenario.
The examples that Moon gave in Oslo also relate to trust in dialogue, or the idea that dialogue and cooperation more broadly will make North Korea more secure.
The case of the German Basic Treaty is particularly instructive because one of its key outcomes was the establishment of permanent legations that acted as de facto embassies. Other than their obvious symbolism, these offices served to address issues such as environmental emergencies and the spread of infectious diseases.
The parallel with the situation in the Korean peninsula is clear. During the recent wildfire in Gangwon Province close to the inter-Korean border, the Ministry of Unification announced that it would inform North Korea of the situation.
Meanwhile, Seoul is now worried that the ongoing outbreak of swine fever in North Korea could reach the South. This would not be the first time that an infectious disease makes its way from the north to the south of the 38th parallel.
Permanent legations from each Korea in the other’s capital would facilitate communication in a way that the liaison office in Kaesong cannot. They have very practical benefits on issues that already affect both Koreas, reconciliation or not.
During his Oslo speech, Moon also referred to the East Asian Railroad Community that he proposed last August. The idea is to link North Korea to Northeast Asia’s transportation, production, and energy networks.
This proposal directly builds on the European Coal and Steel Community, as Moon stressed when he first proposed it. Launched in 1951, the ECSC laid the ground for the European Economic Community and, eventually, European reconciliation by reducing the incentives to go to war and strengthening people’s links.
Thanks to the ECSC, government officials, businesspeople, and even workers from different countries came into contact and understood the benefits of cooperation and the folly of conflict.
This was only six years after World War II had devastated Europe. Moon’s hope is that the East Asian Railroad Community will have the same effect on Pyongyang.
One last aspect of Moon’s Stockholm speech that should not be overlooked is his reference to Sweden as an example of a country that took the decision not to possess nuclear weapons.
In the aftermath of World War II, Sweden had a clear threat: the Soviet Union. It also had the technology and expertise to build nuclear weapons. Also, economically Sweden was in a much better position throughout the 1950s and 1960s than North Korea has been in recent decades.
And yet, Sweden started to scrap its nuclear weapons program in 1968. The program was concluded in 1972. The Soviet threat had not disappeared. But the Swedish government’s thinking about how to guarantee the country’s security had changed.
Sweden and North Korea have little in common. But the point is that the Swedish government’s decision, from Moon’s perspective, created trust in Sweden, across the region, and at the international level.
Likewise, Pyongyang’s decision to take meaningful steps towards denuclearization would support trust-building between both Koreas and between North Korea and the United States.
North Korea will earn the trust of the international community as and if it takes these meaningful steps. Otherwise, there will be little or no faith in Kim Jong Un’s words in Hanoi, when he effectively said that he is willing to denuclearize.
Ultimately, Northern Europe and Northeast Asia are certainly very different regions. Yet, the examples that Moon referred to during his Oslo and Stockholm speeches hold lessons that can be adapted to the situation in the Korean peninsula.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Blue House