“Korea can catch up with Japan economically through inter-Korean cooperation.”
Now there’s a headline to catch the eye. An ROK headline, need I add. The giveaway being its presumption – ironic in this context – that South Korea equates to Korea. So let’s rephrase.
“South Korea can catch up with Japan economically through inter-Korean cooperation.”
Wow. Were I still teaching, I’d like to set that as an exam question and add: “Discuss”. Pretty out there, don’t you think? A challengingly counter-intuitive proposition, to put it mildly.
Who is this radical contrarian, plucking a rabbit from the hat: hey presto! Two rabbits, indeed.
Not merely a solution to that little spot of bother over trade sanctions which South Korea is currently embroiled in with Japan. But better yet, a cure that will enable Korea to overhaul its heartily hated eastern neighbor, rival and former overlord. That is mighty powerful snake-oil.
So who’s peddling it? No fringe heterodox figure, this. It was none other than ROK President Moon Jae-in himself, speaking on August 5.
When the media first reported these startling statements, it was fair to wonder whether they might have been taken out of context. Indeed, one noted blogger sought to dismiss this as “a brief presidential remark made during exigent circumstances.”
Not so. The Blue House website carried Moon’s full remarks, which are well worth reading; they are quite short. Moreover, the presidential PR team made a point of emphasizing this theme in a separate report. The headline quote which began this article is their own summary spin, not my gloss. That is exactly what they wrote.
YES, HE REALLY MEANS IT
So this is no passing comment, shorn of its context or misunderstood. It’s a message, and a claim, that South Korea’s chief executive and his staff deliberately chose to flag up.
That means we must take it seriously. To do so properly requires two articles. This first one looks at how such themes figure in Moon’s prior thinking. We also note a precedent which he probably won’t appreciate, since it invokes his much-reviled predecessor Park Geun-hye.
Our second article will trace the intellectual genesis of such contrarian optimism, positing North Korea as a positive factor for the South. (Hint: It involves a so-called vampire squid.)
Long before he was elected President, Moon Jae-in was touting the benefits of inter-Korean economic co-operation. Back in August 2012, when he ran for president the first time – Park Geun-hye narrowly defeated him that December – Moon proposed an inter-Korean economic union. (Kudos to the U.S. National Committee on North Korea [NCNK] for translating this at the time, and for recently reinstating it at my request after it vanished in a website revamp.)
In office Moon has returned to this theme – as Dagyum Ji very helpfully traced in an article here at NK News, soon after Moon made his latest and strongest comments.
Moon’s bigger, edgier new claim that South Korea can get a growth boost from North Korea has a precursor – though he won’t relish the comparison
A year ago, citing ‘policy research’ – at a guess, presumably this – the President claimed that the potential “impact from inter-Korean economic cooperation is estimated to reach 170 trillion won at a minimum over the next 30 years.” Bracketing the issue of assumptions, that works out at a more modest $3 billion a year. Not quite catching up with Japan.
Or again, in his New Year press conference on January 10 Moon reportedly called North-South cooperation “a groundbreaking growth engine” – though this time he didn’t quantify it. That phrase doesn’t appear in the official text, so presumably this and other interesting quoted comments were made in reply to questions.
The President also spoke of backward linkages and market opportunities, averring that “peace can drive economic growth”.
Amen to that. I have no quarrel (does anyone?) with the wider proposition that inter-Korean economic exchanges are a Good Thing – if more obviously so for North Korea. That has long been my view, and I regret that such intercourse has latterly fallen foul of sanctions.
Even before that, though, Lee Myung-bak had taken his bat home in 2010: banning almost all North-South trade in reprisal for the sinking of the Cheonan. Whatever the political pressures, this perversely yielded the Northern field to China. But these are hares we can’t chase here.
Moon’s bigger, edgier new claim that South Korea can get a growth boost from North Korea has a precursor – though he won’t relish the comparison. Unification as jackpot; remember? (That was the initial translation for a slangy Korean term, before they settled on ‘bonanza’.)
Now jailed for a harsh 32 years – while Chun Doo-hwan, butcher of Gwangju, walks free – Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye followed no consistent North Korea policy during her four years in office. Having at first embraced a cautious ‘Trustpolitik’, it was startling when she suddenly switched to calling unification a jackpot.
Never spelled out, much less quantified, this may have been her friend Choi Sun-sil’s idea – and based on prophecy rather than reason. Regardless, the politics are the same, though the ROK Right and Left alike would be loath to admit to sharing any ideas or ideals.
Park yesterday, and Moon today, both want South Koreans to regard North Korea as not a curse but a blessing – or at least an opportunity. Are they right? Park offered no evidence at all, and Moon not much. But an intellectual case for this has been made before, by a proper economist.
Our second article will assess whether such optimism has any justification.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Joint Press Pool
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