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‘Consensus, policy consistency integral for reunification’

Park Myung-lim puts forward his vision of peninsular peace, inter-Korean reconciliation

This is the fifth in a series of articles to mark the 60th anniversary of the armistice agreement that halted the 1950-53 Korean War. -- Ed.

Park Myung-lim (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
Park Myung-lim (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

Park Myung-lim, a leading scholar on the Korean War, called on South Korea to build internal consensus as the first step toward reunification, pointing to persistent ideological divisions over North Korea and its policy inconsistency.

During an interview with The Korea Herald, the Yonsei University professor stressed the South should be able to take responsibility of peacefully managing all peninsular issues, noting the North was already a “failed system.”

“First and foremost, Seoul should establish a consistent internal perspective and policy toward North Korea and reunification. Just crafting reunification scenarios is not a top priority,” Park, 49, said.

With his decades of extensive research including interviews and fact-finding trips, Park has sought to uncover the truths behind the 1950-53 war, the first major armed conflict of the Cold War.

Through painstaking research, Park also hopes to console the spirits of those who died in the conflict and contribute to finding the right direction toward peace and reunification.

“I have continued to delve into the war as I believe someone should help relieve the pain from the endless tragedies of the deceased, wounded, widows and orphans. Even for a moment, I have never forgotten the deep sadness in their eyes,” he said.

Following is the full transcript of the interview with Park.

Korea Herald: This year marks the 60th anniversary of the armistice agreement. How do you assess the agreement so far? Some say it is already in tatters as Pyongyang has long sought to make it null and void.

Park Myung-lim: The armistice was a provisional agreement to halt the Korean War, for which there was neither a winner nor a loser. Due to its tentativeness, the armistice regime born out of the agreement was a two-sided system that guaranteed not only stability but also instability. Despite this, we should not forget the armistice regime was the minimum mechanism to ward off war aggression and maintain security on the peninsula.

For some time before and after the ceasefire, it was actually the South that showed reluctance toward the agreement. Under South Korean President Syngman Rhee (hoping for a unified Korea), the South did not join the signing of the armistice. In addition, the South, on the surface, pushed for a strong policy to advance into the North (to unify the peninsula.) Moreover, it was the South and the U.S. that actively argued in the 1950s that the Neutral Nations Supervisory Commission should be pulled out.

Recently, Pyongyang sought aggressively to nullify the armistice. It is clear that the North aims to forge a peace treaty, which would replace the armistice regime. But the armistice can’t be modified, supplemented or invalidated unilaterally by one side according to the mutual agreement. Thus, until both sides agree on its replacement, the armistice has to be seen as an apparatus to secure peace and security. North Korea’s provocations can also be called “provocations” because the armistice has been in force.

KH: There have been conflicting descriptions regarding the cause of the Korean War. Some say it was a civil war while others say it was an international war amid the escalating antagonism between the U.S. and Soviet Union. What is your analysis?

Park: The Korean War is neither a civil war nor international war. Particularly, it is not a civil war as the root cause of the war was the great powers having divided and occupied the peninsula. On top of that, Stalin of the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong of China were directly involved in the decision to initiate the war, and major war-related policies were determined in Washington, Tokyo, Moscow and Beijing. This holds true with the ending of the war.

After the emergence of the world system, wars in regions divided militarily, ideologically and territorially by great powers cannot be regarded as a civil war. A civil war is a fight over who will represent one society in a country like the English, American, Russian, Spanish and Chinese Civil Wars.

The Korean War is a sort of global civil war and, at the same time, an East Asian civil war. It does not mean a globalized civil war, but a “war of world citizens.” Koreans were world citizens who experienced a world conflict, namely the Cold War, at its forefront. The Korean War was a microcosm where that conflict of the world exploded. It was virtually a world war, and in actuality, it was the largest armed conflict during the Cold War. Yet, it did not escalate into World War III.

KH: What do you think about the implications or impact of the Korean War on the dynamics of East Asia?

Park: Its biggest impact is on the establishment of a Cold War structure in East Asia -- namely, the forging of the San Francisco system and a failure to introduce the Yalta system. The Yalta system is multilateral competition between capitalist and socialist collective security systems like the contest between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Warsaw Treaty Organization. But due to the Korean War, East Asian countries such as Japan, China, South Korea, North Korea, the Philippines and Taiwan forged either bilateral alliances or confrontational relations with the U.S.

Thus, East Asia failed to build a multilateral, collective security mechanism. We call this “Northeast Asian exceptionalism” or a “hub-and-spokes system.” The very reason why the Cold War system still lives on in East Asia despite the collapse of socialism is the hub-and-spokes system -- the fundamental characteristic of the San Francisco system -- following the Korean War.

Secondly, in the wake of the war, the nascent state of China emerged on the world stage and its separation from Taiwan became solid. Less than a year after China founded its communist nation, it fought in the Korean War against the world’s greatest power, the U.S., and the war ended in a tie. It was quite shocking to the world.

Following the war, China gained a greater say over East Asian issues than that of the then communist leader, the Soviet Union. The war laid the groundwork for China to rise as the so-called Group of 2 later in the future. The war also played some role in preventing China from waging a war to unify with Taiwan, leading to a permanent division between China and Taiwan.

Thirdly, we can point to the “Japan problem.” After the war, Japan returned to the international community through the San Francisco Treaty without an exhaustive compensation and apology for inhumane crimes it perpetrated during World War II. Without Japan conscientiously taking moral, political and legal responsibility for the war crimes, we now have a slew of issues such as territorial disputes, compensation for atrocities including the wartime sexual enslavement of Asian women, controversial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and historical distortions. The Japan problem is not just a nationalistic issue between Korea and Japan, and between China and Japan, but an issue involving universal human rights, peace and wartime crimes that question the conscience of humanity. Of course, Japan also economically benefited from the war while serving as a rear base to logistically support U.S. troops fighting on the peninsula.

KH: You once said the government’s “monopolistic” interpretation of the Korean War damaged the lives and minds of Koreans. Can you be more specific about that?

Park: The war was a crucial resource to strengthen legitimacy for both the South and North as in the war, each succeeded in defending against an invasion from the other. Of course, the claim that the South invaded the North is a distortion, but the political effect on their people was the same.

Against this backdrop, it is impossible to raise voices that run counter to the government interpretation. Even if we agreed to the government view, we should be able to have our own critical view. If we can’t, we can hardly call South Korea a democracy. In particular, the slaying of civilians by the South Korean and U.S. troops, and wartime acts that devastated principles of democracy and constitutional government... these can’t elude stern criticism. We could kill civilians as the North did? This kind of inhumane and unpeaceable logic can never be established.

Thus, overcoming the government’s monopolistic view is tantamount to the restoration of citizens’ reason and autonomy, and of freedom to explore alternatives. I believe surmounting that would help overcome North Korea’s monopolistic description of the war and distortion of history, and ultimately contribute to forging a universal understanding of the history congenial to the era of reconciliation and reunification.

KH: The two Koreas have been caught in a relentless security dilemma -- bolstering military hardware while suspicious about each other’s intentions. How do you think we can overcome this? The North says it will hold nuclear arms until the U.S. end its alleged hostility toward Pyongyang. What is the security situation from the North’s standpoint?

Park: Pyongyang’s argument that it cannot help pursuing nuclear armament because of the U.S.’ hostile policy is baseless. The U.S. never invaded the North when it did not have any nuclear weapons. Not all countries that had hostile relations with the U.S. pursued nuclear armament. The North’s pursuit of nuclear arms is directly connected to the threat of its regime collapsing that stems from a combination of the deepening international isolation after the collapse of the Soviet Union; subsequent disintegration of the Cold War system; the widening inter-Korean gap of national power; the risks of being unified under South Korean control after losing in the arms race with the South; and its debilitated economy.

So, what security means from its perspective is the comprehensive resolution of the threats to its regime survival. Although Pyongyang has demanded a clear security assurance from Washington, it is only a part of the security issue facing its regime. Thus, the security dilemma can’t be resolved when Pyongyang only seeks to remove external threat elements such as the South, the U.S. and Japan. The North should objectively face up to it because its security crisis results from an intricate web of its isolation, inter-Korean gaps, economic debilitation, defection of its people and etc.

A shortcut to resolving the security dilemma the North faces with the South and the U.S. is recognizing each other and building trust. I have long claimed the South can adopt the method of the West and East Germany -- namely, normalizing bilateral ties and international relations at the same time. I would like to underscore this method would serve the South and the U.S., and conservatives in both countries. First of all, it is crucial to recognize each other in realistic terms -- until reunification -- by signing an inter-Korean basic treaty. In other words, the two Koreas should recognize each other’s status as a country, albeit tentatively, and clearly declare their peaceful coexistence. And then, the U.S. and the North also need to normalize their ties as quickly as possible.

By formally recognizing the North, the South and the U.S. can eliminate an element of its security threat and the North can abandon its nuclear arms that threaten the security of the South and the international community. These two measures will clearly be a shortcut to addressing the peninsular security dilemma in which the two Koreas increase its defense spending in a military contest based on suspicion and antagonism.

KH: Replacing the armistice regime with a peace regime is also a crucial task facing the two Koreas. What kind of efforts should be made to that end?

Park: It is not an easy task, but it should be a three-fold process. First, as I mentioned earlier, the process involves the two Koreas signing a basic treaty to recognize each other and the normalization of the U.S.-North Korea relations. That is to restore normal state-to-state relationships between the two Koreas and between the U.S. and the North.

Secondly, the armistice should be turned into a peace treaty. It is a prerequisite that in this process, the South -- which is the principal party for peninsular peace, but did not join the signing of the armistice -- should partake. Without its participation, any peace regime on the peninsula can’t be effectively upheld. Thus, a peace treaty can be formulated with the participation of the two Koreas, the U.S. and China in a two-plus-two format.

Thirdly, a collective security institution or multilateral security mechanism should be created in East Asia. As I said earlier, East Asia has yet to form any such body. Should a collective security system be built, the peninsular security issue would be elevated as an issue of collective or multilateral security in the region, and therefore, a war can scarcely be waged.

Denuclearization and arms reduction that these three measures entail would be a starting point for a peace system on the peninsula. The arms race and the troop concentration on the peninsula are at the world’s highest level. With any substantial cuts in them, any peace system would not lead to an actual tension reduction and peace enforcement.

KH: Pyongyang has recently pushed for dialogue with Seoul and Washington. What do you think it wants through dialogue? The allies have called for sincerity in the North’s denuclearization efforts. Will Pyongyang be ever willing to renounce its nuclear ambitions?

Park: The trust and the alliance between South Korea and the U.S. have remained unwavering when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear issues. The more talks Seoul or Washington have with the North, the better things will become. What the North seeks through talks is by no means crucial. As long as the allies agree on what to offer and take from the North through dialogue with the North, it does not matter whichever side holds talks with the North. Given this, it is an alarmist view that the North would seek to sideline the South while seeking dialogue with the U.S. or sideline the U.S. while holding talks with the South, since such a strategy would work only on the premise that the alliance falters due to some conflict.

If you look at world history, it is not a desirable, judicious approach that you ask the other hostile side to show sincerity or will. That will strengthen your moral criticism of the other side, but become an obstacle in hammering out an effective solution. You don’t even need to keep stressing Pyongyang should give up nuclear arms because it will not renounce them anyway until it gets the maximum benefits from the weapons that they developed by funneling national resources despite all the risks associated with them.

Thus, before asking the North to voluntarily show sincerity in its denuclearization, we should ponder the benefits, with which we can induce or force its denuclearization, and the capabilities and means of ourselves and the international community. The main national interest the North wants to achieve through nuclear arms is national security. This is the key. As what outweighs the possession of nuclear arms for the North is national security, we need to separate the two and try negotiations by suggesting, in concrete terms, what we can offer in return to ensure its national security.

KH: While we talk a lot about the possible collapse of the North Korean regime, little has been discussed of reunification. What kind of efforts do we need to make for that?

Park: North Korea is already a failed system in terms of its value and substance. Thus, whether reunification is near or not, regardless of when the North will cease to be, the South should be equipped with responsibilities and capabilities to undertake and manage overall peninsular issues including North Korea issues peacefully. We could discuss reunification and peace together with the North, but that has become utterly impossible now.

Therefore, the first and foremost thing to do for reunification is establishing a “consistent” internal perspective and policy toward North Korea and reunification. By no means is crafting reunification scenarios the top priority. With the hitherto internal conflicts over North Korea and policy fluctuations between liberal and conservative governments, the South can never manage peninsula issues in a consistent manner.

This means the most urgent thing is to build national unity and internal compromise. So, the first step for reunification is to build internal compromise, integration and unity. Without this, the South will suffer from policy swings and self-denial, and be relentlessly embroiled in internal conflicts without a sustainable, resilient reunification policy. This would also send a confusing signal to North Korean people and the international community. Then, the South would not be able to explore an alternative reunification system for the entire peninsula, and win the minds of North Koreans and consent from the international community.

KH: Whether conservative or liberal, South Korean governments’ policies toward the North have not made much headway yet, particularly on the issue of denuclearization, in the last two decades. What is the fundamental problem?

Park: The first thing to do is to combine a national-level goal with an administration-level policy. With regard to North Korea policy, South Korea, as a state and republic, should have a consistent, clear policy goal. Within this goal, a liberal or conservative administration can have autonomy and flexibility. But while South Koreans do not make efforts to reach consensus over the former, they, oftentimes, tend to value the latter more. This is a very dangerous, ideologically-skewed approach.

The second is to recognize and honor former government’s inter-Korean and international agreements. Albeit insufficient, the two sides can implement them as they can modify and supplement them later in practical terms. In this way, the South can gain policy consistency and international trust. The signal to its citizens and North Koreans would also remain consistent.

For example, with regard to the 4th inter-Korean joint statement (1972), inter-Korean basic agreement (1991), June 15th joint declaration (2000) and Oct. 4 joint declaration (2007)... if a liberal government denies what conservative governments agreed with the North, and if a conservative government denies what liberal governments agreed, who would trust South Korea’s policy? It shouldn’t happen and this holds true with the international agreements such as the armistice agreement, the North Korea-U.S. Geneva Agreed Framework (1994); Sept. 19 agreement (2005) of the six-party talks; and the Feb. 13 agreement (2007).

KH: How do you view President Park Geun-hye’s dialogue-based peninsular trust-building process? Do you have any advice for her?

Park: I hope the Park government consults policy cases of Germany, Taiwan and the U.S. As witnessed in these cases, a moderate, liberal policy toward a hostile state was far more effective for a conservative government. As it is a conservative administration, conservatives will not object to it nor liberals shun it. The hostile state would also follow the policy as, after all, there is no other choice to take.

Indeed, the South needs to delve into the polices that the Christian Democratic Party in West Germany, the Nationalist Party of Taiwan and the Republican Party in the U.S. adopted. In particular, the South can study the implications of the Nixon government’s normalization of relations with China; Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s policy toward East Germany; and the Nationalist Party’s policy of coexistence and cooperation with China.

Among past Seoul governments, the South can learn from what the Roh Tae-woo administration did. Without undermining the Korea-U.S. alliance at all, it normalized ties with China and the Soviet Union -- the two countries that sponsored the North and both of which Seoul fought against during the Korean War. The Roh government also signed the inter-Korean basic agreement on reconciliation, non-aggression and bilateral exchanges, and adopted a joint declaration for peninsular denuclearization. This was the byproduct of the great wisdom and strategy to strengthen relations with the three antagonistic states.

KH: It is quite sad to recognize the fact that reunification can’t be achieved only by Koreans. As powers like the U.S. and China have strategic interests at stake over peninsular issues, Koreans face limits over their own unification. What is your take on this?

Park: As the division of the peninsular and the Korean War were international issues, peace and reunification on the peninsular are basically international issues. As we can see in the seven-year war in East Asia (1592-98), Sino-Japanese War, peninsular colonization and division, and Korean War, the Korea issue was the most crucial issue in the region and beyond. Thus, Koreans’ wisdom and efforts to gain cooperation and consent from the international community are crucial on their road to reunification. What this means is that reunification hinges on the South’s internal capacity for integration that can cope with shifts in the international community that may endure after reunification.

If you look closely at the seven-year war in East Asia, Sino-Japanese War, colonization, peninsular division and the Korean War, you can find out that conflicts on the peninsula resulted from, were amplified and solidified due to extreme factionalism, division and antagonism in Korean society and attempts at pushing out rival factions in tandem with foreign countries.

Look at what resulted from internal confrontation -- between those favoring war and peace; among pro-Japanese, pro-Chinese and pro-Russian; pro-U.S. and pro-Soviet Union; and liberals and conservatives. There is an incredible consistency in it and that is part of our history, which is, indeed, very frightening.

KH: President Park is also pushing the so-called Seoul process -- a trust-building mechanism for peace and stability in Northeast Asia. The process, as she puts it, seeks to build trust in non-political areas first and then moves onto the areas of “high-politics” such as security in what experts call a functionalism approach. What is your assessment of it?

Park: The process approaches problems upside down. The level of regional cooperation on non-political sectors in Northeast Asia came close to that of Europe and the North American region. Regional exchanges in trade, economy, investment, tourism, people and culture are nearing some type of regional integration. I can hardly imagine how the Park government can foster regional trust and multilateral cooperation by adding to that list additional items it put forward -- climate change, terrorism and nuclear safety. It may have little impact. It is because the region has failed to build any trust in the areas of politics, history and security despite the high level of regional exchanges and cooperation.

The centerpiece is the trust and cooperation in areas of politics, the military, security and history. I hope President Park will demonstrate her capability to enhance and lead innovative multilateral cooperation on these areas in a way that encompasses North Korea, Japan, China, the U.S. and Russia. I hope she will suggest and institutionalize, in a sophisticated way, multilateralism in Northeast Asia and a multilateral cooperation mechanism with efforts to capitalize on experiences of the last 25 years and lessons from the past. In 1988, the Roh Tae-woo government, for the first time, envisioned and proposed the framework of the six-party dialogue, which was followed by four-party talks and then the six-party talks.

Despite such efforts by Seoul for more than two decades, Northeast Asia has yet to have an institutionalized multilateral organization, although it has multilateral dialogue on an ad-hoc basis such as the six-party talks. This is especially true in areas of politics, military, security and history. In this respect, I hope the Seoul process would elevate the level of regional cooperation to a new level. Park trying first to forge a three-way cooperative system involving the South, the U.S. and China is a right approach. As the two obstacles that have hamstrung efforts to build a multilateral institution in Northeast Asia are the North and Japan, Seoul can cope with the obstacles through the three-way cooperation with China and the U.S.

KH: Amid the intensifying competition between the U.S. and China over regional primacy, the South could be put in a difficult diplomatic position as the U.S. is the most crucial security ally and China is its largest trading partner. What should be the direction of Seoul’s diplomacy?

Park: The key to that is wisely combining the Korea-U.S. alliance and the cooperative ties between Korea and China. Neither choosing one of them nor awkwardly sitting on the fence can be a solution. It is now South Korea’s destiny to maintain the art, if you like, of combining the two relations. As long as the alliance is robust, it would be more advantageous for Seoul to have closer ties with China.

If the South is divided again over the issue of the U.S. or China, that would lead to a catastrophe for Korea and Northeast Asia. That would not be helpful at all for peninsular peace and reunification. But we should not take a strategy of sitting on the fence. What is required is the wisdom to combine security ties with the U.S. and economic ties with China. Chances that the U.S. and China seriously clash with each other would not be high for the time being due to their economic relations.

KH: Korea suffered from the hostilities regardless of its own will as it occurred amid an escalating conflict between outside forces. In order not to repeat such a dark side of the history and maintain the current status of growing national power, what do you think should be done?

Park: The geopolitical conditions of Korea surrounded by great powers can’t be shifted. If it had been located in a different continent, Korea might have become a regional power. But the four countries surrounding the peninsula are the world’s four largest powers. History shows when Korea’s national power was too weak or the distribution of power in Northeast Asia was excessively unbalanced, there had always been a war to occupy the peninsula. In this regard, the rise of South Korea as a middle power means it has achieved a critical factor for regional peace and the security of Korea.  

Based on this, Korea should work up its wisdom to adjust situations in which power is inordinately tiled toward China or Japan on the agenda of regional conflicts. This should be achieved not through taking one side but by sharing the universal values of humankind and spreading them. This is the role of the so-called bridge state or linker state.

Also critical is the role of the U.S. and its security alliance with the South. Beyond the defense against North Korean aggression, the alliance has played a considerable role in keeping in check Japan, China and Russia that have records of invading Korea with territorial ambitions. In other words, it has served as a safety pin to ward off another war in Northeast Asia that could occur when Korea-related conflicts escalate. On the back of this alliance, the South has grown into a middle power. Thus, for reunification and the post-reunification period, the South should put forward methods to cooperate with the U.S. and Northeast Asia as a whole.

KH: What is the meaning of your research on the Korean War and what motivates you to continue delving into the Korean War?

Park: Above all, the meaning of my research is to unearth and elucidate historical truths. The research on the Korean War has so far been seriously warped by inter-Korean rivalry over state legitimacy and ideological conflicts. Objective truths form the basis for retrospection and future action. Thus, one motivation for my research comes from my wish to offer the most objective truths to Koreans and others in the world.

Consoling the spirits of the deceased through uncovering the facts is also crucial. I have continued to delve into the war history as I truly believe someone should help relieve the pains from the endless tragedies of the deceased, wounded, widows and orphans. Even for a moment, I have never forgotten the deep sadness in their eyes.

KH: What is your ultimate goal through your research on the war?

Park: It is to criticize the power and prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy. We should not repeat such an ordeal. Without research and retrospection on the war, Koreans cannot address the task of entrenching an enduring peace. Thus, the research boils down to the practical task for peace. The research itself is a practice toward peace and toward reunification at the same time. The research on the war is an endeavor to ascertain the right path toward reunification.

I also have a dream of creating a perpetual peace on the peninsula, East Asia and the world based on my reflection and criticism of the past for the purpose of peace and reunification. I believe any research in any field should contribute concretely to the well-being of the people and peace.

By Song Sang-ho

A South Korean guard post is seen behind a barbed wire fence in the Demilitarized Zone. (Yonhap News)
A South Korean guard post is seen behind a barbed wire fence in the Demilitarized Zone. (Yonhap News)