President Park Geun-hye has recently upended the conventional wisdom about unification of the two Koreas. Thus far, the prevailing view has been that unification would be hugely costly for the South in light of the wide economic gap between the two.
Yet Park dismissed this widely accepted view, boldly asserting that unification would be a “bonanza.” She rightly noted that the benefits of unification would be much greater than the costs as it would create immense investment opportunities in the North.
She further suggested that the unification of the Korean Peninsula would be a blessing not just for Korea but for Northeast Asia as a whole as it would stimulate investment in such neighboring countries as China, Japan and Russia.
With her persuasive analogy of unification as a bonanza, Park has awoken the dormant aspirations for unification among people here. She has also created a favorable domestic and international environment to push for her new unification initiatives.
Park put forward a set of proposals to North Korea on Friday during her visit to Germany. In a speech at the Dresden University of Technology in the former East German city of Dresden, she called for increased exchanges and cooperation with the North to lay the groundwork for unification.
The proposals show that Park has not been merely talking about the benefits of unification; she has been preparing measures to get the process of unification started, overcoming or working around the formidable barriers standing between the two Koreas.
Park proposed three agendas: One for humanity, another for co-prosperity and the last for integration.
The first agenda is about addressing humanitarian issues. Two projects were proposed: Regularizing the reunions of families separated due to the Korean War and providing health care support, in cooperation with the United Nations, for pregnant women and infants in the North through their first 1,000 days.
The second agenda is about building infrastructure for livelihood improvement and starting economic cooperation. The proposed schemes included:
― Constructing multi-farming complexes where experts from the South work together with North Korean farmers from sowing to harvesting.
― The South’s investment in the North’s infrastructure, such as transportation and telecommunication facilities, in return for the North’s permission for the South to develop its natural resources.
― And promoting trilateral projects among the two Koreas and China in Shinuiju and other places, similar to the ongoing Rajin-Khasan projects among the two Koreas and Russia.
What is notable about the economic cooperation plans is that they are based on the principle of reciprocity. They are different in nature from the previous economic aid that the South used to provide to the North unilaterally.
The last agenda is about restoring the two Koreas’ national homogeneity through increased exchanges. Park’s plans included the following.
― Establishing an “inter-Korean exchange and cooperation office.”
― Promoting exchanges in historical research and preservation, culture and the arts and sports.
― Sharing the South’s experience in economic management and development of special economic zones.
― Training North Korean officials in finance, tax administration and statistics.
These cooperation projects are not as comprehensive and far-reaching as those proposed by former President Roh Moo-hyun during his summit with the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in October 2007.
But they are highly meaningful as they signal a shift in the South’s policies toward the North. Park suggested that she would push for the agenda items regardless of progress in dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program.
This is a deviation from the policy of linking any concession by the South to the North’s corresponding action toward denuclearization.
She noted that should North Korea give up its nuclear ambitions, the South would take bolder steps, such as promoting a Northeast Asia Development Bank to finance large-scale projects and arranging a multilateral peace and security system to address the North’s security concerns.
Furthermore, Seoul officials suggested that the cooperation projects might not be constrained by the so-called May 24 sanctions against the North. The sanctions, put in place following Pyongyang’s destruction of the South’s Cheonan warship four years ago, banned all types of non-humanitarian exchanges between the two sides.
The Seoul government’s official line is that the comprehensive sanctions will stay unless the North takes reasonable steps to answer for its wrongdoing. If the government toes the official line, some of the proposed projects, such as investing in the North’s infrastructure, would constitute a breach of the sanctions.
Yet the government appears to have decided to push ahead with Park’s cooperation projects in the name of restoring national homogeneity, while at the same time continuing to demand that the North apologize for its aggression and punish officials responsible for it.
Seoul’s flexible attitude toward the North was also displayed during Park’s summit with Xi Jinping on March 23 on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague.
At the meeting, Park said that the six-party talks on the North’s nuclear program could be restarted if there was a guarantee of real progress in Pyongyang’s denuclearization efforts.
Park’s remark represented a softening of Seoul’s previous stance that Pyongyang should first show “sincerity” in dismantling its nuclear program before the resumption of the multilateral talks, which have been suspended since December 2008.
Now the ball is in North Korea’s court. If past experience is anything to go by, the North’s initial response to Park’s offer is likely to be negative. Then it will take time to scrutinize it.
The North might find Park’s proposals attractive as they come with no strings attached. Furthermore, it comes at a time when Pyongyang is eager to attract foreign investment to foster high-tech industries and boost its economy.
While the North is desperate to attract foreign capital and technology, it has little room to maneuver under the strangling sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the United States. In this situation, the South’s offer could be a welcome rain after a long drought.
But the South is also constrained by the international sanctions against the North. It cannot make large-scale investment that the North needs to revitalize its economy. The only way it can receive massive investment from abroad is to give up its nuclear ambitions and open up the economy.
As Park urged in her Dresden speech, the North should make a strategic decision and choose the path to denuclearization. It still seems to think that nuclear weapons are the only way to guarantee regime survival. But it is a wrong-headed belief. Atomic bombs will ultimately prove to be its undoing.
It needs to listen Park’s warning: Nothing can repress the human yearning for dignity, freedom and prosperity. She notes that Korean unification is a matter of historical inevitability. We fully agree with her. Park will have to accelerate preparations for unification.
By Yu Kun-ha
Yu Kun-ha is chief editorial writer of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.