For a long time, “reunification” has been a North Korean monopoly, at least in the propaganda business. On any inter-Korean event, North Koreans led singing the song “Our Wish Is Reunification,” and when drafting a joint communique, it was the Pyongyang side that provided strong wording to vow joint efforts to achieve the national goal.
South Korea has the Ministry of (Re)unification to take charge of inter-Korean affairs, but the Department of United Front of North Korea’s ruling Worker’s Party is many times more powerful, combining intelligence, counter-intelligence, propaganda and other overt and covert operations related to “reunification” with the South.
Ask a little schoolboy on a Pyongyang street what the most important thing is for his country, the instant answer is “reunifying with the southern half after driving the Americans out!” Reunification has been the religion of North Koreans from the supreme leader on down since the days of Kim Il-sung, who started war against South Korea two years after he founded the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in 1948.
Seventy years later, that national obsession seems to have withered in the North. Pyongyang leaders are now desperate to get Washington’s guarantee of the security of their regime in exchange for giving up its nuclear programs. Seeking security guarantee from the outside is a passive and defensive course; it means the torch of reunification extinguished and ideological offensive toward the South abandoned.
The simultaneous negotiations between US and North Korean officials in Washington, New York, Singapore and in the Korean truce village of Panmunjeom over the past few weeks boiled down to how the most powerful nation of the world should ensure the continued existence of the DPRK if and when the latter discarded its nuclear arsenal entirely.
A US guarantee of ceasing hostilities needs to take the form of a peace agreement ratified by the Senate. Prior to that, the two parties will have to declare a formal end to the Korean War. Fighting had stopped in 1953 with an armistice agreement signed by the commanders-in-chief of the opposing forces.
One big hurdle to the bargain of the century is the dire human rights situation in the Stalinist country that more than half of US Senators would not want to condone. Yet, President Donald Trump could exercise his superb art of the deal to persuade them citing the convenient diplomatic convention of non-interference in domestic affairs. So, officials from Washington and Pyongyang have worked on details to make or break the projected summit between Trump and the North’s Kim Jong-un.
Over the past decades, North Korea held fast to the reunification fantasy while changing governments in the South zigzagged with their Northern politics. As conservatives and liberals exchanged power, administrations here showed varying degrees of emphasis on reunification. Meanwhile, Pyongyang ideologues continued to arouse radical activists in the South with calls for reunification and nationalist appeals.
When presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun held summit meetings with the North’s Kim Jong-il in 2000 and 2007 their joint communiques importantly mentioned independent efforts for reunification. But the latest document signed by Moon Jae-in and Kim Jong-un at Panmunjeom on April 27 included only the perfunctory words of “advancing the time of common prosperity and independent reunification in the future.”
When Pyongyang adopted the “Military First” policy in the 1990s spurring what then were rudimentary programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, it was aimed at securing the regime’s survival in a changing world which saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening up of China. The dream of reunification with the South faded as economic gap between the two Koreas widened.
The North’s nuclear and missile development in the 21st century progressed faster than the US and surrounding powers had estimated and reached the red line that Washington officials drew about the threats from this little Communist state. Now, North Korea offers denuclearization in exchange for Washington’s respect for its sovereignty, in other words “no regime change.”
Pyongyang demands and the US would offer a guarantee that the Kim family remains ruling the North. While we wish complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as eagerly as the Trump White House does, the crucial question is -- what about the many gulags in North Korea and hundreds of thousands of political prisoners there?
South Koreans cannot comfortably envision the perpetuation of the Kim dynasty in the North with the Trump administration denying the possibility of preventive or pre-emptive attack on the North or attempts to overthrow its current leadership by the CIA. North Koreans should realize that any security guarantee by outside powers stops at the border.
We want the people living in the North Korean territory to be free of hunger and fear, to be able to speak out freely and to be able to communicate with the outside world so that they can make life choices knowing what is going on near and far. It is hard to imagine that such a thing will become reality unless the Pyongyang regime fundamentally changes itself.
Through the April 27 summit and his other contacts with Southern officials, Kim Jong-un has created the image of a sensible and flexible leader, at least on the TV screen. He could have changed from a ruthless tyrant to a practically-minded chief willing to provide better living for his subjects who suffered for too long under their leader’s weapons of mass destruction drive. Some suspect that the whole thing will turn out to be a great fraud but many do not want to believe so.
We hope that Kim Jong-un has learned to tell what is possible from what is not since he took over from his dead father, and has decided to turn over his country’s nuclear weapons to the international community on the highest bet so he could feed his people better. Once the deal is made in Singapore and through further negotiations, inter-Korean relations will enter a new chapter that will call for cooperation, which will depend on how Pyongyang behaves in the future.
In a country that had maintained domestic order with repression and surveillance, people will seek relaxation when material improvement is achieved. Political and social changes will be inevitable from inside the North even without direct outside influence, reintroducing what the South had recorded in history with blood and sweat. Then, reunification will become a slightly more attainable national goal on this peninsula.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.