South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol delivers a Liberation Day speech at the presidential office in Seoul on Aug. 15, 2022. (Yonhap)
South Korea’s president on Monday proposed an “audacious initiative” to provide economic compensation in return for North Korea’s “substantive process for denuclearization.”
President Yoon Suk-yeol reiterated the significance and legitimacy of achieving North Korea’s denuclearization in his speech marking Korea’s 77th National Liberation Day on Aug. 15.
“Peace on the Korean Peninsula and in Northeast Asia is an important prerequisite for world peace and serves as the foundation for protecting and expanding our freedom and that of global citizens,” Yoon said in the speech in Korean. “North Korea’s denuclearization is essential for sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula, in Northeast Asia and around the world.”
Audacious plan toward denuclearization
In the speech, Yoon laid out his road map to achieve North Korea’s denuclearization, which he had first unveiled in his inauguration remarks on May 10. The South Korean president made an official proposal to North Korea.
“Here I propose an audacious initiative that envisions significantly improving North Korea’s economy and its people’s livelihood in stages if North Korea halts the nuclear development and shifts to substantive process for denuclearization,” Yoon said.
Yoon suggested a list of economic compensation that South Korea would offer in return for North Korea taking substantive measures toward denuclearization.
The economic incentives include providing large-scale food aid and assistance for power generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure and implementing projects to modernize ports and airports for international trade.
Yoon also offered to provide technical support programs to enhance agricultural productivity in North Korea, assist the modernization of hospitals and medical infrastructure and implement programs on international investment and financial support.
Resource-food exchange program
The audacious initiative is a “bold proposal in the sense that it envisions proactively coming up with economic support measures in the early stage of negotiations if North Korea comes to denuclearization negotiations with sincerity,” Kim Tae-hyo, a deputy presidential national security adviser, told a press briefing following the speech.
The economic compensation includes a program for exchanging South Korea’s food supplies for North Korean resources such as minerals, sand and rare earths, as well as pilot projects to improve people’s livelihoods in the fields of health care, drinking water and forestry.
The suggestion appears to be analogous to the Oil-for-Food program that commenced in 1996 and allowed Iraq to sell oil to pay for food and other necessities for its population and alleviate the people’s suffering compounded by tough UN sanctions.
During the briefing, Kim also said the Yoon government will establish and operate an inter-Korean joint economic development committee to begin inter-Korean economic cooperation in earnest when the two Koreas reach a comprehensive agreement on the denuclearization process.
But the economic measures will be taken corresponding to North Korea’s steps toward denuclearization, such as freezing nuclear weapons, declaring nuclear activities, inspections of nuclear facilities and discarding nuclear weapons.
South Korea aims to implement effective and specific projects in the three areas that comprise infrastructure construction, improvement of people’s livelihood and economic development. The scope and scale of the projects will be expanded in stages.
But Kim reiterated that North Korea’s response is essential in implementing inter-Korean economic cooperation.
“The government seeks to flesh out denuclearization measures and plans for inter-Korean joint economic development with North Korean authorities,” Kim said. “We will encourage the international community to actively participate in the process. We look forward to the response from North Korea.”
Road map for political, military cooperation
Yoon’s proposal came around three weeks after the Unification Ministry announced the essence of the audacious plan after its briefing to Yoon on the vision of North Korea and unification policy on July 22.
In a nutshell, South Korea seeks to provide economic incentives and security guarantees for North Korea in stages corresponding to North Korea’s substantial measures for denuclearization. But Yoon’s speech did not cover measures to provide security assurances for North Korea.
During the briefing, Kim explained that the Yoon government “prepares for a road map for political and military cooperation” that will be pushed forward in keeping with North Korea’s substantive steps toward denuclearization.
A senior presidential official -- who wished to remain anonymous -- said the Yoon government “needs to wait for the response from North Korea,” suggesting that the road map to build inter-Korean political and military cooperation could remain unveiled.
The three-pronged approach pursues jointly achieving economic prosperity, taking military confidence-building measures and establishing peace on the Korean Peninsula.
But for now, the Yoon government will proceed with the initiative “focusing on taking necessary measures to develop the North Korean economy.”
The senior official also said South Korea will “confer with the international community about the exemption of UN sanctions if it sees the necessity” to implement the audacious initiative.
The unnamed official additionally explained that South Korea and the US shared views on the audacious initiative.
“If we can properly advance the denuclearization process, the US administration is willing to open up for discussion on measures that have been strictly implemented by the UN Security Council.”
Will N.Korea accept proposal?
But Park Won-gon, a professor in the department of North Korean studies at Ewha Womans University, said there is little chance that North Korea will accept the proposal.
“North Korea has already strongly opposed denuclearization and economic incentives through various state media channels,” Park said.
“North Korea has no intention of relinquishing its nuclear weapons, and by extension, economic compensation would be perceived as a negation of the North Korean system given that the country says that nuclear weapons can bring economic prosperity.”
Hong Min, director of the North Korean Research Division at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said that the cornerstone of North Korea’s demand to “withdraw hostile policy” is that South Korea and the US should comprehensively address security concerns in the political, economic and military sense.
Against the backdrop, Pyongyang has asked South Korea and the US to take a wide range of options, including normalizing US-North Korea relations and easing economic sanctions. Among them, North Korea has put an emphasis on military options such as scaling back combined military exercises.
But Hong pointed out that Yoon’s speech solely dealt with South Korea’s plans to offer economic compensation. The speech was also delivered as South Korea and the US seek to strengthen the US extended deterrence and scale up combined military exercises to address North Korea’s escalating missile and nuclear threats.
“There seems to be almost no chance that North Korea will accept the proposal,” Hong told The Korea Herald.
Pledge to swiftly restore Korea-Japan relations
In his speech, Yoon also pledged to “expeditiously restore and develop relations between Korea and Japan by inheriting the Kim Dae-jung-Obuchi Declaration which proposed a vision of a comprehensive future of Korea-Japan relations.”
The joint declaration, announced in 1998, envisioned upgrading South Korea-Japan ties to a higher level and forging a new bilateral partnership for the 21st century.
“The governments and peoples of the two countries, based on mutual respect, must jointly contribute to the peace and prosperity of the international community through wide cooperation across the economy, security, society and culture,” Yoon said.
“When Korea-Japan relations move toward the future of both countries and the mission of the times based on shared values, historical issues can be properly resolved.”
Yoon said South Korea had to unshackle itself from “Japan’s political control to regain and defend its freedom” in the past.
But Yoon underscored that Japan has now become a neighboring country with which South Korea must “work together to face challenges that threaten the freedom of global challenges.”
Freedom, universal values
Yoon also underlined the importance of coordinating with like-minded countries sharing universal values such as freedom, human rights and the rule of law in confronting challenges to those values. The president also emphasized the importance of “freedom,” using the word 33 times in his speech.
The speech is in line with the core of the Yoon government’s foreign policy. The government has set a goal of engaging in diplomacy based on liberal democratic values and leading the international coalition for universal values.
“In the past, the mission of the times was that weaker countries establish a sovereign state to reclaim the freedom of people which was suppressed and deprived by stronger countries,” Yoon said.
“But the mission of the future is that countries sharing universal values stand in solidarity to confront threats to freedom and human rights and achieve peace and prosperity for the citizens of the world.”