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The Reunification of the Two Koreas: Diplomatic Factors

Jiye Kim is engaged in research and teaching at the University of Sydney and Macquarie University in Australia.
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  • August 24, 2011
    “My 70 million fellow compatriots, we have yet to resolve the greatest issue in modern Korean history. That is the issue of national reunification.” - Myung Bak Lee, in his Presidential Address by Myung Bak Lee on the 66th anniversary of national liberation, August 15, 2011

    The issue of the reunification of the Korean Peninsula has always found mention in the Republic of Korea (ROK) president’s speech on national liberation day, August 15. On the 66th anniversary of national liberation in 2011 too it was included, among other issues, in the speech of the president, Myung Bak Lee. Since the Korean Peninsula was divided, reunification has been an acknowledged aspiration for all previous ROK presidents.

    In this year’s speech, President Lee conveyed a simple message to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). He urged DPRK to stop indulging in provocative activities and suggested that the two sides cooperate to develop and be prosperous together. This was in line with the ‘Grand Bargain’ that Lee had suggested during the early part of his tenure, which sought to persuade the DPRK to abandon its nuclear weapon and in return receive the overall support of the ROK.

    However, despite recent nuclear talks and foreign ministers level contacts between the two Koreas, the South-North relationship remains frosty. The recent denuclearisation talks between the two top nuclear envoys from the ROK and the DPRK, Wi Sung Lak and Li Yong Ho respectively, in Bali, Indonesia, were confined to one topic – which was understandable. After the two serious attacks in 2010 on the ROK’s navy corvette Cheonan (March 2010) and on Yeonpyeongdo Island (November 2010), the ROK president was focused on getting the DPRK to apologise for those attacks. However, this year the two Koreas have shown signs of a softening in their stance. Following the nuclear envoys’ talks, the foreign ministers of the two countries met at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) meeting in Bali. Some people in the ROK welcomed this, while others held the view that it was another fruitless exercise and a repeat of the Six-Party Talks (SPT).

    President Lee is known for his conservative policy towards DPRK in contrast to his two predecessors. The response of the DPRK has been equally harsh. In May 2011, the DPRK leaked the news that the Lee government tried to secretly contact the DPRK an indiscretion in violation of diplomatic norms. Despite this, there is evidence of conciliation in Lee’s rhetoric, the reason being international pressure for the early resumption of the SPT.

    Here, it is worth taking note of some developments that preceded the foreign ministers’ talks. First, when Kim Kye Gwuan, DPRK’s top diplomatic figure specialising in DPRK-US relations, visited China in April 2011, he agreed on three steps for resuming the SPT with Wu Dawei, his counterpart in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The meeting between Kim and Wu in Beijing was the catalyst for the resumption of talks between the ROK and the DPRK. After the Bali reunion, Kim Kye Gwuan went to the United States; the DPRK-US talks were seen as the second step. The United States was keen on breaking the diplomatic stalemate in order to move ahead on the non-proliferation front. According to Professor Geun Sik Kim, the United States and China pushed the two Koreas into being friendly with each other.1 It is also obvious that extensive efforts are being made behind the scenes for holding the second Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul in March 2012. All this meant that the Lee government has had to make efforts to talk to the DPRK.

    Lee’s mottos in the 2008 election were ‘practical policy’ and ‘economy’. When these two abstract words were visualized in the Korean Peninsula reunification issue, the result was economic preparation for the eventuality of a sudden DPRK collapse. Operation Plan 5029 (OPLAN 5029), the joint US and ROK military exercise is not in preparation for all-out war, but for any contingency in the DPRK. President Lee’s unification concept is that ‘unification can come even tomorrow’. He wants to follow the German precedent and the DPRK’s domestic crisis lends support for this view. However, from the DPRK’s perspective, those preparations in themselves are a threat particularly given the US rejection of the peace agreement suggested by the DPRK in early 2010 and the postponement to 2015 of war time OPCON (Operational Control) transfer from the US to the ROK. Therefore, very few people think that the recent thaw between the two Koreas is indicative of a long-term and promising change.

    In the ROK’s mass media, the denuclearisation talks in Bali and the foreign ministers’ contact on the ARF sidelines were reported as significant news. However, not surprisingly, the DPRK media did not report anything about the South-North talks. Rather, they only wrote in the party-run newspaper Rodong that the ROK and the US must stop ‘aggressive’ military training and resume talks.2 The DPRK has also condemned President Lee’s policy through the same newspaper in July 2011. According to the article titled “Provocative remarks by Myung Bak Lee, the traitor” 3 , the DPRK said that Lee has been responsible for the deteriorating relationship between the South and North which was healthy in 6.15 and 10.4 joint agreements of 2000 and 2007 respectively. The two agreements were successful milestones for reunification from the DPRK’s point of view. Moreover, President Lee was denounced as a traitor who negated all the improvements made by the ROK’s two previous presidents.

    It may be recalled that 61 years ago at the time of the Korean War, the Soviet Union and the PRC supported Il Sung Kim, the founder of the DPRK. If there had been no UN forces led by the United States, the Korean Peninsula could have been unified by the DPRK. Be that as it may, South-North relations continue to be affected by these two strong neighbours, though there is a clear difference now. The ROK is able to initiate its own multi-directional diplomacy with not only the United States but also with other neighbours with whom it maintains close economic and cultural ties. If neighbouring countries are willing to support reunification, it could be helpful in establishing fundamental conditions that will satisfy the two Koreas. In other words, reunification cannot be achieved without the support of the neighbouring countries.

    The China and India Factors

    As the two rising powers in Asia, the roles of India and China in the resolution of the Korean issue seem crucial. Both India and China have close economic ties with the ROK. According to ‘The Republic of Korea’s Economy-Trade Statistics’, the ROK’s biggest export destination was the PRC, accounting for $116 billion in 2010, followed by the US with $49 billion. Of the ROK’s total global exports of $ 446 billion in 2010, the PRC accounted for 26 per cent. Moreover, the PRC has received the second highest foreign direct investment from the ROK in the last 20 years.4 The PRC’s economic power in Asia is not surprising and the ROK is directly affected by the Chinese economy.

    With regard to India, 2010 was a landmark year as far as growth in trade was concerned. Since the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) between the two countries took effect from January 1, 2010, there has been a huge jump in bilateral trade. The two sides agreed to remove the tariff wall mutually and its effects soon became apparent. As per the Diplomatic White Paper, the ROK’s exports to India increased by 43 per cent and imports from India registered a 37 per cent rise in the first year of the CEPA taking effect. Total bilateral trade was $17 billion dollars in 2010, which is the highest so far. India became one of the ten important economic partners of the ROK. 5 During her recent visit to the ROK, the president of India, Pratibha Devi Singh Patil, expressed appreciation for the ROK’s technology, especially that of its nuclear power plant industry. India and the ROK signed an agreement for civil nuclear cooperation and the ROK agreed to participate in nuclear plant projects in India in the future. While the ROK’s economic presence in the Indian market is visible, some sectors of the Indian industry such as pharmaceuticals, IT-enabled services and agro-products are looking for greater market access in the ROK. 6

    However, the PRC and India have different security interests in the ROK and the Korean Peninsula. Since the DPRK shares a border with China, the two nations are close historically, economically and militarily. From the Chinese perspective, a ROK-initiated unification is too dangerous because of its military alliance with the US. In fact, the essence of the ROK-PRC relations is how to deal with the ROK-US military alliance. This issue should be dealt with continuously through consistent talks between the ROK and the PRC in a friendly way. For now, China tries to keep the DPRK as a stable and manageable buffer against the US.

    India too has a common interest with the PRC for maintaining peace and stability in the Korean peninsula. India has diplomatic relations with both the Koreas. But, India’s business partner is the ROK. It may not want to see any turbulence in the ROK. Moreover, if ROK tries to build a new Korea, there is no reason for India to oppose a set up that would be prosperous and strong. The deepening of the ROK-India ties in many fronts was sharply visible from the agreements reached in many sectors during President Patil’s visit to the ROK in July 2011. Cooperation in the defence industry sector also looks promising.

    In a multi-polar international order and in view of Asia’s growing economy, understanding the PRC and India would be an ongoing task for the ROK in its diplomatic efforts towards reunification. The ROK is heading towards the strategically significant year of 2015 when the Combined Forces Command is dissolved and wartime Operational Control is transferred from the US to the ROK. In the changed situation, the ROK will strengthen relations with its neighbours with a view to building a strong and stable Asia.