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[Lee Kyong-hee] Don’t write off unification

July 1, 2024 - 05:31 By Korea Herald

I have a sister who lives -- or lived -- in North Korea. The Korean War separated my family and she ended up in the North. We met once since then, at Mount Kumgang across the DMZ, before inter-Korean family reunion events were suspended. We had only hours to bridge six decades of separation. Yet, the opportunity of the 2009 reunion was a godsend for my family, especially for my mother, who turned 100 that year. She lived 10 more years, probably waiting for another chance to see her daughter but never hearing about her again.

As of 2022, there were 133,675 applicants for inter-Korean family reunions registered with the government, of whom 91,051 have died, according to the Unification Ministry. Among the more than 40,000 survivors, 28.4 percent were 90 years old or older, 37.1 percent aged 80-89 and 19.2 percent aged 70-79. Time is ticking away with no foreseeable breakthrough. Relations are at rock bottom; communications are silent and there is ebbing interest in unification.

Apart from separated families, unification of the Korean Peninsula is a remote thought among South Koreans. The postwar generations are naturally the least interested. They have no context or memory for reference to the North. To them, North Koreans are unwanted, impoverished neighbors, and unification will be a costly project with little benefit. The North’s recent propaganda balloons only reinforce its image as a distasteful rogue state rattling nuclear saber.

Of course, the South cannot claim innocence. It has allowed defectors to send balloons northward bearing K-pop tapes and K-dramas. Their intended effects have not been proven. Nevertheless, the Pyongyang regime categorizes the material as “filth” and “vicious cancer.” Possession or distribution means severe punishment, even public execution.

To reach North Koreans, more humanitarian approaches are needed, not such a crude and dangerous method as propaganda balloons. Imagine that, as hoped by some in the South, the balloons succeed in awakening North Koreans enough to incite an insurrection and regime collapse. Will it lead to a North-South integration? It can be a far-fetched illusion so long as the current deadlock persists.

Three decades since the North’s nuclear ambition was unveiled, inter-Korean detente and peace have never seemed more distant. Amid the escalating military tension and exchange of hostile rhetoric, the timeworn approach to Pyongyang should be shelved. Touting denuclearization as the essential first step in the process of confidence building, cross-border exchange and cooperation, peace regime and eventual unification is unfeasible for now.

Since his attempts to normalize relations with the US were foiled at the 2019 Hanoi summit with Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has focused on making his country’s nuclear and missile technologies more sophisticated. Last month, he signed a comprehensive strategic partnership treaty with the visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin. The treaty provides for mutual assistance by all available means in case either party is attacked, signifying a raised level of alliance between the two countries.

This surely is an unwelcome turn of events for President Yoon Suk Yeol and his policymakers. But they should have anticipated it. Since he took office in May 2022, the hawkish president has consistently antagonized Pyongyang and distanced himself from Beijing and Moscow, while single-mindedly engaging with Washington and Tokyo. In the meantime, Kim Jong-un described the two Koreas as the “two most hostile states at war,” emphatically burying the idea of inevitable unification.

At this precarious juncture, all the endeavors by previous South Korean administrations to achieve a nuclear-free peninsula and their intermittent achievements toward the goal, though fragile and short-lived, may appear futile. Anyone advocating unification may also seem naive and out of touch with reality.

But the situation calls for rival camps to put aside personal and factional rancor and forge a consensus on how to cope. The rivals must craft durable policies on inter-Korean ties and diplomacy with surrounding powers. The long-term goal should be how to navigate rough waters toward eventual unification. In doing so, they must listen extensively to related government and nongovernment organizations as well as public opinion.

Urgent issues at hand include how to start dialogue with a nuclear-armed North and manage its threat peacefully to avoid accidental military clashes; how to efficiently combine deterrence and engagement; how to obtain the capability of independent deterrence and subsequently a greater leverage on security issues; and how to ensure the durability of policies surviving changes in administration so that inter-Korean relations can advance on a stable basis.

President Yoon is far from a seasoned negotiator. He even appears to be averse to dialogue. It is another daunting challenge how to get Yoon to invite the opposition and coordinate the crucial discussion. Nevertheless, there is too much at stake to allow his personal style and preferences to obstruct what needs to be done. The No. 1 priority of a state leader is to ensure the safety of the nation. Yoon simply needs to do what needs to be done.

Lee Kyong-hee

Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. The views expressed here are the writer's own. -- Ed.