Vol: 2020-04

Yong-Soo Kim
Professor of Political Science at Sogang University

Jeju, the only island-province of the Republic of Korea, has spearheaded the humanitarian aid effort to North Korea. It imprinted its image of providing support to North Korean residents by sending tangerines. Under the simple slogan of “From Halla to Baekdu,” it has constantly expressed its desire and willingness for national unification. Probably, that is why North Koreans dream of visiting Jeju Island where Mt. Halla is located. Since Jeju has spared no effort in invigorating inter-Korean cooperation and exchange, it has been recognized as a model for other local governments. Additionally, the Jeju provincial government has made incessant efforts to interact and collaborate with other cities and provinces by developing a joint manual for advanced inter-Korean relations and activating a network for improving inter-Korean relations.

Despite these efforts, even the humanitarian aid efforts to the North have undergone many hardships. On many occasions, South Korea ended up being anxious about the North Korean authorities’ refusal to agree to improve ties as the South desires. Many negotiations that had formerly been proceeding well were abruptly halted. After these trials and errors, only one lesson has been learned: However passionate and willful the South may be, it is still early to expect continued and stable exchange and cooperation with the North.

The current state of inter-Korean relations gives the impression that anything of significance will be difficult to achieve with North Korea for a while. Additionally, it appears that the two Koreas will be unlikely to be able to achieve living together in a short period of time. Although the South has made strenuous efforts to shorten the gap in its strengthening of ties with the North, the response was simple and clear. Kim Yo-jong’s description of Seoul as an “enemy” well-represents the characteristics of inter-Korean ties. Her cold-hearted statement implies that the long-desired ‘unification’ is still not visible.

Should the current state continue, would South and North Korea ever be able to live together? Although 70 years have already passed, the residents of the two Koreas still live in thorough ‘severance’ to the extent that even visiting each other is barely allowed. In the meantime, they have become increasingly different. It is not sure as to whether ‘restoring homogeneity and overcoming heterogeneity’ would be possible. This long-used expression also requires reconsideration. It should be calmly reflected which side should be a standard for homogeneity and what measures should be taken to overcome the extreme heterogeneity.

Korea was trapped in the ordeal of ‘national division’ even before its people could feel the joy of liberation. While experiencing the tragic Korean War, the homogeneous nation was divided into two. After division, the two sides staged a heated competition for securing legitimacy while being involved in ‘hostile rivalry.’ Nonetheless, they reached the July 4th North-South Joint Statement (1972) and the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement (1991-1992). Meanwhile, the inter-Korean relations based on ‘hostile rivalry’ changed to the new structure of ‘hostile coexistence.’ In 2000, a historical moment was created where the leaders of the two Koreas met for the first time. It was a phenomenal shift to ‘non-hostile coexistence.’ With the event as momentum, the hope for unification spread rapidly. Ideas of how to design the community of the two Koreas were poured out. However, the structural power of ‘hostile coexistence’ remained strong. The scars of Pyongyang’s attack on and sinking of Cheonan, a South Korean navy corvette, and its bombardment of Yeonpyeong, a western island of South Korea, clearly showed that it was too early to view the relationship between the two as a non-hostile one.

The consecutive meetings of the South and North Korean leaders in 2018 heralded the entry of inter-Korean relations into a new framework. The meetings even gave hope that the two could accomplish ‘non-hostile exchange and cooperation’ beyond ‘non-hostile coexistence.’ However, such anticipation collapsed with Kim Yo-jong’s comment in June 2020 that South Korea is still an “enemy.” It brought despair to the South because Kim’s comment implied that unification would be unachievable unless the aged ‘hostility’ is lessened. South Koreans also realized once again that their relationship with the North remains in the stage of ‘hostile coexistence.’

East and West Germans could watch each other’s TV channels beginning in 1972, 18 years ahead of the reunification. As the East German leaders, immersed in arrogance, allowed watching West German TV programs, East Germans worked during the day in the eastern style, while dreaming of the West at night. On top of that, East German residents could travel to West Germany for the purpose of visiting relatives, and the number of East Germans visiting the West surpassed one fourth of the entire East German population. The Germans felt less hostility than Koreans have because the two Germanies did not experience the war that the two Koreas had, and reciprocal visits were allowed despite the obstruction by the Berlin Wall. As more than 340,000 Soviet troops were stationed on East German soil for security reasons, most of the 170,000 East German soldiers were mobilized for economic construction, without taking full responsibility to defend their land against the West. Against this backdrop, East and West Germans could partially experience ‘non-hostile exchange and cooperation’ that goes beyond ‘non-hostile coexistence.’

Compared to the German case, Seoul and Pyongyang have barely experienced well-performed exchange or cooperation. Instead, ‘severance,’ ‘unawareness,’ and ‘hardships’ have dominated inter-Korean relations since the national division, for which the two Koreas have stayed within the frame of ‘hostile coexistence’ where the gross ‘hostility’ barely diminishes. Recent events candidly show that South Korea’s one-sided wishes for ‘non-hostile’ inter-Korean relations are futile. North Korea’s emphatic hostility against the South is clearly shown in the public denouncements by North Korean residents against North Korean defectors and against the sending of propaganda leaflets by balloon into the North from the South.

Pyongyang views national unification as ‘liberating its un-recaptured domain.’ This means that it views national unification as equal to finishing the negotiation with the American imperialists over the ‘South Korean soil’ which remained un-recaptured due to the American imperialists during the Korean War. From the North Korean perspective that ultimately, the U.S. should be held responsible for the ‘South Korean issue,’ inter-Korean relations degenerate into a dependent variable of the U.S.-D.P.R.K. relations. Pyongyang argues that interfering with South Korea, which is occupied by the United States, is a justified interference, while getting enraged when the South interferes with North Korean issues, calling it an ‘interference in domestic affairs.’ For these reasons, inter-Korean negotiations have been a game played on an ‘uneven playing field.’ Nonetheless, Seoul has dealt with its North Korean counterparts to the extent that it endures all of these circumstances for the future of a unified Korea.

‘Denuclearization’ is also a goal that appears to be difficult to achieve. North Korea already declared itself as a nuclear nation in the 2006 revision of its Constitution, with the goal of beating the U.S. It should be noted that given the characteristics of the North Korean regime, no discussion regarding ‘denuclearization’ will be made within the North without Kim Jong-un’s approval. Additionally, the South should accept the fact that even if the negotiation over Pyongyang’s denuclearization is achieved, it will feature a continued, prolonged war whose ultimate deadline is hard to presume. Considering that having nuclear capability is directly related to the legitimacy of Kim Jong-un, winning the ‘denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula’ through a major deal is only plausible in President Trump’s scenario.

If inter-Korean relations are unlikely to break away from the frame of ‘hostile coexistence,’ would it be impossible that Seoul and Pyongyang could live in harmony in the future? For the two Koreas to build a future where they can live together, what efforts should be made? Jeju has taken the lead in improving the inter-Korean relations while emphasizing ‘peace.’ What preparations should it make under these circumstances?

Above all, Jeju should reconsider the inter-Korean relations from step one by taking the recently worsened ties with the North as a touchstone. It should exclude the highly impromptu abstract argument over a seemingly imminent national unification, while fine-tuning the existing manual to customize it to the ‘hostile coexistence’-based relations. Additionally, a substantive preparation and effort for ‘non-hostile coexistence’ should be made.

The first requirement in this sense is the re-perception of ‘peaceful and harmonious reunification.’ Peace and harmony can be achieved when two different parties perceive each other as having the same status. If they have experienced a fight, reconciliation is a necessary step toward achieving ‘peace’ and ‘harmony.’ Even if the leaders of each side meet up, shake hands, and reach an agreement, it is not easy to reach a true communal reconciliation. A one-time event is insufficient to break down the structure of division. To ‘reconcile,’ hostility needs to be diluted through ‘small’ and ‘frequent’ meetings rather than a big, one-time event, and the two sides can take the next step toward ‘non-hostile exchange and cooperation.’ In 70 years of inter-Korean history, it has been clear that summit meetings and agreements for political purposes rarely have lasting effects. In recent years, even the reunion of separated families disappeared, which had previously been considered a humanitarian cause. This teaches us the lesson that even the highest-level meeting is unable to break down the wall of national division of Korea.

The second requirement is the revisioning of ‘unification.’ Gathering divided pieces together into one organization or system — this describes the definition of ‘unification.’ However, if the divided parts are unable to be easily united as time passes by, ‘unification,’ or putting them back into one, is nearly impossible. Rather, the desired ‘unification’ can be expected when in a state where the two parts communicate with each other, and where the different parts make sense to each other. To achieve this end, it is ultimately necessary to understand the other party. To heighten the possibility of unification, South Korea should be well-aware of its counterpart — North Korea. In this sense, South Koreans know very little about the North. Without any knowledge of its natural geography, the characteristics of its regime, or the way that North Koreans live and think, South Koreans have simply dreamed of unification. Without any knowledge of what the other party thinks of, of how North Korean society works, they have vaguely imagined that a ‘seamless life after unification’ would be possible once they just meet and agree on unification. Immersed in the abstract, mesmerizing term, ‘the benefit of unification,’ former South Korean administrations have focused on publicizing that the benefit of unification is far greater than the cost of unification.

The third requirement is to nurture in advance the ‘capability of healing the wounds.’ Sincere consideration should be given to whether the scars of division can be addressed with an open mind and also be concealed as much as possible. It is necessary for South Korean society to build capacity that can create effects similar to those of ‘remedial agents.’ Prior to unification, South Korea should upscale its social capacity for unification through education and enlightenment, so that it can endure the aftermath and side effects of unification. Amidst the flow of unification, it should prepare and consider caring measures for underprivileged people. It should not repeat in the process of the unification of the Korean Peninsula the regret and sorrow of the East German women and elderly who were thoroughly excluded in the great wave of German unification.

The fourth requirement is to deliver South Korean ideas of unification to North Korean residents through ‘frequent meetings’ to build empathy. It is unimaginable in the current state of inter-Korean relations; still, efforts should be made to enter the stage where the ideas of both sides can be delivered and confirmed while managing the state of division. This is the phase of ‘reconciliation.’ ‘Hostile coexistence’ will be difficult to overcome with only political events that happen between leaders without a stage of confirming and readjusting to each other’s different ideas.

The final requirement is to create the ‘environment for unification.’ South Korea should look squarely at the geopolitical factors on the Korean Peninsula that is surrounded by superpowers, turning the unification into an agenda of international politics that helps draw positive support from the neighboring power states. Koreans cannot leave the matter of national unification in the hands of the superpowers who caused the division. South Koreans should transmit a strong message to North Koreans that Korean issues will be determined by the ‘Korean nation,’ while persuading them to join in concerted efforts to resolve the issues related to unification in the remaining period before unification. If this is addressed inadequately, the unification that Koreans desire would be unachievable and the tragedy will be repeated where the future of the Korean nation will be left in the interests of superpowers. What is more important than standing under the principle of national self-determination against the collusive alliances of superpowers is the survival of the Korean nation. Survival should not be lost before unification.

In short, the wisdom for the future of Koreans living together should begin with developing a unification management manual and North Korean policies that are tailored to ‘hostile coexistence,’ the current distinctive feature of inter-Korean relations. For ‘peaceful and harmonious unification,’ the South and the North should reach the state where they share the same status, while the two parties can communicate well with each other. Through ‘small’ but ‘frequent’ meetings, ideas should be exchanged. In the meantime, ‘reconciliation’ is absolutely necessary to dilute the aged emotions against each other. Finally, a very difficult task of creating an ‘environment of unification’ where Koreans lead their own unification should be accomplished. This is the wise approach for Jeju Island in preparing for unification in the current stage.

Yong-Soo Kim is Professor of Political Science at Sogang University. After receiving his BA in Political Science from Sogang University, he went on to receive his MA in International Politics and PhD in North Korean Politics at the same university. His research interest is focused on North Korean Politics and North-South Relations. His key publications are “North Korean Political Culture: Traditional Political Culture and Juche Culture” (Doctorate, 1992), “Japanese Society’s Perceptions toward North Korea: Realities and Problems” (New Asia Research Institute, 2011), “North Korea’s Perception of the United States” (Review of North Korean Studies, 2015), and “North Korean Politics: Present and Dilemma” (New Asia Research Institute, 2018).