[Analysis] Pres. Park’s vague plans for a ‘unification preparatory committee’

Posted on : 2014-02-26 14:29 KST Modified on : 2014-02-26 14:29 KST
Experts say Park’s plans may not fit with existing government bodies and lack specifics on steps toward reunification
 the usual traffic goes between South and North Korea to the Kaesong Industrial Complex through the Customs
the usual traffic goes between South and North Korea to the Kaesong Industrial Complex through the Customs

By Seok Jin-hwan, Blue House correspondent and Park Byong-su, senior staff writer

The “unification preparatory committee” announced by President Park Geun-hye in her Feb. 25 address appears to be an advisory body for fleshing out the “unification-as-jackpot” idea that she announced in her New Year’s press conference last month. It is also being described as a sign that the President, emboldened by improved ties with North Korea after the divided family reunions and strong public support for her administration’s North Korea policy, is committed to working more actively on reunification.

It is not yet clear exactly what the committee’s role will be. Blue House spokesperson Min Kyung-wook stressed that it was still in its “early stages,” adding, “Our next step now is to establish the organization and develop a concrete action plan.”

“We anticipate there will be an announcement once it is ready,” Min added.

From what Park said in her address, the committee is expected to be a kind of social consensus body aimed at hearing opinions on unification and inter-Korean relations and seeking the public’s support for government ideas. The President described it as “civilian experts in all areas of foreign affairs, national security, the economy, society, and culture, working together with civic groups and various other representatives of society to reflect the public’s unification debate and draft a concrete blueprint for a unified Korean Peninsula.” This suggests that the committee’s role would not be specialized information collection and research, as with the National Intelligence Service or Ministry of Unification, but as a channel for explaining major developments in unification and inter-Korean relations to the public and seeking its support. And with opinions on specific unification steps divided sharply along political and philosophical lines, another of the committee’s aims would be to mediate opinions and resolve conflicts.

To date, Park has been pledging to keep all aspects of inter-Korean relations transparent and out in the open. This suggests the committee could also be used to solicit pubic support for aid or exchange and cooperation projects. It could also serve as a forum for discussing some of the more pressing issues between North and South, namely the resumption of tourism at Mt. Keumgang and the lifting of the May 24 Measures, which freeze inter-Korean exchange, put in place after the 2012 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan warship. The presence of representatives from every part of society could help in providing public input and a sense of procedural legitimacy.

Park mentioned a “lack of government preparedness” as a reason for her decision to establish the committee. Speaking after the announcement at a fourth meeting of the national economic advisory council and economic ministers, Park recalled an encounter with a former West German Chancellor. “I asked what he wished he had known when Germany reunified, and he just said, ‘Information, information, information’ - like that, three times. ‘We thought we knew East Germany so well, but there was so much we didn’t know about East Germany and the East Germans,’ he told me.” Park went on to say that the committee would “need to do a lot of preparations with the support of private groups, including ones from overseas if necessary.”

“You go through less trial and error when you do a lot of research and preparation beforehand, and that’s the only way to make sure that unification is a blessing to North and South Koreans alike,” she added.

But some observers are concerned that her new committee could overlap with the National Unification Advisory Council (NUAC) and Ministry of Unification in its role and functions.

The NUAC, established through Article 92 of the Constitution, serves to advise the President on unification policies, with some 272 regional councils in South Korea and abroad. Its specific activities, defined by law, include gathering opinions on unification from at home and overseas, seeking popular support for unification, mustering pan-national commitment and capabilities on unification, and taking any other necessary actions to provide counsel and suggestions on policies for peaceful reunification.

These activities are more or less the same things the new committee would be doing. Some of the committee duties Park identified included “seeking ideas for systematic, constructive unification,” “reflecting the public’s unification debate,” and “drafting a blueprint for a unified Korean Peninsula.”

“It could end up being redundant to have a new organization under the President doing something similar to what the NUAC does,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. “There’s going to need to be a division of labor between the two bodies,” Yang added.

Many also fear the committee could further diminish the role of the Ministry of Unification, which is already a shadow of its former self. With the Blue House recently taking the lead in senior-level talks and other inter-Korean dialogue and policies, the ministry is increasingly finding itself crowded out. Some are now predicting it could end up relegated to the role of executing decisions made by the new committee, leaving its previous experience and capabilities with dialogue and cooperation untapped.

Park’s idea for the committee may also be focused too heavily on the outcome of reunification. As with the previous talk of the “unification jackpot” in her New Year’s address, the focus is squarely on the goal of unification, without any clear vision on the process for achieving it.

“It’s not for any lack of ideas about unification in South Korea that we’ve failed to achieve it yet,” said Inje University professor Kim Yeon-chul. “We’ve gathered experience in many different areas - political, military, economic, cultural - and ideas have been discussed. It’s difficult to tell if she’s saying we should ignore all that and try something else.”

Yang Moo-jin agreed on the vagueness of the process. “The ‘national community’ approach to unification was an official plan that included three stages: first reconciliation and cooperation, then an inter-Korean federation, and finally unification,” he said. “I’m not sure it makes sense to talk about preparing for stage three when stage one isn’t even working.”

 

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