By Choi Hyun-june, staff reporter
For the sixth straight year, South Korea and North Korea will hold separate private sector events to commemorate the June 15 Joint Declaration from the 2000 inter-Korean summit between then-President Kim Dae-jung and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. In the years just after the declaration, the two countries had held shared events.
Meanwhile, other private sector cooperation efforts remain at rock-bottom levels as the Blue House refuses to allow even the sort of private sector activities that once served as a bridge when relations were rocky with Pyongyang.
The South Korean and North Korean committees for the June 15 Joint Declaration had agreed to hold a joint event in Kaesong this year, but the South Korean government refuses to allow South Korean groups to participate.
The decision is consistent with the hard-line policies of the Lee Myung-bak administration since 2009, but this year unification-related civic groups are feeling especially disgruntled. Their complaint is that President Park Geun-hye had built up hopes with her talk at the start of the year about reunification being a “jackpot,” but so far nothing tangible has come of it. Kang Young-sik, secretary general of the Korean Sharing Movement, says, “The President talks about a unification jackpot, and then goes to Dresden and makes a speech there?” Kang concludes, “Nothing’s going to change this year.”
In terms of levels of private-sector [interchanges], the situation is even worse than the previous all-time low under the Lee administration. According to the annual White Paper on unification published in March, the total amount of private aid to North Korea authorized by the Ministry of Unification in 2013 stood at 5.1 billion won (US$5million). This amount not only pales in comparison to the 90.9 billion won (US$89.3million) okayed in 2007, the last year of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, but is only one-sixth the 31.0 billion won ($30.5 million) annual average during the Lee years. Even in 2011 and 2012, years when interchange and cooperation with North Korea were banned under the May 24 measures adopted in the wake of the ROKS Cheonan sinking, aid from NGOs amounted to 13.1 billion won (US$12.9million) and 11.8 billion won (US$411.6million), respectively. Between 120,000 and 180,000 people traveled between the Koreas under the Lee administration in comparison with last year’s total of 76,000. The Ministry of Unification is calling the numbers misleading.
“Last year, there was not any real aid to North Korea until August because all ties had been cut off after their third nuclear test in February,” a senior ministry official said on condition of anonymity. “The amount of aid and the number of people involved in exchange fell because there was a six-month vacuum,” the official explained.” The NGOs are countering by arguing aid has remained at a low 2.1 billion won (US$2.06million) this year, despite a lack of major frictions.
There are, however, signs of some change in inter-Korean interchange though the NGOs are cautioning against reading too much into the government’s decisions. On June 4, the Ministry of Unification approved the first agricultural exchange effort since the May 24 measures. The Gyeongnam Unification Agricultural Cooperation Committee has sent 33 million won (US$32,400) worth of strawberry seedlings to North Korea, where they are to be grown for four months before being brought back South.
“It looks more like a desperate measure from the government at a time when virtually all private aid has been cut off,” said one NGO source on condition of anonymity. “It does not look like a change in policy approaches at all.”
Lee Seung-hwan, policy committee head for the South Korean Commission for the June 15 Joint Declaration, blasted the government for its arbitrary approach to aid approval.“The administration should at least allow for things like flour aid when it is clearly justified and helps babies and vulnerable people,” Lee said. “Now, it is not just flour, but things like formula that are being refused for no reason.”
“The government needs to change its attitude of trying to control every aspect of private inter-Korean exchange,” he added.
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