[Column] Inter-Korean relations will never progress if they are subordinate to N. Korea-US relations

Posted on : 2020-05-27 18:07 KST Modified on : 2020-05-27 18:07 KST
It’s time for the Unification Ministry to fulfill its intended role
Blue House Chief of Staff Lim Jong-seok speaks with US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun at the Blue House on Oct. 29, 2018. (provided by the Blue House)
Blue House Chief of Staff Lim Jong-seok speaks with US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun at the Blue House on Oct. 29, 2018. (provided by the Blue House)

Why did the “civilian” Lim Jong-seok decide to step forward?

This question crossed my mind after I saw the arguments the former Blue House Chief of Staff recently made in a conversation published in the summer edition of the Changbi Quarterly. In the piece, Im was critical of the high-pressure tactics the US has been applying on Korean Peninsula issues, citing examples involving State Department Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun and the UN Command. Commenting on a South Korea-US working group that is coordinating on matters related to North Korea sanctions, he rhetorically asked, “What can the [South Korean] Ministry of Unification do in a working group that is applying an excessively broad interpretation [of the sanctions]?”

The things Im was saying are nothing new in themselves. Similar arguments have been made often since last year by NGOs involved in exchange and cooperation with North Korea, groups campaigning for reunification, and North Korea experts. For instance, the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice (CCEJ) issued a statement in January calling for a “shift” in inter-Korean relations with the “immediate discontinuation of the South Korea-US working group that is getting in the way of restoring inter-Korean relations, and the establishment of an inter-Korean working group to resolve issues on the Korean Peninsula.”

The same argument drew all the more attention because it was coming from Im. Many analysts saw Im as having sent up an “ad balloon” for the South Korean government as it seeks to proactively create a favorable climate for pursuing North Korea-related policies. It may have been in this context that a US State Department official made the unusual move of commenting on the “civilian” Im’s remarks by stressing that inter-Korean cooperation must take place in tandem with North Korea’s denuclearization.

What has the Ministry of Unification (MOU) been doing as the presiding agency for inter-Korean relations while this former official has been speaking out? Referring to the pressure tactics coming from Biegun in his conversation with the Changbi Quarter, Im described the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) as having “stopped in its tracks” and the MOU as “playing freeze tag.” In his view, neither has been able to make any decisions or play any role.

The Unification Ministry being controlled by the Blue House

Indeed, quite a number of scholars and former senior officials have taken the MOU to task for “hiding behind the Blue House when it ought to be a driving force for inter-Korean relations.” Under the Roh Moo-hyun administration, the unification minister served as steering committee head for the National Security Council; now, according to some observers, the MOU under the Moon Jae-in administration is being dominated by the Blue House Office of National Security.

In December of last year, the Korean Sharing Movement (KSM) and Gyeonggi Province were granted UN approval to have sanctions waived for 152 items needed for the establishment of the Kaepung Tree Nursery in North Korea. Gyeonggi Province and the KSM submitted an application with the UN Sanctions Committee on North Korea for exemption to the sanctions and went about making its case. At the time, NGOs involved in exchange and cooperation projects with North Korea criticized the MOU for being too passive about inter-Korean exchange and cooperation. They asked the question: How could it be that this NGO was working to persuade the US and international community, while the MOU was merely talking about how things can’t be done because of North Korea sanctions?

Making Korean Peninsula issues local or international

Speaking last month on the second anniversary of the Panmunjom Declaration of Apr. 27, 2018, Moon said, “The road will open to us when we do not forget that we are the owners of the Korean Peninsula’s destiny.” He also declared that he would “start by doing what is in our power to do.” The message was that South and North Korea would assume central roles in resolving matters related to the Korean Peninsula -- a “peninsulizing” of peninsula issues.

There have been two approaches to resolving Korean Peninsula issues: internationalization and peninsulization. For nine years, the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administration internationalized the issues, relying on things like the South Korea-US alliance as they attempted to resolve them. In 2018, South and North Korea produced the Panmunjom Declaration in April, the Pyongyang Joint Declaration the following September, and an inter-Korean military agreement on Sept. 19 -- yet inter-Korean relations remain unable to clear the hurdle of North Korea sanctions imposed by the US and UN. A lot of this has stemmed from the old habits of internationalizing peninsula issues and treating inter-Korean relations as a subordinate to North Korea-US relations.

If South Korea is to take the lead in a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations, the first thing it will need is a solid foundation in terms of domestic politics. The ruling Democratic Party won a landslide victory in the April general elections. The government acquired a base for pursuing bold and proactive Korean Peninsula policies. Under these circumstances, civil society and the administration could divvy up roles to vigorously pursue inter-Korean exchange and cooperation efforts.

Finally, the MOU was moved to take action. In a regular briefing on May 20, Spokesperson Yoh Sang-key said South Korea’s May 24 measures sanctioning North Korea in the wake of the ROKS Cheonan sinking had “effectively lost much of their relevance” after having “undergone greater flexibility and exceptions over the course of several administrations.” In response, National Unification Advisory Council Executive Vice Chairperson Jeong Se-hyun said the MOU had “finally spoken for itself and played its role.”

Last fall, Minister of Unification Kim Yeon-chul said he would “show our abilities when the situation comes to demonstrate them.” The time to show our ability has now arrived. For the first time in a long time, this is MOU’s moment.

By Kwon Hyuk-chul, editorial writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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