On Mar. 13, an announcement ceremony for a campaign to send a million sacks of fertilizer to North Korea by the Korean Council for Reconciliation and Cooperation (KCRC), was abruptly postponed the same day the event was scheduled to take place in Seoul’s Sajik Park. The council’s chairman, Hong Sa-deok, said the delay was due to “inadequate preparation,” and that it only affected the ceremony, but circumstances seem to suggest that it was the South Korean government that put the kibosh on it.
At any rate, the KCRC announced on Mar. 14 that it had gone ahead with launching the fertilizer campaign, and that around 73,000 bags had been donated by 6 pm on Mar. 13.
The KCRC is the country’s permanent council campaigning for unification, with political parties and nearly 200 civic groups taking part. Since its establishment in 1998, it has played an important role in inter-Korean exchange and cooperation, and in shaping the discourse on unification. The fertilizer campaign involves raising contributions of 12,000 won (US$11.20) each from one million different bank accounts through April, each covering the cost of one 20-kilogram bag. It’s a way for ordinary South Koreans to join together and offer support in a way that not only relieves North Korea’s food shortage but also helps lay the groundwork for reunification. It also needs to go ahead on schedule if the support is to arrive in time for the farming season.
The government hasn’t been clear about why the ceremony was stopped, but it appears to feel the time is not yet right for fertilizer aid. In particular, it thinks providing fertilizer would violate the “May 24 measures” introduced in the wake of the 2010 sinking of the ROKS Cheonan warship, which limit all aid and cooperation with North Korea on anything but humanitarian issues.
This is not the way to fix inter-Korean relations. The South Korean government’s passive approach is largely to blame for the chill that has persisted between Seoul and Pyongyang even after last month’s reunion event for divided family members. It signals a serious problem when major government officials are looking at fertilizer or rice aid through the lens of sanctions, or tying them to progress on the nuclear issue. In the past, the South Korean government provided around 300,000 tons of fertilizer per year to North Korea. What the KCRC has planned is a scant one-fifteenth of that.
These days, the Blue House has been carrying on with its “unification-as-jackpot” frame, with President Park Geun-hye announcing on Mar. 14 that she herself would chair her presidential committee to prepare for reunification. But the actual behavior coming from Seoul has been a far cry from any attempt to practically pave the way for reunification.
To talk about unification without showing any real interest in inter-Korean exchange or cooperation is to invite suspicions that you’re just waiting for the regime in Pyongyang to collapse. It’s also wrong for the government to monopolize all the channels for exchange and cooperation, as it seems to be trying to do now. Unification isn’t going to happen out of nowhere through negotiations between governments. Even the reunification of Germany was founded upon an existing base of active exchange and cooperation.
Instead of blocking the public’s attempts to exchange and cooperate with North Korea, the government should be supporting them as much as possible. It’s also time to give serious thought to resuming tourism at Mt. Keumgang and lifting the May 24 measures.
Please direct questions or comments to [firstname.lastname@example.org]