[Column] It’s time to abandon Trump’s diplomacy and turn to Kim Dae-jung’s “open autonomy”

Posted on : 2020-06-25 18:07 KST Modified on : 2020-06-25 18:07 KST
For 2 years, we’ve relied on the US president’s showmanship rather than sincere negotiations
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his younger sister Kim Yo-jong, first deputy director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee, ahead of the inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom on Apr. 27, 2018. (photo pool)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his younger sister Kim Yo-jong, first deputy director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee, ahead of the inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom on Apr. 27, 2018. (photo pool)

Among the various South Korean responses to the inflammatory remarks of Kim Yo-jong, first deputy director of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) Central Committee, the one made by Moon Chung-in, special presidential advisor for unification, foreign affairs, and national security, is particularly noteworthy. Moon said that Kim Yo-jong’s critical statements about South Korea were actually a form of self-criticism. Considering the big role that Kim played in the inter-Korean thaw, her belligerent language now both expresses her extreme displeasure with the South and her remorse for her own actions, Moon suggested.

North Korea’s counter-productive behavior – its attacks on South Korean President Moon Jae-in and its detonation of the Inter-Korean Joint Liaison Office – are unacceptable no matter how you look at them. It’s a relief that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un put a belated stop to such behavior. Kim Yo-jong’s sudden transformation prompts us to take a fresh look at the past two years.

Perhaps both South and North Korea depended too much on the undependable Donald Trump to achieve a breakthrough following the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. Perhaps Trump’s peace initiative has never been anything more than a mirage.

North Korea attempted to exploit Trump’s showmanship to strike a grand bargain, but it was unable to clear the hurdle of American bureaucrats, military leaders, and lawmakers’ extreme callousness toward the North. South Korea also flitted between North Korea and the US in an attempt to somehow kickstart the process of dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, but that didn’t work out either. South and North Korea lost their way by relying on Trump – rather than on sincere negotiations – to create momentum for bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula.

Peace by way of Trump was little more than an ungrounded and impractical fantasy, as is clearly shown in his recent fracas with John Bolton, former White House national security advisor. The current chaos in the Trump administration raises doubts about whether he could ever have responsibly handled the North Korean nuclear talks.

Time to return to the methods of Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Roh Tae-woo

South and North Korea need to reconsider their dependence on Trump, who doesn’t have the slightest interest in peace on the Korean Peninsula. We need to return to the approach used by former presidents Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, and Roh Tae-woo, an approach that got results. Their approach was to create an independent space for inter-Korean negotiation and compromise and to seek the support of the US and other related countries, without relying solely on the US.

Former President Kim Dae-jung brought up the idea of “open autonomy” two times during his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, the first inter-Korean summit, in June 2000. During the two leaders’ debate about autonomy, Kim Jong-il had emphasized that Koreans should find their own solution to peninsular issues and not depend upon foreign powers.

Kim Dae-jung offered the following response: “My opinion is that we must work together to take the initiative on peninsular issues but that we must also secure the support and cooperation of our neighbors. To repeat myself, this must be ‘open autonomy,’ not ‘exclusive autonomy.” (This quote is taken from Lim Dong-won’s book “Peacemaker.”)

Indeed, the approach taken by Kim Dae-jung before and after the inter-Korean summit in 2000 corresponds to the idea of open autonomy. The US initiated the “Perry Process” in 1999 based on an inclusive approach drawn up by Lim Dong-won. William Perry’s visit to North Korea in May 1999 set the mood for reconciliation between the two countries. After the historic inter-Korean summit, then-president Bill Clinton came close to visiting the North toward the end of that year, though his visit was unfortunately called off.

We ought to carefully consider whether, by depending exclusively on Trump over the past two years, we have shut the door on Kim Dae-jung’s approach of open autonomy. We need to move toward a peace process that is led by South and North Korea, with the support of our neighbors. We should send a definite message about peace on the Korean Peninsula and release a plan for practical action so as to maintain balance in a series of interactions, whether between South and North Korea or between North Korea and the US.

Empty-headed Trump, boneheaded Bolton, and two-faced Pompeo are obstacles to inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation

In addition to the US, we also need to cooperate with other related countries, including China, Japan, and Russia. In particular, we cannot allow our neighbor Japan to remain an obstacle to inter-Korean relations.

The Moon administration has gotten considerable results during its uphill struggle over the past two years. Ironically enough, Bolton’s book makes clear how hard that struggle has been against empty-headed Trump, boneheaded Bolton, and two-faced Pompeo.

Moon has two years left in office, which is by no means a short period of time. When North Korea and the US failed to reach a compromise after their unproductive summit in Hanoi last year and the North reprimanded its foreign policy team, South Korea ought to have come up with a new approach. Now is the time for us to seek a more definite kind of “open autonomy.”

N. Korea needs to realize that Moon is a much more dependable negotiation partner than Trump

Nor should Kim Jong-un pretend that no results were achieved over the past two years, as North Korea’s detonation of the liaison office would suggest. The North needs to recognize that Moon Jae-in is a much more dependable negotiating partner than Trump. After taking some time to assess the situation, the two leaders need to sit down together and hash things out. That’s how the process should begin.

Seventy years have passed since the Korean War broke out, but the vicious cycle of division continues today. We shouldn’t be blaming anybody – the problem is our own lack of initiative. There’s no need to fault the North or to censure the South, or to wait for approval from the US or China. It’s just painful to see Korea squandering its national capability and historical potential.


By Back Ki-chul, executive editor

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

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