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August 6, 2021

Signs of spring

The installation of a new leadership in North Korea following Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011 has brought along some very interesting developments in just two months, which should be deciphered and understood in the broader context of global novelties. In-coming Korean leader Kim Jong–un most certainly has in mind a strategy regarding his relations with the rest of the world which is perhaps distinct to the one adopted by the former leadership, which calls for deciphering.The first thing is the signing of an agreement between the US and North Korea in the extremely important dossier of nuclear armament. The suspension by North Korea of its uranium enrichment programme as well as of long range missile and nuclear tests were announced simultaneously on March 1 in exchange for 240,000 tons of food aid. North Korea also consented to its nuclear reactor of Yohngbyon being inspected by the specialised UN agency (IAEA).Political observers have noted the agreement could open a channel for a resumption of the six-party talks (the two Korean states, the US, China, Russia and Japan) on non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament which were suspended in 2009. International news agencies report the IAEA head has stated that the announced agreement was ‘an important step forward’ and inspectors are looking forward to going back to North Korea. Negotiations for this agreement had been held between the two parties at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing during several weeks. A press report says the new leader of North Korea is being supported by his brother-in-law, Chang Somng-taek, a man of great influence over military circles. Christopher Hill, the American negotiator in the previous talks in the nuclear dossier, said after the agreement had been signed: ‘I think the first order of business is to try to figure out the terms by which we provide the food aid’; and ‘We’re going to have to make sure the North Koreans have the aid and that we can monitor that the food aid goes to the right people”.  The other participants in the six-party talks  also hailed the defrost starting to happen between North Korea and the rest of the world, expressing hope that contacts would continue towards a consolidated stability and security in the peninsula. But this step which is deemed important by the interested parties as well as by the international media refers to another possible development in the overall Korean Peninsula: the issue of the reunification of the two Korean states. In a recent (March 10) interview, South Korea’s Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik was identifying a tight connection between the two processes – talks in the nuclear dossier and the unification: ‘The issue of nuclear armament and the six-party dialogue over Korea’s future relate to one another like the wheels on a car. If one stands still, then the vehicle doesn’t move forward. All progress in relations in the last 20 years has always happened in parallel with the talks.’ In keeping with this logic, we therefore can expect the unification dossier will experience some notable moves rather soon. In South Korea one can already notice elements suggesting a possible unification. The philosophy on which the objective of unification is based upon there is its peaceful character during an indeterminate period of time  – Russian experts, for example, expect it to happen in 20 years. Seoul’s first interest is to convince Pyongyang of its serious intentions to negotiate and come to an agreement. In the above-mentioned interview, the South Korean Unification Minister was also stating: ‘No one here is hoping for a collapse of the regime or wants to simply swallow up the North. We want a peaceful reunification and to make it possible for all refugees to decide voluntarily where they want to live.’ This orientation has its pragmatic foundation, as the two Koreas have to overcome obstacles that have been naturally raised in their separate and historical evolution, mutually charged with negative feelings. A first step would be to build mutual trust and to open a channel of steady and continuous dialogue between the two countries. From this point of view, the idea in Seoul is that the recent agreement concluded between the US and Pyongyang qualifies a moderate optimism, especially if the measures agreed upon are implemented. On the other hand, a genuine unification programme is being devised and implemented in South Korea. It unfolds in two different directions – the diplomatic preparations, involving states in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula or even farther, and the preparation of the population for the eventuality of a beginning of the unification process. What is believed to be extremely important is the awareness of the public, especially the younger generation, of the imperative nature of unification, the emphasis falling not so much on the cost of the process as on the ramifications of a separate future of the Korean nation. It is known that the unification of the two German states came at a high price, about one trillion of Euros, which impaired the German economy for a while. A unification fund has been already set up in South Korea and it has a double purpose: raise money from donations to meet the cost of such a huge process and raise people’s awareness of a crucial national interest. In diplomatic terms, the Republic of Korea already exhibits a high degree of activism, with senior officials taking initiatives to tighten up relations with various closer or more remote countries, through partnership or economic and trade agreements. An example could be the decision made by China and South Korea on the anniversary of 20 years of diplomatic relations, to strongly develop ‘the strategic cooperative partnership’ of the two states. Another decision was made in that framework to improve top-level contacts and develop mutual consultation on the situation in the Korean Peninsula. This unification process also presents us with quite an unusual experiment. Starting from the experience gained by the German unification experts after 1989, a German-South Korean agreement was signed in 2001 for the setting up of a Korean-German Consultation Committee on Reunification, the role of which is to transfer German expertise to the partner in the area of successful unification. About 20 German experts including Lothar de Maiziere, East Germany’s last Prime-Minister, R. Eppelmann, the state’s last Defence Minister, H. Telschik, Chancellor H. Kohl’s foreign policy adviser, MPs, senior army staff and academics already travelled to South Korea at the end of last year. One of the members of the delegation stated during that visit: ‘I can only tell people what happened back in Germany. The Koreans have to make their own decisions’; another one said: ‘Anyone who doesn’t believe in the impossible is not a realist.’The last opinion is definitely right. This is how things most often happen in history. Who in the 80s would have believed that the beginning of the following decade would bring the unification of the two German states? The reunification of the two Korean states may be closer or farther in time, but it certainly is in the realm of the real. And the real requires preparations. This is what they do in South Korea, now that the signs of spring have shown in the peninsula.

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