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December 6, 2022

Jeju Island: Davos of Asia

A month ago to the day, I had the privilege to be among the 4,000 participants (political leaders, diplomats, scholars, business professionals, heads of international organizations and media) that had arrived from 50 countries on the picturesque Jeju Island in order to take part in the 10th edition of the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity. A Forum that ambitiously aspired to be the “Davos of Asia,” as Won Hee-ryong, Governor of the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province, put it in an interview published by Korea JongAng Daily.

Among the distinguished guests who attended the Jeju Forum were former Chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schroeder, former President of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, former Prime Minister of Japan Yasuo Fukuda, former Prime Minister of Canada Joe Clark, former Prime Minister of Australia John Howard, and Li Xiaolin, the President of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries.

“The Jeju Forum is in its 15th year and its 10th round. To be objective, the Jeju Forum has not yet reached the level of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland or the Boao Forum for Asia in China. There are many competing international forums in Korea. But despite that competition, it is rare to see an international public forum that deals with the consistent theme of peace and prosperity in East Asia,” the governor stated.

“The Jeju Forum is about peace based on tackling foreign affairs and security issues,” Governor Won told us at the special dinner offered on the evening of May 20 in the honour of the group of journalists invited by the Korea Foundation to attend this prestigious forum of debate and ideas whose main purpose is the promotion of “peace and prosperity in East Asia.”

In what concerns the choosing of the “Towards a New Asia of Trust and Harmony” theme for the Jeju Forum, Won, as Chairman of the Forum’s Organizing Committee, pointed out that “regaining trust and reconciliation in the region to untangle the complex web of discord in Asia is the most urgent problem here”. “If cooperation and dialogue in politics or security is not in the macroscopic picture, then there is a need for it to happen in the microscopic sphere, in a more detailed and practical manner, and work up from here. That’s why we chose this theme,” the Jeju Governor emphasized at the same time in his speech during the Press Night event.

Located only one hour flight away from Seoul, this paradise known as Jeju Island has become famous not only for its Unesco’s designation as a natural heritage and preserve and a geological park, but also as an international arena for conferences and diplomatic meetings. Its breathtaking natural beauty, history and diplomacy made Jeju a peace symbol, as important diplomatic events have been held frequently here since 1991.

I was to better understand and be aware of the profound significance of the “The world comes to Jeju, and Jeju goes to the world” slogan I saw written on a multitude of banners on the road from the airport to the Haevichi Hotel & Resort Jeju centre, where the forum was held, following my informal discussion with the Governor, with whom I had the honour to be seated at the same table at the Press Night event, but also with other colleagues from the international and Korean press. Governor Won was a very pleasant interlocutor and proudly talked to us about the “Island of World Peace” and all that this island has done to deserve this title offered by the Government. In his talks with us journalists, Won proudly presented and promoted his island, the forum, but also talked about global peace and harmony. “The designation as “Island of World Peace” is also based on Jeju Islanders’ folk traditions of self-reliance and pride, symbolized by the ‘three absences’”, the Governor told us. No beggars, no thieves, no gates, three defining traits for the life of the island’s local community, which however symbolizes peaceful cohabitation in spite of the natural setting that is nevertheless hostile to an easy and comfortable life because of the problems related to the procurement of drinkable water, because of the adverse conditions of rocky unproductive soil and rough seas.

Following President Roh Tae-woo’s foreign policy doctrine of “nordpolitik” issued in February 1988, aimed to respond to the end of the Cold War era, South Korea decided to normalize diplomatic ties with Communist States – China, the Soviet Union and its Eastern Europe satellites – and thereby isolate the Communist North Korea. In September 1990, South Korea established diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, this being a tremendous shock to the North, the traditional ally of the Soviets.

After the South Korea-Soviet summit held in Jeju in April 1991, between presidents Roh-Tae-woo and Mikhail Gorbachev, marking a milestone in the ending of the Cold War, the inhabitants of Jeju Island launched a campaign to have their island designated an “island of peace” for global peace and common prosperity.

Since then, Jeju Island has consistently hosted important summits between regional and world leaders, with a significant impact on world peace. Thus, in April 1996, Presidents Kim Young-sam and Bill Clinton met there and a few months later the South Korean President welcomed here the Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. Earlier, China’s President Jiang Zemin, who had helped establish diplomatic ties between Korea and China in August 1992, played a banquet hall piano on this island.

Based on Jeju’s developing as a “nucleus” for regional and world summit diplomacy and tourism, frequented by world leaders, and because of the rich diplomatic history and tradition of this place, the Korean Government eventually declared Jeju an “Island of World Peace” in January 2005. Since then, the Governor told us, the “Island of World Peace”, which has also pursued East Asian peace through the Korea-Japan-China Summit in 2009 and the Korea-ASEAN Special Summit in 2010, has continued to spread the spirit and values of peace, trust, harmony. And the ambitions for the future match the prestige earned so far.

“I hope the 20th Jeju Forum can be called the Asian version of the Davos Forum,” Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong concluded, telling us that the main message he wants to send out to the world by hosting every year ever more successful editions of the forum is: “the concept of peace is not just limited to being against the war or violence, but the elimination of any sort of discrimination against people because of race, gender, religion or politics. Jeju is valuable as a vacation respite that can offer healing, help people find a new lifestyle and recharge them. This is linked to expanding peace through Jeju’s nature, culture, people, traditions and unique identity.”

The current Jeju Forum edition, held in the year that marks the 70th anniversary of several key historical events including the end of WWII, the founding of the United Nations and Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule, but also the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Korea-Japan diplomatic ties, has included very interesting sessions aimed to examine progress toward peaceful coexistence in this region that went through difficult historical contexts.

Likewise, several sessions addressed topics in Korean foreign policy, including Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative and trust-building on the Korean Peninsula. As expected, Korean unification was the central point of the talks, and I was invited to be panellist in such a session titled “Korean Unification as International Public Goods and the Role of International Media,” one of the reasons being the fact that I am from a country with historic problems somewhat similar in what concerns reunification.

“The Korean Peninsula has been one of the major zones of conflict in the world. By resolving the conflicts on the Korean peninsula, the unification can impart a positive message to the world that seemingly intractable conflicts can be resolved if we put in good faith efforts,” Professor Kim Jae-chun, Director of Sogang Institute of International Studies, stated in his address.

“Since President Park mentioned in early 2014 that the unification would amount to ‘daebak – jackpot or bonanza’, much of the discussion has revolved around economic benefits that the unification would bring to people on the Korean peninsula. By highlighting economic benefits of unification, ‘unification daebak theory’ has rekindled interests in the unification in Korean society in Korea and also in international community. In general, still many people tend to view the unification as an event that will benefit mostly the Korean people in terms of security and economic interests. But beneficiaries and scope of daebak are much broader,” Professor Kim added. He presented the advantages and benefits of daebak (unification), which will expand the borders of Korea and of the region.

“The biggest beneficiary of unification would be people on the Korean peninsula, but the unification would also benefit Northeast Asia and major stakeholder countries in the region. Furthermore, the unification would be a world historical event that could contribute to the international community. The benefits go beyond the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia; it goes to the international community,” Professor Kim said.

In Professor Kim’s opinion, the international mass-media can play a crucial role in supporting this goal of reuniting the Korean Peninsula, by making people aware among other things of the fact that “unification will make positive contributions to a variety of issue areas in international relations, not just security and economy, but also issues such as non-proliferation, human rights, environmental protection, human trafficking and money laundering.”

Summing up, in Professor Kim’s opinion, international media should encourage Korean unification to move into the following directions:

–          Unification should be a new-unification, not re-unification;

–          Nationalism should not be too much of a driving force for unification. Unified Korea should espouse universal values not nationalistic ones;

–          Unification should not just be an extension of South Korea’s system to North Korea.; Unification should fulfil a more refined vision of Korea that can appeal to the international community;

–          Unified Korea should be a “network state” that promotes peace in the region and the world.

In what concerns Romania’s experience, during the session I pointed out that Korean society is first of all interested in assimilating the know-how on the issue of unifying two diametrically opposed systems and, to an equal extent, on the transition toward a unitary, democratic state based on market economy. During many years after the collapse of communism, Romania had to confront a lot of challenges: enormous economic, political and social issues that appeared as a result of the ample process of transition to a multi-party political system and to a market economy from a totalitarian communist regime similar to the one in the Northern state of the Korean Peninsula.

One should not forget that the Ceausescu regime was among the ones (if not the one) closest to the Kim Jong-Il model, several works on the Chuche philosophy (the fundamental ideology of self-reliance of the Pyongyang regime) being published in Romania. After visiting North Korea in 1971, inspired by Kim Il-Sung’s cult of personality, Ceausescu started a tough reform of the communist system based on North Korea’s model, by launching his July Thesis. This concept contained 17 proposals that would help create a more centralized state and were applied by his regime until the change of government in December 1989.

For Romania, it has taken over 25 years to fully change the system and become a powerful player in Europe as well as a respected voice in the world. However, this complex process of transition is far from being over, it has been a difficult and challenging one, with steps forward and back. After two decades of “homework”, Romania has been able to learn how to manage conflicting relations between two different systems in terms of values, mentalities, basic concepts of functioning institutional structures, and economic mechanisms.

Therefore, Romania has a certain necessary expertise gained in a quarter of a century since its regime change and is willing to share it pragmatically.

From the Romanian perspective, the experience that would prove more useful would probably be the one gained during the transition period (particularly social costs, change of mentality, the assimilation and implementation of the concepts and values of a democratic society), but also the one regarding the social-economic integration of the Republic of Moldova within the social-economic standards of Romania. For example, unlike the two Korean states, the border between Romania and the Republic of Moldova is open to traffic, citizens can cross the border, there are economic, cultural, academic exchanges etc.

In this context, the Romanian experience related to the Republic of Moldova is relevant (although aspects comparable to the inter-Korean model are relatively few) to the extent in which on both sides of the border one can identify initiatives and/or projects that can lead to a concrete timetable for a possible unification when such a political decision will be taken. Until then however, although not politically effective, unification exists on a socio-economic level through trade, academic exchange, the aid offered by the Romanian Government for kindergartens, schools in the Republic of Moldova.

That is why, both from the perspective of the bilateral relationship as well as that of an overall international arrangement, the Romania – Republic of Moldova case seems more difficult to use as main model for the shaping of inter-Korean relations.



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