[UCA News] South Korean Catholics seek healing across border

The division of the Korean Peninsula has outlasted the Cold War, numerous political leaders and repeated attempts at rapprochement. But as the 70th anniversary of division approaches next year, a group of Catholic clergy in South Korea is seeking engagement with the controversial state-sanctioned Church in North Korea in the hope of overcoming decades of separation and confrontation between the countries.

The Committee for the Reconciliation of the Korean People is working to hold a conference with the Pyongyang-approved Joseon Catholic Association next year to mark the anniversary and pray for peace, in the latest effort by South Korean Catholics to bridge the sides.

“The intention of the God we trust in is telling us to overcome division and conflict, and achieve reconciliation and concord,” Fr Lee Eun-hyung, the secretary-general of the organization under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Korea, told ucanews.com. “It is saying let’s meet and pray together to overcome the current danger and crisis. The goal of this event is to say let’s gather our minds in prayer for peace.”

Lee said representatives from both sides agreed in principle to a faith conference during a meeting in Beijing last month but said an exact date and venue has yet to be set.

The group would need the approval of the governments of both Koreas for any event to go ahead.

The Catholic Church has often been associated with liberal activism in South Korea, a key focus of which is engagement with North Korea. In May, Cardinal Yeom Soo-jung, the archbishop of Seoul, visited an industrial park in North Korea jointly run by both governments. The South Korean hierarchy also invited its neighbor to send worshippers to events related to Pope Francis’ visit in August, though Pyongyang declined the offer.

Cooperation with North Korea, however, remains especially politically sensitive in a country that remains technically at war with its neighbor. South Korea’s sweeping National Security Law makes praise of the Kim Jong-un regime a crime and prohibits contact between the sides without prior government permission.

“The biggest challenge is the political situation between South and North Korea. I hope political influence does not influence religious or private exchanges, but if you look at the process up until now, it doesn’t look like it will be easy,” said Lee.

Also fraught is the very nature of the so-called Church north of the border. North Korea is ranked the least free country for practicing Christianity by Open Doors, an American NGO that tracks religious persecution worldwide. Extensive defector testimony has documented the imprisonment and execution of Christians for practicing their faith.

The fate of the Church could hardly have diverged more widely on the other side of the border: The Church in South Korea managed to almost triple its congregation between 1985 and 2005, defying the decline seen in other developed countries.

“They [the Kim regime] see it as a major challenge, a challenge coming from a completely different philosophical viewpoint, on the one hand, but also pretending to be a universal explanation of everything, like juche,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University and longtime North Korea watcher, referring to the state ideology of self-reliance.

A state-approved Church has existed in the capital Pyongyang since 1988, but defectors and human rights groups consider it a sham set up to fool outside visitors.

Andrei said that while genuine believers may exist within it, the North Korean Catholic leadership is largely comprised of members of the State Security Department, the regime’s secret police.

But he added that it is possible they could be influenced to question the regime through meetings with outsiders.

“They are human beings, they have brains,” said Lankov. “If you look, say… at the disintegration of the Soviet Union, you will be surprised how many of the subversive ideas got to the Soviet Union through the KGB, the Foreign Ministry, through all these carefully selected people.”

Lee himself acknowledged that there are no legitimate priests in the country, but expressed hope of reaching North Koreans with a Catholic background.

“There are no priests but there are people who have been baptized. There are people who were baptized before the division, and there are also people involved in the religious exchange process who have been baptized,” he said.

Asked about the possible presence of government agents among purported Catholic representatives, Lee said it was hard to comment on an “internal problem”.

“There are many disappointing things to me about the religious conditions in North Korea, but I think it is fortunate that there is a representative group with whom to push for a meeting.”

Lee was adamant that their modest proposal could eventually grow into something much bigger for the benefit of all.

“Although it is now just a small and simple meeting, I believe these efforts for a meeting will bear large fruit one day through the Lord.”

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[Christian Science Monitor] North Korea chooses optimum moment to release Americans Bae and Miller

The surprising weekend release of two Americans detained by North Korea has spurred the usual flurry of speculation over why the secretive regime in Pyongyang let them go.

North Korea watchers agree the freeing of Mr. Bae, an evangelical who had been in a labor camp for two years, and Matthew Miller, who was detained in April, certainly facilitates the strategic objectives of the Kim Jong-un dictatorship.

The releases appear to be Act Two of a process that began last month with the release of Jeffrey Fowle. The most likely scenarios are the North’s concern about being indicted for crimes against humanity at the United Nations, or that it is seeking talks or at least a diplomatic thaw with the US over its nuclear program, or both.

“N. Korea might… decide the timing now to prevent discussing North Korea human rights issues and North Korean denuclearization and additional actions on those two issues between the U.S. and China,” Mr. Song says.

In recent months North Korea has launched one of its rare diplomatic offenses overseas, designed to counter the possibility of a UN Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague, based on years of abuses and killings in its labor camps.

But John Delury, professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, is skeptical that this issue, rather than outreach to the US, is driving Pyongyang’s policy. “They take their relationship with the United States very, very seriously, it’s one of their top strategic relationships, and it trumps [the issue of] human rights,” he says. The release of Bae and Miller removes an “irritant in their relationship with the Obama administration.”

North Korea has repeatedly called for the revival of six-nation talks over nuclear denuclearization, without preconditions. The US has insisted the regime demonstrate its sincerity through action. The talks involving the US, China, both Koreas, Russia and Japan have been dormant since 2008 when Pyongyang walked away from the negotiating table.

US officials insisted this weekend that no quid pro quo arrangement was made in the release of the two Americans. Obama said at the APEC summit on Monday that there had been no discussions on denuclearization.

But Mr. Delury says it is highly possible that Clapper did broach the nuclear issue, despite its denials.

“The Obama administration seems to put it as a point of pride, like we weren’t suckered into talking about this nuclear issue,” he says. “But that seems a little odd as a strategy. I mean, you send your intelligence director to Pyongyang, why would you not feel the North Koreans out?”

Bae was arrested two years ago while leading a tour group from China into the North and was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for spreading “Christian propaganda.” Miller arrived in Pyongyang as a tourist in April and tore up his visa, apparently so that he could be sent to a labor camp as a witness to alleged abuses. 

[Christian Science Monitor] North Korean leader misses key anniversary as rumors still swirl

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un remained out of sight Friday on one of his country’s most important political anniversaries, adding fuel to weeks of speculation about his absence.

His nonappearance on the 69th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers’ Party marked the young dictator’s 38th day missing from public view. Mr. Kim, who paid his respects to his late father and grandfather on previous anniversaries, has never gone more than three weeks without making an appearance in North Korean media, which usually follow his every move.

Observers contend that Kim’s prolonged absence is less remarkable than how it’s portrayed in foreign media. They dismiss many reports as breathless conjectures that illustrate the difficulty of obtaining accurate information about one of the world’s most secretive regimes.

Kim went missing for about 20 days in 2012 and again for two weeks this past April, says Michael Madden, who runs the blog North Korean Leadership Watch. Mr. Madden points out that Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, would also disappear for long periods of time during his 17-year reign.

“There is an absence of information, and people are going to fill it however they are going to fill it,” he says. “Some of this obviously comes from government officials who are under pressure to come up with an explanation for the boss. That’s not entirely unheard of.”

Amid rumors of a coup or even an assassination, the most credible explanation for Kim’s absence may be that he is suffering from health problems. An unnamed source with access to the North Korean leadership told Reuters that Kim was recovering from a leg injury, the news outlet reported Thursday.

Andrei Lankov, a longtime North Korea watcher at Kookmin University in Seoul, doubts anything serious has happened to Kim. If the leader had died or been overthrown, Dr. Lankov says, “you would expect serious changes in the composition of the government.”

“Nothing like that has happened,” he says. “We see the same faces, the normal bureaucratic work of government.”

Lankov adds that recent visitors to the capital, Pyongyang, have not reported any cancelations of scheduled events or restrictions on traffic. He takes their reports as signs that things are relatively normal in North Korea despite Kim’s absence.

News outlets around the world often produce unverified and outlandish reports about North Korea, which has no independent media and prevents most of its citizens from leaving the country. In May, a popular North Korean singer performed in Pyongyang eight months after international media reported that the regime had executed her.

Even the South Korean government struggles to gather reliable information on the inner workings of its rival neighbor. The Unification Ministry, which handles cross-border relations, told local media on Friday that while the North Korean regime appeared stable, it had no information on Kim’s health.

South Korea’s intelligence agencies have a lot of difficulties acquiring accurate information on North Korea,” says Song Dae-sung, the president of Sejong Institute, a national security-focused think tank in Seoul. “All information in North Korean society has been so strongly controlled, so it is very difficult for us to say a definitive duration for Kim’s absence.”

[Christian Science Monitor] As Asian Games kick off, will North Korea flip its way into S. Korean hearts?

There is little to distinguish the North Korean delegation’s living quarters from among the two-dozen apartment blocks that make up the athletes’ village of the Asian Games opening this week in South Korea.

Hanging from the balconies of one tower, nine national flags provide the only obvious sign of Pyongyang’s participation in Asia’s biggest sporting event.

For many South Koreans, the competition that kicks off Friday is more than a mere sporting event. It doubles as the latest in a long list of attempts at engagement with the North, and has been a flashpoint for tension over how to best interact with the South’s oft-unruly neighbor.

“I really do hope [the Games are reconciliatory], but there is still a long way to go” says Ahn Sehyun, a professor of international relations at the University of Seoul, who sees the competition as a “stepping stone” to reinitiating talks between both sides.

‘We are one nation’

The North Koreans share their building with the delegation from China, Pyongyang’s only major ally. The South Koreans, divided from their countrymen in the North for more than 60 years, are accommodated in a separate building a short walk away.

Security has been tight since the first batch of North Koreans arrived last week under police escort from Incheon International Airport, where they were reportedly greeted with cheers of “We are one nation!” by a small group of South Koreans. An armored personnel carrier, SWAT officers, and metal detectors guard the entrance to the compound, restricting access inside. A second segment of the North Korean delegation, dressed in blue and white with the national flag on their lapels, was photographed in the local media this week flanked by security after they arrived.

Who pays for North Korea?

Just getting the North Koreans to the Games was a controversial task. In July, negotiations on the size and cost of hosting the North’s delegation broke down, leaving its participation in doubt.

Seoul eventually agreed to pay a portion of the 273-member delegation’s stay, declining to reveal the amount until after the event. At the last Asian Games in the country, held in 2002 under a liberal administration, South Korea paid the majority of the costs of North Korea’s participation.

Seoul’s conservative Park Geun-hye government, whose “trustpolitik” policy calls for trust-building with North Korea through mutual cooperation, may have an additional motivation for being determined to see its neighbor at the games, says Victor Cha, the top North Korean advisor to former US President George W. Bush and author of Beyond the Final Score: The Politics of Sport in Asia.

“The administration… wants to look like they are trying, at least, [and] doesn’t want to be blamed for excluding North Korea. There is always a good 25 percent of the South Korean electorate that views North Korea in sort of a more positive light,” he says.

Fundamental split

But North Korea’s participation has also generated controversy south of the border, highlighting the fundamental split in domestic politics between liberals who tend to be enthusiastic toward engagement and conservatives who remain guarded.

One controversy centered around North Korea’s cheerleaders – who won devoted fans in the South during the 2002 Games. Last month, Pyongyang reversed an earlier pledge to send cheerleaders, causing the Unification Ministry to send assurances that the cheerleaders were still welcome.

Even as the Unification Ministry insisted last month that North Korea’s cheerleaders would be received enthusiastically if they came, Seoul’s Defense Ministry described their appearance as a “shell” to conceal their true propaganda purpose.

Earlier this month, meanwhile, the national flags of the 45 participating countries were removed from the streets of Incheon following protests about the display of the North Korean flag.

“North Korea has an ulterior agenda for wanting to participate in the Asian Games,” says Song Dae-sung, the president of the Sejong Institute, a think tank in Seoul that specializes in security and regional affairs.

“The current image of Kim Jong-un has been the very negative one of being an authoritarian military dictatorship. North Korea is going to promote its fake, attractive image through its participation in the Games, hiding its original bad image.”

Aside from cynicism about North Korea’s true motives, some observers simply question the extent to which a sporting event can affect such an uneasy and complicated relationship between countries.

Effective sports diplomacy usually happens in the context of wider engagement, such as the “ping pong diplomacy” of the 1970s that marked a thaw in between the United States and China, says Mr. Cha.

“The problem, I think, in North-South [relations] right now is there isn’t a lot going on, and you just have this Asian Games thing there with the hope that it will somehow generate some sort of diplomat breakthrough. Unfortunately, the reality is the events don’t generate diplomatic breakthroughs if there is no prior undercurrent of policy sort of moving in that direction.”

“The problem, I think, in North-South [relations] right now is there isn’t a lot going on, and you just have this Asian Games thing there with the hope that it will somehow generate some sort of diplomat breakthrough. Unfortunately, the reality is the events don’t generate diplomatic breakthroughs if there is no prior undercurrent of policy sort of moving in that direction.”

[The Korea Herald] Is Korea doing enough for N.K. refugees in China?

By John Power

China’s forced repatriation of North Korean defectors in the country may have exploded onto the national and international agenda in recent weeks, but the issue is far from new.

While reaching an exact figure is impossible, the Chinese authorities have sent countless North Koreans back to their homeland to face imprisonment, torture or even execution over the last two decades.

According a recent testimony to the U.S. Congress by the chair of the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, the number comes to the tens of thousands.

Until recently, Seoul’s response had been one of “silent diplomacy,” declining to publicly admonish or raise the issue with Beijing. That has changed alongside mounting public protest and disillusionment here with China’s stance. The government this month sent a high-level Foreign Ministry official to China to discuss the issue and publicly petitioned the EU, U.S. and U.N. for support.

Protesters denounce China’s repatriation of North Korean refugees at a rally in Jongno, Seoul. (Yonhap News)

“…(We) delivered our concern over the possibility for them to be repatriated to their own country (to the Chinese foreign ministry). We also are bringing this matter to those international organizations like the U.N. human rights committee and expressed already our position through those keynote speeches of our high-rank officers of our ministry,” an official at the North East Asia division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently told Voice on condition of anonymity.

China, however, has been unmoved, and continues to regard the refugees in its territory as economic migrants.

On March 9, just two days after another official in the Foreign Ministry was quoted in The Korea Herald saying China seemed “very uncomfortable” about the issue being internationalized, it was reported that China had forcibly repatriated 31 refugees.

The Foreign Ministry official Voice spoke with stressed that Seoul regrettably had very little leverage over Beijing on the issue.

“It is very limited because mainly the North Korean defectors problem in Chinese territory is solely the Chinese government’s matter so we cannot intervene as we want,” he said.

But he denies that the ministry has long been negligent in tackling the problem, pointing out that it had brought numerous defectors to the South with Chinese cooperation until relatively recently.

“Our position is that during the last 10 or 15 years we got substantial results during our so-called silent diplomacy and until 2009 or 2010 we still got some cooperation from the Chinese side to solve this problem. Not that eagerly, but they passively cooperated with us. Partly it depended on detailed cases, but mainly the international situation, especially our bilateral cooperation was better than now. But now I think the evaluation of their own policy toward North Korea and toward us has changed in China, that’s why, especially after the Beijing Olympics … I think they changed their position.”

The official wouldn’t be drawn on why ties had deteriorated, but said there were numerous explanations from commentators and academics available in the public realm. Among those proffered are China’s ambivalent reaction to the North’s sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeongpyeongdo in 2010 and illegal Chinese fishing in Korean waters.

He added that the ministry had yet to receive any signs of change from China.

“Up to now, sadly, we don’t have any hopeful sign from the Chinese side yet, and I think it will take some more time.”

Professor Lee Jung-hoon, director of the Institute of Modern Korean Studies at Yonsei University, accepts that Seoul has little leverage on China. But, he says, nor has the government or political establishment acted with sufficient urgency.

“Because we have so many investments in China and … our trade relations with China are larger than our trade with the U.S. and Japan combined … and the fact that of course China seems to have some leverage in dealing with North Korea, all adds to our government and politicians being extremely ginger so as not to ‘provoke’ China,” Lee said.

“That shouldn’t in any way be skirted just because we are afraid that it might have a negative implication for our trade relations, economic or other political relations with China. That is extremely cowardly and China should not play that card either.”

He highlights the failure of the National Assembly to ratify the North Korea Human Rights Act as one egregious example of inaction.

“They’ve been stalling the passage of the North Korean human rights law which of course the U.S. and Japan has passed but we haven’t because the opposition Democratic (Democratic United Party) has been opposed to it. It’s very cowardly of the opposition not to raise human rights issues in the North and this is linked to the North Korean defector issue … We heard recently from Kim Jong-un about how to handle the defectors. He’s telling the soldiers to shoot them on sight. We know, China knows, exactly what happens to these people and (we) still lack the courage and moral conscience and a sense of responsibility.”

A Christian activist who helps North Korean refugees escape China to asylum says that his experience of government action has been disheartening. He points to an incident in 2009 where, he says, the South Korean embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam, refused asylum to a number of North Korean refugees. Other reports in publications such as the LA Times have repeated similar claims.

“In general, for the last decade and a half it would seem that, in my opinion, the South Korean government has not had a very robust policy toward protecting the refugees,” said the activist, who spoke on condition on anonymity.

“Usually it has been NGOs that have highlighted the issue and if a specific incident would come up in an embassy or consulate in China or some other country then, dragging its feet, the South Korean government would come to the table. I think it is doing better in this situation. But it seems to me that more or less the administration is following public opinion rather than really leading the way.”

He added that it is a “dirty little secret” that, even in liberal democracies, trade trumps human rights issues.

“The idea that there is really nothing South Korea can do is wrong. Seoul can simply say, ‘We understand your position, from now there is a 3 percent excise tax on every Chinese good that comes in here.’ That’s the point where a country truly declares this is important to us.”

Lee Tai-hwan, a senior research fellow at Seoul-based foreign policy and defense think tank The Sejong Institute, sees such a move as “unrealistic,” arguing that tax policy and the North Korean refugees are separate issues. And while he acknowledges that the government has had no option but to push harder on the issue recently due to growing public discontent, he says behind-the-scenes diplomacy is just as vital as more public campaigning.

“In terms of negotiation, they need to be a bit more flexible for effectiveness. Without effectiveness, many defectors will be repatriated to North Korea. To have a desirable result, I think, while the government could resort to the international organizations on the one hand, on the other hand they need to very skillfully negotiate with China … One track is the very principled track, another is the quiet diplomacy track.”

[The Korea Herald] Is North Korea closer to denuclearization?

On February 29, 2012, North Korea cut a deal with the United States for food aid in exchange for a halt to uranium enrichment. Despite hopeful speculation from some North Korea watchers that the country could be moving away from the pursuit of nuclear weapons, the agreement would ultimately be scrapped just six weeks later when the regime attempted a satellite launch widely seen as a covert missile test. — John.

By John Power

The start of the month saw a headline-making development in the decades-long effort to get North Korea to drop its nuclear weapons program. In exchange for 240,000 tons of U.S. food aid, North Korea agreed it would suspend nuclear tests, long-range missile launches and uranium enrichment at its Yongbyon facility, and allow the return of the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors.

The response to the deal from many here and in the U.S. was favorable but tinged with caution ― unsurprising, considering the history of false dawns for North Korean denuclearization. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton summed up the mood with her opinion that the deal was only “a modest first step in the right direction.”

Among the many unconvinced of the North’s sincerity is professor Kim Yong-soon of Yonsei University’s Institute of East & West Studies.

“The move by the North Koreans to accept the latest deal seems to be for two reasons: one is to buy time for the completion of their regime transfer, and two is for economic reasons,” Kim told The Korea Herald.

“Of course these two reasons are intertwined in that only some sort of economic stability will ensure a smooth transfer of power as well as its completion. Only time will tell, but as of now, there seem to be no indications as to suggest that this deal is any different (from previous promises to halt its nuclear activities).”

This combination of two satellite images provided by DigitalGlobe shows on the left, construction at the nuclear complex in Yongbyon, North Korea, Sept. 20, 2011; and on the right, the Yongbyon complex on Feb. 3, 2012. The Feb. 3 image of the complex at Yongbyon was taken nearly a month before North Korea agreed to a freeze of major nuclear activities in return for U.S. food aid. Senior analyst Paul Brannan at the private Institute of Science and International Security said on March 6, 2012, a turbine building at the reactor that was still under construction in the Sept. 20 image now appears to be externally complete. (AP-Yonhap News)

Song Dae-sung, president of Sejong Institute, a Seoul-based think tank, is blunter in his assessment of the regime’s intentions.

“North Korea’s latest concessions are not sincere. There is no chance that the North Koreans would ever surrender their nuclear development program… In the short run, they hope to win some aid from Washington in exchange for symbolic concessions and demonstrated willingness to negotiate the eventual denuclearization ― this willingness is fake, but it will help for a while,” he said.

Song says that this latest commitment to a moratorium while, in the North’s words, “productive dialogues continue” allows North Korea to have it both ways.

“In the long run, they hope to make a deal about arms restriction, as opposed to disarmament. In other words, they are willing to freeze their nuclear program, if they are paid a hefty fee, and explicitly or implicitly allowed to keep some stockpiles of plutonium and/or nuclear devices. Thus, they will kill two birds with one stone: They will reap the benefits of being a recipient of large aid while they will remain secure from the threat of a foreign invasion or foreign support of a local insurgency.”

The hope remains for policymakers that the North’s concessions could be the stepping stone to the eventual resumption of the six-party talks, which the North walked out of in 2009, shortly followed by its second nuclear weapons test.

Accordingly, Stephan Haggard, director of the Korea-Pacific Program at University of California and visiting fellow at Peterson Institute of International Economics, is more optimistic about the implementation of the latest deal.

“The deal is significant in two ways. Not only does it provide a path back toward the six-party talks; it also suggests that the new leadership is capable of taking fairly bold decisions. They have been trying to come back to the talks, but the U.S. has demanded some prior actions or ‘pre-steps’ before resuming the Six Party Talks. I would be surprised if they took this step and immediately reneged on it,” he said.

While an enormous challenge, Haggard doesn’t see it as inconceivable that the regime could be induced to give up its nuclear weapons entirely.

“The negotiations will not be easy, and the U.S. and ROK will need to address North Korean security concerns and probably provide some economic inducements as well, including some discussion of light water reactors,” said Haggard.

But nuclear armament has proven to be a powerful bargaining chip for the North, one which it is not likely to give up lightly. Last year’s demise of Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi, after his compliance with U.S. and U.K. demands to end his nuclear weapons program, must surely give the North Korean leadership pause for thought.

“There are two very compelling reasons why North Korean decision makers need nuclear weapons: First they do not want to be slaughtered with their families; second, they want to be able to squeeze aid from the outside world,” said Song, adding that dialogue could never lead to the North’s disarmament.

But, if not complete disarmament, there is threat minimization.

“While I remain doubtful that North Korea is ever likely to negotiate away its nuclear program in its entirety, there is something to be said for limiting or constraining North Korean nuclear capabilities,” said Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the PIIE and co-author with Haggard of a number of books on North Korea. “The recent deal does precisely that, limiting nuclear activities at Yongbyon, and could act as a springboard to negotiations that could result in broader denuclearization measures.”

While Noland is reluctant to attribute the concessions to an unprecedented willingness on behalf of the new North Korean leadership to denuclearize, he nevertheless believes they represent a significant breakthrough.

“What I think that we can say is that the deal means that someone or some group in Pyongyang is capable of making decisions; and that the first decision they made had a conciliatory, and with respect to the volume of food aid, an even concessionary, cast. This development is good news, especially if the alternative would have been hunkering down and doing another nuclear test later this spring.”

Kim believes that in the short term there is little Seoul can do to get the North to disarm, but that long-term strategies should combine accommodation and a tough posture. While the carrot and stick must go hand-in-hand, he says, Seoul and the international community have tended to rely too much or one or the other.

“In the long term, the South has to work to alter the rigid threat perception that North Korea has ― that is seeing the South and its alliance with the U.S. as a real and immediate threat to its survival. Again, this is made more difficult given that the North regime has been using this perceived outside threat to justify its rigid rule over its populace.”

[The Korea Herald] Is reunification closer to reality?

The following article, addressing the likelihood of Korean reunification following the death of North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il in December 2011, was the first of my 2-year-long “Voice” series of in-depth analysis pieces for The Korea Herald.  

[VOICE] Is reunification closer to reality?

By John Power

As soon as North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s death was announced, speculation began on the implications for South Korea’s relationship with Pyongyang.

A major question is how Kim’s death and the transition of power to his youngest son Kim Jong-un will affect the long-held goal of Korean reunification. With the elder Kim gone, is a reunified Korean Peninsula closer to becoming a reality?

According to North Korea scholar and Kookmin University professor Andrei Lankov, the answer is yes.

“It makes reunification more likely exactly because it makes instability in North Korea more likely,” he told the Korea Herald.

He sees reunification as early as next year as “not highly probable but possible,” pointing to the tendency of totalitarian regimes to collapse with little or no prior warning. Reunification is “probable” in decades at the earliest, however, as the regime as “little alternative” but to retain a stranglehold over the country.

“If they want to stay in control, if they don’t want to be slaughtered or run to China for exile ― (assuming) the Chinese will accept them, which is a big ‘if’ ― they have no choice but to continue these policies they have continued for the last few decades, which means no Chinese-style reform, no democratization,” he said.

Lankov is adamant that a collapse of the Kim regime is the only way that reunification can come about, as it would be impossible for the North Korean leadership to survive an orderly transition.

“They will immediately be attacked by their own people … and they will be become immediately responsible for what they did. You cannot hide it in the case of a reunified country. You cannot hide your former misdeeds, and they are quite hideous.”

East Asian Economy and Society professor at University of Vienna Rudiger Frank agrees that Kim’s death makes reunification more likely in the short-term. But he considers the key window for an open power struggle and a regime collapse to have passed.

“By stating that he is leader of the party, the state and the army, the propaganda tries to make sure really that everyone in the population thinks that Kim Jong-un is the boss which means the chances for an open power struggle are really diminishing,” Frank said. “But now that he has been announced I think he really must be in the front, either as a figurehead or the real leader.”

Others such as professor Kim Jang-ho of Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies believe that Kim’s death makes reunification neither more nor less likely, but means more of the same.

“Not much change I don’t think. Because he is young and because he has to rely on his father’s people for the time being to maintain his power, I think he will be very conservative in his approach to South Korea,” he said.

Kim says that a key question is how the new leader will deal with potential rivals within the regime.

“After Kim Il-sung passed away, Kim Jong-il relied on his father’s people for about five, six, seven years and then started purging them. I am not sure that will be the same for Kim Jong-in given his age, but until that time I don’t think he will be able to come up with any drastic changes. In terms of reunification, again, I’ll have to say, the status quo.”

Kim Jong-il in power or not, adherence to past policy is what ultimately counts, according to Song Dae-sung, president of Seoul-based national security think thank Sejong Institute.

“If the Kim Jong-un regime insists on their Military First Policy, the death of Kim Jong-il doesn’t make a difference … As long as they insist on the Military First Policy, the quality of North Korean government will never change. This would make reunification with dialogue or reconciliation impossible.”

In a statement to The Korea Herald, the Unification Ministry said that while Kim’s death was “significant,” it would not be the decisive factor in brining about reunification.

“The government is pursuing reunification through efforts to improve North-South Korean relations and achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula. We have pursued this for the past 20 years and will continue to do so … The important thing is how North Korea responds to the efforts of the South Korean government,” said Kim Nam-sik, Assistant Minister at the Unification Policy Office.

But if a regime collapse does not happen, are there other paths to reunification? Frank believes so, but that they are fraught with difficulty.

“In you think about more smooth and gradual types of reunification, ones that are, at least officially, preferred in South Korea, it is hard to imagine how this is going to work. Reunification means shedding part of your national sovereignty, for both parts in an ideal world,” he said.

“And my impression is of course in South Korea the plan is that North Korea gives up everything and the South just keeps doing what it has always been doing and expands into North Korean territory.”

Frank says an ideal and plausible scenario would see North Korea follow a gradual liberalization, allowing it to expand its economy and increase its interaction with the outside world.

“But that means they grow stronger and that means they come into a position when they can ask for conditions when it comes to negotiation about the reunification. Will South Korea accept that? I have my doubts. So, in fact, it is kind of ironic, if North Korea manages to reform and open itself, this will make reunification, at least in the mid-term, unlikely.”

Frank, who grew up in former East Germany, also believes that Kim Jong-un may have less invested in a reunified Korea than his father and grandfather.

“I was 21 years old when Germany got unified and, frankly, I couldn’t care less about it. Why? Because through all of my life I had known two separate German states. So if you ask me whether Kim Jong-un would be as keen on reunification as his father or grandfather, the answer is no, simply because the divided Korea is the world he has known since the very beginning of his life.”

But despite it being official policy here to aim for eventual reunification, many South Koreans, particularly younger ones, remain skeptical of whether the benefits would outweigh the costs. South Korea’s economy is up to 40 times the size of the North’s, and that gap is likely to grow for the foreseeable future.

“At least 10-15 years of struggle is foreseeable after the unification,” according to Kim Yong-soon, a professor at Yonsei University’s Institute of East and West Studies. “As was the case with Germany, even if the unification process goes well, there will be severe political, economic and societal problems to overcome. Needless to say, this will not only test the leadership in Seoul as well as its people, but burden South Korea with a massive bill.”

Sejong Institute’s Song foresees an even longer period of about 20 years before reunification ceases to be a burden on Seoul.

But, despite the vast discrepancy in the two economies, Frank argues that Korean reunification could be a net benefit quicker than it was for Germany.

“Among the tangible benefits are gold, anthracite and magnetite and all the other nice stuff that is up there in the mountains in North Korea that South Korea is lacking and that the Chinese are actually taking out the country at this moment,” he said.

Frank also points to the differences in expectations between North Koreans and East Germans.

“It (East Germany) was an enormously rich country, people had cars, they had houses. Satisfying an East German after reunification meant a huge effort. Most money in the case of German reunification has been spent on social security.”

Unlike Frank, who says appeals to pan-Korean nationalism and economic benefit could allay skepticism here, Lankov says little can be done to persuade reluctant South Koreans of the benefits of reunification.

“You are basically asking how you can persuade people that it’s a good idea to sacrifice their life for the likely prosperity and happiness of the next generation. It can be done but people are not very eager to make such sacrifice.”

For Song, the best hope for changing reluctant attitudes here is for North Korea itself to grow economically.

“It is true that many Korean don’t want reunification soon. However, this view might change if the present quality of the North Korean regime transfers into a normal state.”