As South Korea’s new president Moon Jae In settles into office, focus is turning towards the incoming administration’s North Korea policy. Unlike conservative governments, which have favored sanctions and pressure, the new liberal government is seen as more likely to pursue dialogue with the North. But will such a change in policy be effective in improving North-South relations and changing the regime’s determination to develop nuclear weapons? To find out more, we sat down with Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU) Director Son Gi Woong.
Unification Media Group [UMG]: You became the director of KINU in late March this year. What has been your impression thus far?
Director Son [Son]: I’ve been deeply moved. I was a student at the Free University of Berlin in Germany when the Berlin Wall came down on November 9, 1989. I was in the library studying late with friends when the incident took place at the Brandenburg Gate. When we heard what was happening, we all went to go and see for ourselves. A lot of West German University students were actually not in favor of reunification.
They were saying, “Let the socialist countries stick together, and we can get along with countries like us.” But after that, I had the privilege to witness the reunification of the German people. Since returning to Korea, I have only worked at one place: the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU). I still carry the dream of reunification with me. I want to share that dream with everyone at KINU and work towards that goal together.
UMG: At the same time that you were appointed director, the people of South Korea elected a new president. There are expectations that Moon Jae-in will pursue a policy of dialogue and exchange with North Korea, unlike the previous two administrations.
[Son]: I think that both liberal and conservative governments have desired unification and hoped for improved North-South relations. But policies are inevitably judged by their results. For the past 20 years, dialogue has been sidelined. The conservative governments of the past 9 years have paid a lot of attention in particular to countering North Korea’s nuclear development and military provocations. They have had no choice but to address these issues. I think it’s more important to learn from our past policies than to criticize them.
So I hope that Moon Jae-in will reflect deeply on the policies of the past as a way to devise and develop a new policy.
Preventing North Korea’s nuclear development and military provocations is not the only way that South Korea can benefit. I am not sure whether or not neighboring countries believe that doing so will be sufficient for achieving peace, but the Republic of Korea has a bigger mission: advancing towards unification of the peninsula. That’s why the South should join other nations in condemning these provocations, and should also develop policies aimed at achieving unification.
That requires us to look for ways to engage in exchanges and cooperation to get closer to the North Korean people. It’s likely that President Moon will focus on the short-term goal of countering nuclear development, but I also believe that his government will try to engage in more North-South exchanges.
UMG: Has the objective of dialogue been to denuclearize North Korea? Seeing as this has not been achieved, some have criticized the idea of re-entering talks with Pyongyang. What are your views on this position?
[Son]: Since the first North Korea crisis occurred in 1993, South Korea has engaged in tireless rounds of unilateral and multilateral diplomacy with cooperation from the international community. Despite these efforts, the results have been lackluster. I am honestly doubtful that we will be able to get Kim Jong Un to completely denuclearize. That is why we need to continue to coordinate with the international community to prepare militarily and diplomatically. I believe that denuclearization and lasting change can come from unification.
Right now the Kim Jong Un regime is developing weapons and displaying them to the international community. To its own residents, the regime is saying, ‘We need to continue developing nuclear weapons despite economic hardship because the imperialist Americans want to attack us.’ During these times, South Korea should participate in international sanctions, but also seek ways to reach out to the North Korean residents.
To the residents, we need to say, “Are you happy? Are you free? Do you know the meaning of human rights? Do you really believe that the Republic of Korea wants to attack you? Do you think that America would attack without our agreement, even though it’s a superpower? Do you think the regime’s nuclear weapons will make the people happier?”
Through these kinds of messages we can show the people of North Korea that the country’s nuclear weapons development is solely for the benefit of the regime. It’s extremely important to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear development, but at the same time, we need to engage with the North Korean people to show our desire for unification. That is why exchanges and cooperation matter.
UMG: Now that you’ve mentioned cooperative projects and exchanges, I think it’s important to address the elephant(s) in the room: the Kaesong Industrial Complex, the Kumgang Tourist Area, and the May 24th Measures (South Korea’s unilateral sanctions targeting the North). How will the new administration address these contentious issues?
[Son]: My view is that North-South exchanges and cooperation should continue no matter what the situation is. Whether it’s economic cooperation or social and cultural cooperation, these types of exchanges and efforts are necessary to improve the labor, the markets, and the resources needed to help a country grow. These efforts will also advance the cause of unification because they provide an opportunity to engage in dialogue with the North Korean people and show them that our [South Korean] society is vibrant. Improving the kindred spirit that North and South Koreans feel for one another is an important step toward reunification.
However, the nature of such exchanges should develop with the times. Even if Kaesong Industrial Complex is reopened, I doubt whether recommencing large scale operations that give a lot of money to the regime is helpful. And I don’t know whether doing so is possible given the latest UN sanctions. We need to find ways to engage that directly help the North Koreans and attract support from the international community.
UMG: Do you think the North Korean regime will be open to such alternative plans?
[Son]: I think they will. If we look to Cold War-era Germany for an example, we can see that West Germany continued to conduct exchanges, and eventually East Germany collapsed partially due to the influence of the capitalist West.
The North Korean authorities are well acquainted with the East German example. However, the strategic environment has changed, with Russia and China instituting major reforms. With this context in mind, North Korea did not object to certain kinds of exchange with the South. If the North was truly afraid of this influence, they would never have allowed exchanges in the first place. But Kaesong and Kumgang were opened under Kim Jong Il’s tenure.
Things changed again during South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s administration, when North Korea engaged in numerous military provocations, such as the sinking of a South Korean naval corvette called the Cheonan. But the North did not call for closing the cooperative ventures when that happened. On the contrary, they proposed to expand them. They did this because they were getting things they needed through the exchanges. As long as the North continues to develop nuclear weapons, we need the ability to seek out cooperative projects that the international community can support. Exchanges and cooperation reopen the pathway to eventual unification.
UMG: Isn’t changing the North Korean policy calculus the most important thing? Whether engaging in sanctions and pressure or exchanges and dialogue, both liberal and conservative administrations have failed to make headway. Why is this the case?
[Son]: We need to ask ourselves whether unification and the improvement of North-South relations were really prioritized. I think both conservative and liberal administrations have fallen short here. Improvement of relations can only be achieved if the administration acknowledges the coexistence of two political systems on the peninsula. Right now, according to the constitution, North Korea is considered a part of South Korea, and reunification must be pursued. I’m skeptical how far any unification effort can go if it starts from this premise. The new administration should analyze the stumbling blocks that have impeded efforts in the past.
UMG: Discussing unification before the North Korean nuclear problem is resolved might be viewed as premature. How can we make better progress in achieving denuclearization?
[Son]: Influential nations need to take the lead on this, particularly the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the countries involved in the Six Party Talks. Countries like America, China, and Russia need to firmly and resolutely insist that North Korea will simply not be permitted to develop nuclear weapons, a policy that all three countries have supported for the past 24 years. I think that the time has come for these three countries to hold a high-level summit with South Korea to strongly condemn nuclear development and damage the position of Kim Jong Un. North-South exchanges should be pursued independently at the same time. When times are tough and progress down other avenues has stalled, grassroots North-South relations can help to re-open the door.
UMG: Can you tell us your views on how the new administration should approach North Korea’s human rights abuses?
[Son]: According to Article 3 of the South Korean constitution, all Korean people on the peninsula are considered citizens of the Republic of Korea. It is therefore expected that the South Korean government has an interest in the lives of North Korean residents. Human rights discussions can be used to pressure the Kim Jong Un regime. But determining how to use this peaceful weapon is the crux of the issue for policy makers. It is important to strategically determine the best time to use it.
UMG: What is the government’s role in efforts to change the North Korean people’s understanding of human rights by introducing information from the outside world?
[Son]: There is only one way to unify the two Koreas, and this is mentioned in Article 4 of the constitution: peaceful unification under a liberal democratic order. That’s why it is so important to break through to the North Korean people and open their eyes to the truth. Change will begin when they realize they have a right to freedom and come to understand that things are better in the South. Just as the people of Poland, Hungary, and the Soviet Union made demands, so too must the people of North Korea.
We need diverse forms of exchanges and information made available to the North Korean people, so they can think critically and make the determination for themselves. The government should open the door to North-South interactions. It should also facilitate NGOs and individual efforts to get involved by providing legal and administrative support.
UMG: Finally, can you lay out the goals and the vision you have for the future of KINU?
[Son]:We need to move the bulk of KINU’s work from managing issues arising from separation and towards achieving unification. Unification of the Korean peninsula is an unknown road, but for the sake of national growth, we need to strive to go down that road with greater vigor. KINU will work for the people by helping to open up that road.