ICAS Special Contribution

No. 2003-0513-RJY

Engagement with the North: Step by step to one Korea

Ra Jong Yil

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

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Biographic Sketch & Links: Ra Jong Yil

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution with written permission to ICAS of Ra Jong Yil. sjk]

Engagement with the North: Step by step to one Korea *

Ra Jong Yil **

Even in the light of North Korea's recent claim that it possesses a nuclear weapon, the present South Korean administration remains as convinced as ever that engagement through our "policy of peace and prosperity" - a continuation and expansion of the "sunshine policy" initiated by former President Kim Dae Jung - is the proper approach.

The principle of the engagement policy is simple: to move unilaterally toward reconciliation with North Korea, gradually expanding the areas of common concern until enough trust has been built up to finally establish institutions leading to eventual unification.

This political approach deviates sharply from that prevalent last century. In place of pursuing a grand agenda in the name of national glory or ideology, or fugoku gyohei - the Japanese term for the economic and military strength of a nation - the policy of engagement is aimed at addressing the basic necessities of individuals: better food, medical care, education and a wider range of choices for everyone. In other words, the political agenda must be defined in terms of concretely advancing human welfare.

In this perspective, even the reunification of Korea should be judged in terms of whether it would be able to contribute to the quality of life not only for Koreans but also their neighbors.

We want to avoid the fate of great political achievements that were initially welcomed with enthusiasm but did little to improve the conditions of life and instead led to enormous suffering and misery.

Indeed, the first stage of engagement has succeeded in melting away the thick layer of ice left over from the Cold War. There have been dramatic increases in the number of contacts between North and South. Between 1989 and 1997, only 2,405 South Koreans visited North Korea, whereas 3,317 South Koreans visited the North in 1998 alone. The number increased to 12,825 in 2002. In the meantime, North Korean visitors to the South reached 1,052 in 2002. Altogether, 510,000 South Korean tourists went to Kumgangsan (Diamond Mountain), on the southeastern coast of North Korea, between 1998 and February of 2003.

In June 2000 a historic inter-Korean summit meeting was held. There has been a continuing stream of bilateral talks, including ministerial-level meetings, between the two sides, resulting in concrete breakthroughs in mostly functional areas such as railway linkages and the establishment of an industrial complex for South Korean companies just north of the western end of the demilitarized zone that separates the two parts of the peninsula.

To date, there have been six family reunions for relatives who had not been able to meet or communicate with each other for nearly 50 years, one exchange of letters and two searches to identify family members who are still alive.

These steps may appear modest, but many difficulties, including strong domestic opposition, had to be overcome to achieve them. Despite this, the previous government held its course - as will this government. Considering the past half-century of tragic confrontation between two sides locked in a zero-sum game of conflict, the breakthrough has been remarkable.

To build on this achievement, President Roh Moo Hyun, who is scheduled to meet with President George W. Bush in Washington on Wednesday, has set out the guidelines for future engagement: to resolve all pending issues through dialogue; to give priority to building mutual trust and upholding reciprocity; to seek active international cooperation on the premise that South and North Korea are the two main actors in inter-Korean relations; to enhance transparency, expand citizen participation and secure bipartisan support for engagement.

The immediate task ahead, of course, is to properly address "North Korean issues." Rather than seeing these issues as a roadblock, we should realize that working to resolve them can be a good opportunity to promote better cooperation among the countries of the region.

There is remarkable consensus in the international community that it is not desirable for North Korea to develop weapons of mass destruction and that this problem should be dealt with peacefully and diplomatically. This basic consensus, I believe, is due in part to the achievements of the "sunshine policy." It is a confirmation that engagement remains the best path forward.

*appeared on the IHT, May 13, 2003

**The writer is national security adviser to President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea.

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