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Increasing Obstacles to Peaceful Co-existence on the Korean Peninsula

The Korean peninsula has long been considered the last legacy of the Cold War era where protracted military tension has out-weighted prospects for peace and stability. Challenging the global trend of progress toward post-Cold War order, both Koreas have engaged in the vicious circle of suspicion, distrust, and often military clashes. The Korean summit, which was held in Pyongyang in June 2000, was a major breakthrough. At the first historic summit, president Kim Dae-iung and chairman Kim Jong-il produced the June 15 Joint-Declaration which will serve as the basic document guiding peaceful co-existence and national unification on the Korean peninsula.
No doubt, the summit meeting and the June 15 declaration are a product partly of the Kim Dae-jung government's so-called "sunshine" policy. President Kim initially used the analogy of sunshine in order to persuade the U.S. government to pursue a soft-landing policy in dealing with North Korea. The "sunshine" policy has aimed at paving the way to peaceful co-existence and national unification through the dismantling of the cold war structure which has dictated the geopolitical fate of the Korean peninsula since the end of World War II. Although full implementation of the June 15 declaration is yet to be seen, the summit meeting has brought about a decisive momentum to build stable peace on the Korean peninsula.
However, the summit talks and the adoption of the June 15 declaration do not necessarily mean the end of the Korean question. Despite the summit and remarkably improved inter-Korean relations, an array of new and tough agenda await future inter-Korean negotiations. Some of these agenda are military confidence-building, tension reduction, return of kidnapped South Koreans and prisoners of the Korean War, and increased frequency and expanded size and scope of reunion of separated families and exchanges of letters.
In addition, the opposing Grand National Party had been critical of president Kim's venture with the North. Conservatives raised several issues. First, they criticize the June summit's failure to address issues on tension reduction and peace building on Korean peninsula. Second, the first item on agents of Korean unification and the second item on the modes of unification in the joint declaration reflect North Korea's traditional preference, and president Kim must have been deceived by his counterpart. Third, the summit meeting and the joint declaration went too far and too fast by precipitating ideological chaos and jeopardizing national security in the South. Finally, there is no reciprocity in dealing with the North. Some of these critiques are well taken. But others are very much anchored in ideological and political bias.
The newly established Bush administration in the United States also appears to adopt  different strategies in dealing with the North. Key members of the Bush administration perceive changes in North Korea as nothing but tactical maneuvers to overcome the current economic difficulties and believe the North's real intention is to create Kangsung Daeguk (a strong and prosperous nation). More importantly, the policy of engagement by the United States and South Korea has prolonged the survival of Kim Jong-il's regime. The Bush administration has called for reciprocity and verification as the precondition for the continuation of any meaningful negotiations with the North.
In fact, despite the summit talks, several inter-Korean ministerial meetings, and subsequent economic, social, and cultural exchanges and cooperation, North Korea still remains erratic in its behavior. North Korea's recent last minute "no show" at the fifth inter-Korean ministerial meeting without any prior notice epitomize its unpredictable behavior. As long as the North continues such behavior, it will be extremely difficult for the Kim Dae-jung government to organize public support in the South and to continue to undertake its peace initiatives within the framework of the "sunshine" policy.
As noted above, there are numerous obstacles to peaceful co-existence and Korean reunification. It is uncertain when the next summit will be held. Improved inter-Korean relations cannot be envisaged without building a viable national consensus. Leadership in both Koreas should avoid the policization of inter-Korean issues for domestic political purposes. The four major powers, including the U.S., should also play a constructive role for tension reduction and peace building on the peninsula. Keeping this in mind, both Koreas should make every effort to transform division into reunification with patience, prudence and inter-subjective understanding.

The writer is a professor in the Dept. of North Korean Studies.

Choi Dai-seok  leesj117@dongguk.edu

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