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The two Koreas: a broken home on the brink

Posted by Georges Tsaï on 8 December 2010

A regime isolated from the rest of the world

Korea (both North and South) along with Iceland, are rare examples of largely homogenous countries, ethnically and linguistically. Yet the vagaries of history have led to a hopeless, ideological divide between both Koreas for almost 60 years. The Pyongyang regime has isolated itself from the rest of the world, with the exception of China that continues to support it though with increasing distance.

Who will waver first – North or South Korea? To explain the most recent behavior of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, analysts vacillate between a purely political explanation (Kim Jong-il wants to ensure the arrival in power of his son Kim Jong-un) and a psychological explanation (North Korea, as would a misunderstood teenager, is desperately trying to direct the attention of the adults around him to his frustrations and anxieties). Without completely ruling out the former, the latter seems the most plausible. It may also offer a key to breaking the dangerous deadlock in which both Koreas have found themselves.

A change of mood for South Korea?

Many South Koreans have sought to overcome this situation through dialogue and reconciliation, and it would be fallacious to suggest such efforts have not yielded positive results. Between 2000 and 2009, the famous Sunshine Policy implemented by the late President Kim Dae-jung (Nobel Peace Prize 2000) and his Unification Minister and the current President of Kyungnam University, Park Jae Kyu (Special Jury Prize for Conflict Prevention by the Foundation Chirac 2009), and actively pursued by the late President Roh Moo-hyun, the predecessor of the current President Lee Myung-bak, offered the Korean peninsula a period of relative calm that implied the possibility for greater cooperation between North and South, and perhaps even, ultimately, a form of unification that would be flexible enough to reassure everyone.

It is, I think, fair to say that this reconciliation policy has been, until very recently, supported by a large portion of South Koreans. During a three-week stay in South Korea last spring, after the Cheonan incident, I saw to what extent South Koreans remained committed, despite the crisis caused by the sinking of the warship, to maintaining dialogue between the North and the South. They have maintained an exemplary attitude, made up of patience and conciliation, towards their northern neighbors. One can therefore understand the signs of irritation given off by Seoul for the past few days. However, allowing this capital of goodwill evaporate in the wake of the bombing of the island of Yeonpyeong, and giving way to feelings of revenge – however legitimate they may be – could have tragic consequences.

Do not impose demands

It will not be easy to end the deadlock, as both sides are apparently irreconcilable. Seoul’s position (it might be more accurate to say that of Washington) which demands denuclearization first and only after will there be normalization. Whereas Pyongyang wants normalization first and then denuclearization. This game of “chicken” or “my demands first but not yours” would seem childish if the risks were not so great.

So, can we imagine a widely respected politician, active or retired, coming from a country that is not involved in the six-party talks – currently on hold – capable of convincing both parties to agree to a simultaneous denuclearization and normalization? Is it realistic to believe that the big stick policy with naval maneuvers and the whole shebang will comply to the expectations of the United States and South Korea? For the policy to be effective, they must be ready to use the stick at the next outburst of the family’s black sheep or lose all credibility. Is it so hard to reassure the turbulent and provocative teenager that is North Korea that it really belongs to a family rather than to the axis of evil?

The Korea Times, published in Seoul, notes, with fundamentally Asian wisdom, that Koreans should not allow ideological differences of the past 60 years destroy 5000 years of a national identity that is shared by all Koreans. We can not agree more.

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