The Engagers’ Vision of Unification
A peace regime has long been a dream of the Engagers who see lasting co-existence with lowered tensions—if not some sort of economic or political union—as the end-goal. Getting there means peace and unification will occur through negotiations and a transformed relationship, rather than through North Korean collapse and absorption by South Korea.
However, this is a long-term goal. As Ms. Jeongmin Kim argued to TNI, “I think Moon Jae-in’s idea of a 2045 [unification] was a wise choice. Going for something very rapid and extreme—as of now—doesn’t make any sense. And Korea, in and of itself, is not really ready for unification socially or politically. There are still so many ideological remnants from the past the Korean people have not dealt with perfectly yet. And, North Korea, of course, has a problem with the idea of unification because they have claimed their own legitimacy as the leading role in the Korean peninsula.”
Ms. Jeongmin Kim warned these things need to be sorted out first, and in the meantime both Koreas should maintain dialogue. She elaborated that Seoul’s 2045 plan “still has the political rhetoric of engaging with North Korea, rather than seeing North Korea as an enemy, but distances the administration from any idea of going for a rapid change such as opening up all the inter-Korean exchanges like Kaesong or the Mount Kumgang tourist region, which are causing a lot of controversies right now.” Furthermore, Ms. Jeongmin Kim cautioned against rapidly lifting sanctions since that might weaken South Korea’s deterrence capabilities.
Dr. Ki-jung Kim also noted the peace process would take time. “We need to reduce unnecessary military tension with North Korea. The demilitarized zone was where military firepower was so concentrated, so peacemaking through arms control was concluded through the Comprehensive Military Agreement [in September 2019]. The pace of implementing that agreement is very slow, maybe slower than we expected, but the agreement itself is very symbolic.”
Peacebuilding should be the next step and would end with a single Korean market. This, Dr. Ki-jung Kim told TNI, would be a “peace economy” that would achieve a “capitalist peace.” He envisioned a gradual opening based on the example of Europe after World War II. Wanting to avoid another World War, European countries bound themselves together economically and then politically into what is now the European Union. “The basic assumption is that if you share a certain degree of interest in the market, then security sensitivity could be minimized. That was what we learned from the experience of Europe. We will try to integrate North Korea into our capitalist economy. It might be called economic cooperation or economic reconciliation or even South Korea’s role in the development of the North Korean economy. It might be called many things, but the basic idea is peacebuilding.” The problem, Dr. Ki-jung Kim believes, is America’s insistence on upfront denuclearization and refusal to loosen international sanctions.
Additionally, Dr. Ki-jung Kim wants a peace treaty to replace the armistice agreement, so the war can legally be over. He envisions this done along with denuclearization steps, so Washington accomplishes its goal and—more importantly—the Koreas build a new future together. To many Engagers, the choice is not a peace regime vs. denuclearization. Right now, America wants “peace through denuclearization,” but instead Seoul wants “denuclearization through peace.” This is because as long as the United States wants everything upfront, then “there is no role for South Korea. Just watching and waiting for the conclusion of the Pyongyang and Washington timeline.” Instead of being stuck on the sidelines, Dr. Ki-jung Kim explained that Seoul wants to improve inter-Korean relations to hasten along peace, which would cause denuclearization.
This view is shared among Engagers. They want Seoul to have a leading role in repairing inter-Korean relations and for America to realize peace and stability are the only path to denuclearization. They also worry Washington doesn’t always realize pushing too hard could cause the very war they want to avoid.
As Dr. Youngjun Kim told TNI, “We still suffer from the Korean War complex, right? So many people died and North Korea provoked us a thousand times, including the assassination effort on President Park Chung-hee… So we have a lot of trauma, and we really want peace on the Korean peninsula. Regime change is not the top priority for South Korea. South Korea wants peace first, and then—maybe some decades later—unification. Early unification is not hoped for by the South Korean people because of the [economic] burden it would mean.”
The catch is how to ensure eventual unification goes smoothly. One way is assisting North Korea economically as a peaceful incentive for Pyongyang, and also so the future cost for South Korean taxpayers isn’t too high. Dr. Youngjun Kim explained, “We don’t like any dictatorship. We understand the human rights issue. But the first human right is eating food, rather than political freedom or freedom of speech. If North Korean people don’t have any food, then they should get food first and then political freedom. If they are rich, they will want more political freedom.”
To Dr. Youngjun Kim, democratization and a capitalist peace cannot come without reconciliation and trade. If Kim Jong-un wants North Korea to become rich, high-tech, and educated like Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, or Singapore, all the better. Engagers believe that will reduce North Korean suffering and bring peace in a way maximum pressure never could. As Dr. Youngjun Kim pointed out, forced regime change doesn’t work. “After removing Saddam Hussein, there were more problems.”
A long-term focus on unification and economic integration was a common refrain. Many experts also told TNI that Seoul could not unilaterally move forward without Washington’s cooperation. Dr. Jihwan Hwang is a professor of international relations at the University of Seoul. He related to TNI how North Korea would love to see sanctions reduced while still keeping their nuclear weapons. Since America does not want this, negotiations have stalled, slowing down inter-Korean dialogue as well. Dr. Jihwan Hwang believes Washington errs when it assumes Seoul will rush ahead of them just because President Moon is progressive. “I think in the current Korean government, there is a kind of balance between inter-Korean relations and U.S.-North Korean relations. So, maybe it would be okay if the Moon Jae-in government went forward with North Korea one step or one-and-a-half steps ahead, but I don’t think Moon Jae-in will accelerate inter-Korean relations without improving U.S.-North Korean relations.”
At the same time, Dr. Jihwan Hwang warns North Korea won’t budge without America ending what Pyongyang calls Washington’s “hostile policy.” As a result, “The Moon Jae-in government wants to play mediator, but North Korea always believed the ball was in the American court.” That means without a change in American policy, President Moon cannot improve inter-Korean relations, and Supreme Leader Kim will not give up any of his nuclear arsenal. Dr. Jihwan Hwang stressed things are now stuck, and “the South Korean government is really worried about U.S. military policy towards the Korean peninsula.”
Dr. Chung-in Moon echoed these worries about maximum pressure. “There’s no way for North Korea to accept it. We want to complete the denuclearization of North Korea, but there needs to be a more flexible approach. In Washington, sanctions are like a theology. I know sanctions are codified and legalized, and it is not easy to use them strategically. But, I think the American government should really think about using sanctions in a more constructive way. If you cannot compel North Korea to change its behavior regarding nuclear capability, then use other options.”
Engagers often focus on America and what they see as external causes of Korean division. “The nation-state is incomplete on the Korean peninsula. One nation is divided into two parts, two states,” lamented Dr. Ki-jung Kim to TNI. “Mostly, international factors shaped the situation on the Korean peninsula. 2018 was a momentous change because, for the first time in history, inter-Korea political determination began to lead and influence international politics. After the inter-Korean Panmunjom declaration, the U.S.-North Korean Singapore summit was possible.”
This is why Engagers want Seoul to lead and for America to change its approach to denuclearization. They see this as the only path to a peace regime and eventual unification. A peace treaty would replace the armistice and eventually the alliance might be replaced by inter-Korean military cooperation. In the meantime, both Koreas must keep building trust and reducing tensions. They need to maintain a common Korean identity, and North Korea needs to improve its behavior and continue its economic reforms. As Dr. Ki-jung Kim elaborated, “We have to make Kim Jong-un stay on the road towards denuclearization because he made a public commitment” rather than fall into the belief that North Korea must maintain its nukes and isolation. “Even though the chance of success is very slim, we have to maintain our hope.”
Editor’s note: John Dale Grover is a Korean Studies fellow at the Center for the National Interest. He visited Seoul for a week in early November 2019 to interview nine experts in South Korea for this project. This is the second piece in a five-article series, “How South Korea’s Politics and Military Impacts Strategic Stability with North Korea.” This series examines the two South Korean views—Engagement First vs. Deterrence First—over how to best interact with North Korea. The first piece introduces the problem of conflict escalation and stability in the context of North and South Korea’s militaries. The second piece looks at the Engagers’ point of view, and the third piece at the Deterers. The fourth piece sees where both groups agree and disagree, and the fifth piece concludes with how each side can help avoid a Second Korean War. Support for the reporting of this article was provided by a fellowship from Atomic Reporters together with the Stanley Center for Peace and Security and funding from the Carnegie Corporation, New York. The quotations in this article have been edited for length and clarity.