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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Ahn Cheol-soo on North Korea

by | August 24th, 2012 | 06:40 am
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South Korea will elect a new president in December. One interesting figure on the South Korean political scene is Ahn Cheol-soo, who despite having never held public office, would be an instantly credible candidate were he to declare. As such, his views onNorth Korea are of interest. Ahn recently released a book, “Ahn Chul-soo’s Thoughts,” which touches upon North Korea, though it is far from the central focus of the book.  The Wall Street Journal’s Min Sun Lee translated these sections. A link to the original source is provided at the bottom.

Ahn’s vision forSouth Korea is of “a welfare state, a just state, and peaceful unification.” The last is a prerequisite for the first two. The persistent tensions associated with the division of the peninsula impose real costs on South Korea: the “Korea discount” in which stocks are undervalued and higher defense expenditures than would be needed otherwise.

“North Korea is a problem for us to solve, but at the same time it could also be a present for our future. When peaceful economic cooperation with the North is activated, our domestic market will expand. North Korea could possibly be a source of growth momentum since the [South] Korean economy is currently stagnant. We can take advantage of North Korea’s underground resources, tourist attractions and human resources, and a new way could open up for building a North-East Asia economic zone or for a land route from Busan to Paris. In fact, currently South Korea is much like an island blocked by North Korea. The transportation of export goods or raw materials will become easier when we get connected to the continent. This could be an environment where our economy can jump to a higher level. If South and North gradually narrow the gap through economic cooperation, like how Germany lowered unification costs by cooperation, Korea can also reduce unification costs.”

When asked to evaluate the North Korea policies of South Korea’s recent presidents, Ahn responded that “The Sunshine Policy made achievements in reducing tension. But there were controversies over giving them [North Korea] too much and there were ideological conflicts in the South. Also, there was a lack of transparency in how the policy was handled.

“Under Lee Myung-bak’s policy, the South and North conflict worsened because the Lee administration only used a whip. The Lee hardline policy and mechanical insistence on reciprocity seemed to be based on a scenario in which the North will collapse soon. But I don’t think that scenario is persuasive.

“Therefore, based on this 15 years of experience [since the Sunshine Policy started with Kim Dae-jung], we need to make a flexible North Korean policy while maintaining a long-term perspective.”

When asked about the possibility of a North Korean collapse, Ahn demurred, saying “It’s hard to think that North Korea will undergo a people’s uprising like the Arab Spring. That’s because North Korea doesn’t have basic communication foundations like the Internet or social network services and has such a strong control system over the people. Even if the international community imposes economic sanctions, I don’t think North Korea will be isolated since it has China’s support. Isolation can instead accelerate subordination of the North’s economy to China.”

In terms of his own preferred North Korea policy, Ahn indicated that “There seem to exist conflicting perspectives that see unification as either an incident or a gradual process. The Lee administration’s perspective is the one that sees it as an incident. Since he brought up the issue of unification costs, it seems that he thinks unification will suddenly come one day. I agree with the view that sees it as a process. As economic exchanges progress, North and South will become more dependent on each other. The Kaesong complex is a good example. I think we can reach unification and peace through such cooperation.

“For the future North and South relationship, North Korean policy, national security policy and diplomatic policy should not be separated. They should be integrated under a consistent strategy.

“In the short term, we need to restart South-North talks and economic cooperation. We need to restart the Kumgang Mountain and Kaesong city tours, expand the Kaesong Industrial Complex and gradually take tha Kaesong model to other regions of North Korea. Also I think it’s important to plan an elaborate strategy for Korean peninsula after getting a solid understanding of international relations surrounding the South and North and also of the North’s internal problems.”

Sure, but what about the nukes? “Denuclearization on the Korean peninsula is a goal we can’t give up. We need to approach this goal with patience. For this issue, we should continue seeking an international solution through the six-party talks while widening our contact [with the North] through economic cooperation. We need to go step by step in conversations, respecting the internationally agreed roadmap.”

What about the fungibility of aid, and the possibility that past assistance supported the North Korean nuclear program: “There are many analyses saying that even if South Korea didn’t give North Korea money they would have still developed nuclear weapon. A former Washington Post reporter, Don Oberdorfer, wrote in a book that the ‘Team Spirit’ military exercise, which we consider routine, is viewed as a great threat by the North. It’s the North’s argument that their nuclear development is a way to sustain their system against a threat from the U.S.

“Anyway, North Korea developed nuclear capabilities during a truce. And they are using nuclear capabilities for the purpose of negotiation or threatening South Korea. Because of this, the North’s nuclear development has continued regardless of South Korea’s economic cooperation and the North may have been taking every possible other measure, including selling mineral resources to China, to raise funds. We can eliminate the North’s justification to stay nuclear if we achieve a stabilization of peace and ensure room for the North and South’s conversation.”

To do that, South Korea needs both the United States and China. But Ahn’s view of balancing the two could discomfit some: “The basic principle of diplomacy is putting the country’s benefit first while keeping balance with humanitarian values. Also, balanced and multilateral diplomacy is important. Especially, diplomacy with the U.S. and China needs balance. Since the South Korea and U.S. alliance is important, we need to build a relationship so both can continue to exist for each other. But one thing to keep in mind is not to lean toward one side too much and keep a balance between the U.S. and China. Considering actual economic benefits, it’s hard to explain the South Korean economy without China. And to solve North Korean problems, we need the help of China, which has influence over the North.”

The original article from the Korea Real Time can be found here.