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Does South Korea Want Renewed Military Tension with North Korea?

To the White House officials who prepared the first draft of the June 16 Washington communiqué issued by Presidents Obama and Lee, the words seemed like routine rhetoric. “The alliance,” said the communiqué, “aims to establish a durable peace on the Korean peninsula leading to peaceful reunification on the principles of free democracy and a market economy.”

However, this was not routine rhetoric. The phrase “free democracy and a market economy” was a direct and potentially disastrous assault on the fundamental principle of the coexistence of differing systems, leading to reunification through confederation that was enshrined in the June 2000 and October 2007 North-South Presidential summit declarations.

To North Korea, this reversal meant that the goal of Washington and Seoul is once again the absorption of North Korea by South Korea. So it was not surprising that a government mouthpiece in Pyongyang, Tongil Sinbo, bitterly attacked the communiqué as signaling “reunification through absorption” as the goal of Washington and Seoul.

“This was definitely a change in our position,” commented a State Department official concerned with Korea. “Our previous position was what George Bush told the National Assembly in 1992, which is the U.S. people favor ‘peaceful unification on terms acceptable to the Korean people,’ and this formulation does sound like absorption,” the official said.

I asked where in the U.S. government the change had come from, or whether it came from the ROK side. He replied, “Ask the NSC.” This was a reference to the National Security Council, where Deputy Chairman Denis McDonough has been supervising Korea policy since the Obama Administration took office. McDonough has no previous Korea-related experience prior to joining the Administration.

Even before the summit, Lee Myung Bak had made a big mistake when he casually announced after his election that he was not committed to the two North-South summit declarations and would “review” them. To my surprise, few in the South have appeared to recognize that this reversal would strengthen the hardline forces in North Korea and endanger the reduction of North-South tensions made possible by the two summits. Vice-Chairman Kim Yong Tae of the Supreme People’s Assembly communicated to me in Pyongyang in January, “This has changed everything, and now we are back to where we were 15 or 20 years ago, back to the days of the military dictators in the South, back to regime change.”

“Free democracy” means to North Korea that South Korea, with its population of 48.3 million in 2009, would dominate North Korea, with its population of 23.4 million, if Korea-wide elections were held in a reunified peninsula based on “the principles of free democracy.” Kim Dae-jung’s basic premise in his confederation plan, which made possible peace with North Korea, was that North Korea and South Korea would have co-equal representation in a confederal setup, and that North Korea would keep its system while growing economic contacts would bring the two systems closer together.

Significantly, on September 11, 1989, Roh Tae Woo paved the way for Kim with his proposal for a Korean Commonwealth. The new plan explicitly accepted the principle of equal representation in a projected transitional, twenty-member council of ministers and a one-hundred-member council of representatives.

“The council of ministers,” Roh told the National Assembly, “would be co-chaired by the prime ministers of North Korea and South Korea, and would be comprised of ten minister-level officials from each side. ” Roh also said, “Under the council standing committees could be created to deal with humanitarian, political, diplomatic, economic, military, social, and cultural affairs.” He envisioned the council of ministers of North Korea and South Korea would discuss and adjust all pending North-South issues and national problems.

Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994 rekindled the hopes of hardliners in Seoul and Washington for a collapse of North Korea. Kim Young Sam’s pronouncements made clear that he envisaged a collapse followed by South Korea’s absorption of North Korea. In his August 15, 1995, Independence Day address at Chonan, he declared that a reunified Korea would be “another ROK.” Referring to the “miracle of the Han River,” he said, “As an extension of all this, we should now create a new ROK—a reunified Fatherland enjoying democracy and prosperity.” Angered by what he considered excessive U.S. concessions in its 1994 negotiations with Pyongyang on the nuclear issue, Kim told the New York Times on October 7, 1994, that the North Korean regime “is on the verge of an economic and political crisis that could sweep it from power,” and US. compromises on the nuclear issue “might prolong its life.”

In his book Betrayal, Washington Times reporter Bill Gertz wrote, “He expected the collapse during his Administration.” Gertz reproduced the text of a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul to the Secretary of State echoing this assessment and reporting that Kim had “launched covert actions to facilitate a collapse.”

Does South Korea want to go back to the days of Kim Young Sam and Park Chung Hee and face renewed military tension with North Korea? To reverse the present dangerous trend toward a revival of cold war confrontation, Lee Myung Bak should be pressed to reaffirm the two North-South summit declarations, avoid a repetition of the “free democracy” language of the Washington declaration and categorically repudiate the goal of absorption.

The views presented in this column are the writer’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those of The Hankyoreh.

Selig S. Harrison is director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is the former director of the Century Foundation¹s Project on the United States and the Future of Korea. Specializing in South Asia and East Asia for fifty years as a journalist and scholar, he has visited North Korea over ten times and on two occasions, met with the late Kim Il Sung. He is the author of six books on Asian affairs and U.S. relations with Asia, including Korean Endgame: A Strategy For Reunification and U.S. Disengagement, published by Princeton University Press in May 2002. Dr. Harrison serves as an advisory board member of the Korea Policy Institute (KPI).


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