Towards co-operative partnership with two Koreas

8 01 2012

 (Leonid Petrov, Public speech at the Regional Meeting of ROK National Unification Advisory Council in Sydney, 28 Oct. 2011)

In March 2008, the then newly-elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared his foreign policy philosophy and promised that “during the course of the next three years, the world will see an increasingly activist Australian international policy in areas where we believe we may be able to make a positive difference”. Rudd assured the audience that the new Australian government was committed to the principle of “creative middle-power diplomacy” as the best means of enhancing Australia’s national interests.

Since then Australia has already made great steps forward in departing from the one-sided conservative foreign policy of the Howard Years. The Australian Labor Party now proudly states that its foreign policy platform is based on the three pillars – alliance with the US, active membership of the UN, and comprehensive engagement with Asia – that manifest realism, liberal internationalism, and regionalism. Given this approach, how can Australia develop a comprehensive and co-operative partnership with the two Koreas and contribute to the building of peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region?

In April 2011, while visiting Seoul, Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard admitted that “China, Japan and Korea are countries of vital strategic and economic importance in the Asia-Pacific region and to Australia. They are Australia’s top three export destinations and three of Australia’s top four trading partners overall”. But at the Korean War memorial in Kapyong (the place of fierce fighting between Australians and Chinese), she brushed off the prospects for resuming denuclearisation talks with North Korea, saying “There’s no point just saying ‘sit down and talk’, if the talks are not going to achieve anything.”

Despite the pledge for a balanced regional partnership, Australia maintains strong relations with the ROK but minimal relations with the DPRK. While maintaining formal diplomatic links, Canberra has little plans to open its embassy in Pyongyang. Most bilateral cooperation with the North has been put on hold by the Australian side “until the nuclear-weapon crisis is resolved”. The closure of the DPRK’s embassy in Canberra in 2008 seemed to be a logical outcome of this freeze in relations. There is little discussion of the future of Australia-DPRK relations in the media. Reports on trade with North Korea produced by the Australian government reflect a pessimistic posture.

Certainly, the DPRK is not an ordinary state and its social order is unique in today’s world. To deal with North Korea successfully we must remember and understand Cold War history and its consequences for the region. The reality of the inter-Korean conflict must be taken into account whenever we try to engage in dialogue or cooperation. Sensibility and understanding in dealing with Korea and Koreans are as important as first-hand knowledge of their country, language and culture. Sadly, preoccupation with pragmatism and allied solidarity left Australia-Korea relations lopsided.

To be pragmatic means to understand that regime change in North Korea, despite the long-standing predictions, cannot happen in current circumstances. The Korean War has never ended, and as long as regional powers help one side of the divided Korea and bully the other, the division of Korea will continue. Without our full diplomatic recognition, solid security assurance, and fair economic treatment the DPRK will not follow China or Vietnam’s examples in market reforms and democratisation. Instead, North Korea will remain consolidated ideologically with no room for political freedom or economic liberalism.

The demise of its supreme leader, Kim Jong-il, has already triggered the power succession process, which may open new opportunities for negotiations. We also know that man-made and natural disasters began hitting North Korea again, leaving the population weakened and desperate. The fall in grain production around the world and rising international grain prices have also put international food donors into a difficult situation. Last year the World Food Program (WFP) warned that North Korea would need massive food aid in the coming months to avert widespread hunger caused by severe floods, economic sanctions, and ineffective diplomacy.

In the meantime, inter-Korean relations have deteriorated to a level previously known only in the Cold War era. The sinking of the Cheonan Corvette and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island are commonly attributed to Pyongyang’s “erratic and dangerous behavior”, but are rarely associated with Seoul’s actions in the disputed waters around the controversial Northern-Limit Line. Neither of these incidents would have occurred if the agreements of the June 2000 and October 2007 Inter-Korean Summits had been implemented. The Peace and Prosperity (or “Sunshine”) Policy had prioritised economic and humanitarian cooperation over political and military considerations, and was quite effective.

These days, South Korean producers dump millions of tons of quality food that could bring famine relief to their brethren in the North. I think that it would be much wiser for the ROK government to assume more active responsibility for the wellbeing of the people residing in the territories which will sooner or later become part of the unified Korea. Similarly, an Australia that routinely helps the flood victims in Myanmar and drought victims in Afghanistan could more actively assist the impoverished people of North Korea. Wouldn’t it be better if the Labor government in Canberra, together with administrations in Seoul and Pyongyang could cement the foundation for a new balanced relationship?

As the first step towards ending the war in Northeast Asia the mutual recognition of both the ROK and DPRK is necessary. Although both governments understand the pros and cons of peaceful co-existence the Cold War mentality that dominates the region does not permit such an option. In order to resolve the Korean knot both competing states in the North and South should dismantle the thesis of exclusive legitimacy on the peninsula, on which the whole building of their respective identities and statehood are founded. Sadly, as long as the ideology of nationalism permeates their domestic politics, I don’t think it is possible.

Confrontation will continue indefinitely until the regional powers decide to interrupt the vicious circle and change the paradigm of relations. But to make this situation sustainable, a special status (neutral and non-nuclear) should be given to the Korean peninsula with no place for foreign troops or conflicting alliances. Only this would stop the century-long foreign rivalry for domination in Korea, and help the Koreans reconcile.

While the Cold War mentality rules inter-Korean relations and limits contacts between the people of North and South Korea to an absolute minimum, it is impossible to expect much support from below either. The best example of balance between the grass-root initiative and government actions was achieved during the 10 years of Sunshine Policy. Its main principles were: “give first, take later” and “easy tasks first, difficult tasks later”. It’s time to understand that there is no alternative to such policy, and the sooner the ROK government resumes it the brighter will be the future for Korea and Koreans.

Differences in political views and economic systems must not divide but should rather enhance the value of partnership and help complement each other’s strengths. By intensifying diplomatic ties and expanding economic cooperation with both halves of divided Korea we can make a significant contribution to the peaceful resolution of the nuclear problem and prepare the basis for durable peace and prosperity in the region.

Published as “Toward partnership with two Koreas” (The Korea Times,  01-10-2012)

Publisged as “Towards a co-operative Korean partnership” (A-Times On-line, 10 Jan. 2012)

See report (in Korean) about the Regional Meeting of ROK National Unification Advisory Council in Sydney, 28 Oct. 2011in Korean here…


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