After the Local Elections and the Cheonan Incident
Determining the Truth about the Cheonan’s Sinking Is a Decisive Link
in Restoring Democracy and Improving Inter-Korean Relations
June 15 Joint Declaration 10th Anniversary Interview Series, Part Two: Paik Nak-chung, Emeritus Professor, Seoul National University
The second figure in our series of interviews to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the June 15 Joint Declaration is Paik Nak-chung, Chairman Emeritus of the South Korean Committee for Implementation of the June 15 Joint Declaration. Paik described the June 2 local elections, which ended in a big defeat for the Grand National Party, as “a decisive occasion on which South Korean democracy and the Korean Peninsula peace process, which had been in free-fall, reversed course once again.” At the same time, he emphasized that finding out the truth behind the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan is an immediate task marrying the twin goals of improving inter-Korean relations and restoring democracy, and that serious efforts to do so should begin right away. As the theoretician who pioneered the “Division System Theory,” as well as someone who put ideas into practice as leader of the South Korean Committee for Implementation of the June 15 Joint Declaration, Paik is one of South Korea’s representative intellects. The following is the full text of an interview with Paik that took place at the Segyo Institute in Seoul’s Seogyo neighborhood on June 7. The interview was conducted by PRESSian president Park In-kyu. ― Editor.
“This election could turn out to be a crucial event decisively affecting the course of our history.”
PRESSian : How do you view the outcome of the June 2 local elections?
Paik, Nak-chung : It was demonstrated once again that the Korean people are not to be taken lightly. I think this election could be viewed, from the long historical view, as a decisive occasion on which South Korean democracy and the Korean Peninsula peace process, which had been in free-fall, reversed course once again. It may turn out to be a crucial event that decisively affected the course of our history.
But for those of us living in the immediate reality, it is no more than a brief respite. I expect that we will still have to spend many more difficult days of fighting and fighting. The Four Major Rivers Project has not gone away, and it does not look like the administration is going to back down without a fight.
Now we should not content ourselves with having confirmed the popular opposition to the Project. We need to continue calling for a halt to it. At the same time, we need to examine the works that have already taken place, to see which ones are all right and should continue, and also how things are going to be handled after they have been halted. There really is a lot to do.
We should also expect the administration tol continue its attempts to control broadcasting, and that the struggle will continue for people from various walks of life ― journalists, government employee union members, members of the Korean Teachers’ and Education Workers’ Union ― who are losing their jobs and being arrested for their opposition to the administration’s reckless policies. Most of all, I think that the business of bringing to light the truth about the Cheonan incident is a vital task.
PRESSian : Do you agree that the election outcome indicates that the people do not accept the official investigation announcement on the Cheonan sinking?
Paik : We saw that popular opinion was not swayed by the so-called “Northern wind” maneuvers, the attempt by the government to exploit the Cheonan incident to win the elections, but I wouldn’t say that there has yet been a public verdict on the truth about the Cheonan. In the days ahead, we will need to work to discover the truth and assign responsibility where it is due.
PRESSian : In May, you said, “To get hung up on questions like whether it was a torpedo or not, or whether or not North Korea was responsible, is to remain caught in the frame set by the Lee administration. We need to try changing it to a citizens’ frame.”
Paik : The government’s approach to the Cheonan situation has shown successive changes. In the beginning, it adopted a very cautious stance ― at least, the President did ― in saying there was no basis for concluding that North Korea was responsible. Then there was a gradual attempt to turn it into a “Northern wind” issue, making it out to be North Korea’s doing.
They started doing this some time around mid-April, and then there was another turning point on May 13 when Park Hyung-joon, the senior secretary for political affairs at the Blue House, used the term “external attack.” Before that, they had been talking about “external explosion” or “external impact,” but now he changed it to “attack.” And on May 15, the so-called “conclusive evidence” was salvaged.
When I said we must not let ourselves get caught in a “North Korea / torpedo frame,” that was on May 11, and I said it after listening to a discussion that went on at length about different hypothetical scenarios ― mine explosions, etc. ― at the session [of Korea Peace Forum] where I made the remark. It seemed obvious that the government was trying to use the incident for political ends, and I said that dwelling too much on whether it was a torpedo or a mine meant getting trapped in the government’s frame. I suggested that we change the frame and ask instead, from the standpoint of democratic citizens, “Is this government capable of abusing an incident like this for political purposes?” or “In light of its past behavior, is this government capable of deceiving and making a mockery of the public?”
I think it was a reasonable stance at the time. But now, with the government coming out with its “conclusive evidence” and ruling that the sinking was North Korea’s doing, and carrying out specific containment operations against North Korea, the major task is to determine whether that conclusive evidence is really conclusive after all ― to find out what the truth is. Many experts, and many citizens and intellectuals with common sense, are saying that the announcement of the findings by the Joint Investigation Group (JIG) was poorly prepared and that the story had changed too many times in the process leading up to the announcement.
But without having the facts, since the government still isn’t giving out the necessary information, it isn’t the right response to dwell too much on the different scenarios ― how the ship ran aground, or how there was a second incident as it got off the rocks after running aground, or whether a mine instead of a torpedo did the work.
Instead, we should be focusing on pointing out the problems, saying, “The announcement seems bogus,” or “Explain all of these things that don’t make sense,” or asking, “Why are you refusing to disclose information and blocking access to the survivors?” Presenting alternative scenarios when you only have partial information at your disposal is not a wise approach.
Of course, as a way of pressuring the government into carrying out a proper investigation, you could say, for instance, “Wasn’t the stranding explanation you reportedly gave at first to the surviving family members more plausible than the torpedo explanation you’re offering now?” or “If it was a torpedo, that means North Korea broke through the cordon during joint military exercises with the U.S. and made utter fools of both South Korean and U.S. armed forces. Wouldn’t it be better for your self-respect to claim it was a mine rather than a torpedo?” You could say these things as a rhetorical device. But we don’t yet have the ability to present alternative scenarios, and shouldn’t overreach ourselves.
PRESSian : There was a report that China proposed a joint investigation with South Korea, North Korea, the U.S., and itself.
Paik : A joint investigation would be desirable. North Korea said that it wanted to send a review team, but, while it may be their customary terminology, the term “review team” (kŏmyŏldan) was a rather inappropriate expression. In any case, when the review team proposal came, the South Korean government made a counterproposal, saying that it was going to convene the Military Armistice Commission with the UN Command investigation results and that North Korea should come there. Now, the Military Armistice Commission has long since become an almost entirely nominal entity, but when they said they would be reviving it, North Korea rejected the offer, saying, in effect, “Why do bring up the Armistice Commission after all these years?”
But the modified proposal reportedly presented by China, to have a joint four-country investigation involving South Korea, North Korea, the U.S., and China, coincides with the South Korean position for recycling the Armistice Commission. They aren’t saying, “Come submit to questioning based on a unilateral investigation by the UN Command, and get a dressing-down.” They’re saying, “Let’s have four countries conduct the actual investigation.” So there’s no reason for North Korea to object, and if the South Korean government is confident enough, it can, and should, accept this proposal.
But if the government did all of this without any basis in fact, then it has put itself into a position where it cannot accept any proposal for a fair investigation. It has become a real dilemma.
As recently as May 11, when I said we shouldn’t let ourselves get caught in a “North Korea/torpedo frame,” I was expecting that the government would shy away from presenting any firm conclusion, that it would carry things along in a kind of perpetually unresolved state, just hinting continually that North Korea was responsible, and then backing off once the elections were over. In a way, I underestimated our government’s ― should I say boldness, or recklessness. I’m now repenting my error. (Laughter)
So if we look at it somewhat maliciously, at first they wanted only to play a naughty game, but things got out of hand so that it ended up no longer being a game. Now the government has no choice but to either persuade the people of South Korea, and the international community, by presenting additional data, or suffer a humiliation without precedent in the history of the Republic of Korea.
Who among us South Koreans would want to see our country humiliated? I certainly don’t. But we are no longer living in a time when you can bury the truth for a long time, as with the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Look at the experts and Internet users in Korea and overseas, and the questions they’re raising. What a scary world to live in! It’s impossible to keep the lid on things indefinitely.
I don’t know how the government is going to resolve things. It needs to offer evidence that the international community can really accept. It isn’t as though the President could say, “I didn’t know, I was fooled by false reports,” just as President Kim Il-sung said “I didn’t know” about the Kim Sin-jo incident back in 1968. Things are far too complicated here. For we have a different system from North Korea. It’s very worrying, but there is no other option but to resolve things based on the facts.
Civil society needs to respond on the basis of truth and principles if it is to justify its existence. For instance, if you’re the opposition party and you have the elections coming up, you could say, “Accepting that North Korea is responsible, what were you guys in the government doing? Isn’t this crass incompetence in national security affairs? The Roh Moo-hyun administration was more competent than this.” But when members of civil society lack confidence that the government is telling the truth, they have to keep asking questions and insist on solving the problem based on the facts. No matter how hard it may be, there’s just no other way.
The mistaken belief that South Korea can solve the nuclear issue on its own
PRESSian : As recently as early 2010, there was talk about efforts toward a summit meeting.
Paik : The Lee Myung-bak administration has shown continuous vacillation in inter-Korean relations. My personal impression is that President Lee Myung-bak had some intention of adopting a pragmatic approach at least regarding inter-Korean relations, even though he was pushing to reverse the ten years of the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations in domestic issues. His failure to be pragmatic can be ascribed to two causes.
First, perhaps because he personally lacks knowledge of inter-Korean relations, or has been misled by his advisers, he has operated under the premise that North Korea will agree to denuclearization if South Korea demands it. But denuclearization is basically an issue between the U.S. and North Korea, and the six-party talks framework was created and has been operating to resolve it, but then Lee Myung-bak came in and messed things up with his “Denuclearization, Opening, and 3000 [dollars of per capita income for North Koreans as a reward for denuclearization and opening its society].”
Another thing is that, as I have long been saying, in the broad scheme of things the development of inter-Korean relations and the advancement of democracy within South Korea march in tandem. Of course, it isn’t a one-to-one correspondence. Sometimes inter-Korean relations go a step ahead, sometimes internal democracy does. But in a larger sense, the two are linked.
Early in its term, the Lee administration kept going overboard and ended up running into popular resistance, including the candlelight demonstrations. He opted to engage in coercion rather than accepting popular opinion and changing his policy. The result was that any momentum for resolving inter-Korean relations disappeared. Instead, he ended up having to depend on the forces that desire inter-Korean antagonism.
So his administration drifted about, and after inter-Korean relations went downhill for a time, it tried to push for a summit, perhaps saying, “Why, this isn’t working, while it now looks like North Korea-U.S. relations are thawing.” But to begin with, they lacked the ability to bring about a summit meeting. Bringing one into reality actually requires no small amount of expertise. You have to be able to coordinate, to prepare, and to restrain what needs to be restrained to make it happen, and neither the President nor the people around him seem to have that kind of ability.
Also, having a summit would require a shift in the course of governance in domestic politics as well. But they had no intention of doing that, and the end result was that they incurred more and more popular discontent, and they were facing the local elections under those circumstances, and then along came this enormous situation with the Cheonan.
We don’t know the truth for certain, but there is a possibility that it was some kind of accident that the Navy or Defense Ministry authorities want to conceal, rather than a North Korean torpedo attack. In the beginning, the President was circumspect, compared to certain news outlets and Defense Ministry authorities who were already trying to attribute responsibility to North Korea.
In the end, though, forces that wanted to use this incident to revive the antagonism between South and North, forces that wanted to thrust us into a hostile situation once again, with help of all kinds of short-term political calculations before the elections, managed to prevail both inside and outside the administration. Now it seems they’ve arrived at a situation where they either have to change this country into a completely different one, or else accept a miserable failure in diplomacy and domestic politics.
PRESSian : The U.S. lent its full support to the South Korea government’s position on the Cheonan incident. Why was that?
Paik : Well, if I could meet President Obama, I’d like to ask him why he’s doing this. It’s a good while since the high expectations that South Korean civil society had pinned on the Obama administration when it first took office have turned to disappointment. And North Korea is not without its share of responsibility, either, in things developing that way. Also, what may be something to celebrate, South Korea has become much more proficient than in the past at binding the hands of a big nation like the U.S. Thanks to increased national power, the Lee Myung-bak administration has demonstrated no small ability to constrain the United States, at least when it comes to issues affecting the Korean Peninsula.
Moreover, President Obama wouldn’t really know much about Korea or have the luxury of examining it closely, and I think a lot of the problems stem from the fact that the people handling Korean Peninsula issues underneath him are the same old faces. That’s how it appears in the broad scheme of things.
With regard to the Cheonan incident, the U.S. was relatively cautious at first, asking the South Korean government to exercise restraint. It changed along the way, however, and we can only guess as to why.
In the short term, this incident kind of puts the U.S. in the catbird seat. As long as South Korea doesn’t start another war over this issue or attack North Korea militarily, the rest of it just means so much short-term gain for the United States.
Even if the U.S. knows that the truth of the Cheonan sinking differs from the South Korean government’s version, it is under no obligation to make that known. If Seoul presses its case, it just says, “All right, since that’s what you guys are saying, we’ll stand behind you as an ally.” And so it accumulates another IOU from Seoul. Later on, it could extract repayment in a different matter. The situation will help with weapons sales, too. The Korean military now is all for strengthening naval power, and who is it going to buy the weapons from?
It’s also a good card to play against China. The U.S. could say, for instance: “The South Korean government formed an international investigation team and came up with these results. Can a responsible power just sit there and do nothing?” Of course, China will not listen, but if it doesn’t, that’s no loss to the U.S. either. They can say, “We made a legitimate request, and China just shields North Korea.”
China doesn’t want to hear that all it does is shield North Korea, and so suggests conducting a joint investigation and says that once the findings came out, it would not be shielding anyone. The U.S. probably was somewhat taken aback. So all that talk about getting a resolution passed in the Security Council for additional sanctions has gone away, and they postponed the military exercises in the West Sea. In fact, such exercises would more like be targeting China than North Korea, so if the U.S. can do them, that’s not a bad thing, either. In terms of relations with Japan, it has already collected tangible results, extracting Japanese concessions in the issue of relocating the Okinawa bases by using the Cheonan incident as a pretext.
The same thing applies as regards North Korea. If the U.S. can get China to take part in further pressuring North Korea and North Korea happens to collapse, many Americans will like that. Even if things don’t go that far, there will, at any rate, be a pressure effect on North Korea.
Before the Cheonan incident, the U.S. was urging North Korea to return to the six-party talks, and Pyongyang was somewhat high-nosed about it, saying it would do so only if the sanctions against it were lifted. Now, however, the U.S. is in the position of looking like it’s doing North Korea a favor by holding the six-party talks. In May, Chairman Kim Jong-il met with Chinese President Hu Jintao and asked China to arrange suitable conditions for the six-party talks to take place. In other words, North Korea is feeling the pressure to return to the six-party talks.
The U.S. is reaping short-term benefits from the Cheonan situation, but…
So in the short term, the U.S. is reaping the rewards, but if the JIG’s findings on the Cheonan turn out not to be true, or if it comes to light that the U.S., with its ample intelligence capabilities, knew the truth but cooperated with South Korea anyway, its international prestige is bound to suffer. In particular, the people of South Korea will inevitably recall the 1980s.
While it is an exaggeration to say that the U.S. directed the Kwangju massacre, it did suffer tremendous damage in the eyes of South Koreans from condoning it and supporting the Chun Doo-hwan administration. It may not be that bad this time, but the U.S. could still suffer considerable damages. What the U.S. is doing now is dangerous and could severely compromise its friendship with the South Korean people.
Of course, the U.S. isn’t staking everything in this. It keeps saying that it will lend support as South Korea leads international action on the Cheonan, which means that South Korea will have to bear the responsibility too.
PRESSian : In that sense, there doesn’t seem to be any incentive for the U.S. to take part in a four-country joint investigation.
Paik : I don’t think an international joint investigation will take place unless there’s a significant amount of pressure from the public so that the South Korean government accepts it as a kind of exit strategy. But if something like that occurs, the U.S. will again take the position, “South Korea says it’s going to accept it, and we’ll give our support.” The U.S. won’t take the initiative in calling for a joint investigation, nor will it take the lead in expressing opposition. If Chinese make the proposal to the United States, it will probably say something like, “Okay, we see what you mean. Why don’t you talk it over with the South Korean government?”
PRESSian : Some people are now saying that the Cheonan incident has led to the revival of a new Cold War, with South Korea, the U.S., and Japan pitted against North Korea, China, and Russia.
Paik : Right now, the international situation seems too volatile for that kind of fixed framework of antagonism to come into being again. Even if such a framework is revived, it will be a tremendously asymmetrical relationship. Before, it was largely a structure of antagonism between the socialist world and the capitalist world, but Russia is no longer a socialist state, and China isn’t a socialist state in the same sense as it was back then. In addition, both of them now have diplomatic relations with South Korea, and engaged in a lot of interchange and economic cooperation.
So there’s no chance of a fixed standoff between North Korea, which is allied only with China, and South Korea, which has relations with the U.S., Japan, China, Russia, and a lot of other states. There can be no stable confrontation between the two camps, which is why North Korea feels the need to arm itself with nuclear weapons. So I think the situation on the Korean Peninsula will either proceed along this unstable and extremely dangerous line, or else change course toward building a peace regime. What it won’t do is to go back to a stable structure of antagonism.
PRESSian : There is a lot of distrust in the government’s announcement on the Cheonan, as well as a widespread belief that the sinking may have been an accident, yet we cannot rule out the possibility that North Korea actually was responsible.
Paik : We should not rule out a priori the possibility of North Korean responsibility. It’s just that if you look at the facts that have come to light so far, it does not seem very likely.
The North Korean system fundamentally has a lot of problems, and now finds itself in a very difficult position. We also can’t rule out the presence of violent elements internally. So someone may have committed a reckless act that would not be acceptable as a policy decision by Chairman Kim Jong-il. So I am not claiming there is absolutely no possibility of North Korea’s doing this. As Defense Minister Kim Tae-young put it, we should consider the case while leaving all possibilities open. (Laughter) It’s just that after considering all possibilities and then proceeding to narrowing them down on the basis of the various given facts, including those announced by the government, the argument that it was a North Korean attack seems to gradually lose ground.
PRESSian : It seems quite likely that if things keep on this way, the truth of the incident will never be revealed, and it will become an permanent mystery.
Paik : There is a possibility that in spite of the questions raised by many observers, and facts that force you to harbor doubts, the government will refuse to disclose the relevant data and continue stonewalling in the international community as well. In that case, it will remain an unsolved mystery, at least for the next two and a half years. But even so, we’ll have to accept it as an unforunate reality and choose our responses based on that reality.
The Cheonan situation shows what a mess the current governance system of the Republic of Korea is in. It shows that this is a society where things that should never happen in a democratic society, nor even in a dictatorship with a certain degree of orderliness, are taking place with impunity. And even supposing North Korea was responsible, what a mess has the government made of the situation?
And then, suppose North Korea had nothing to do with this and it was some kind of accident. They’re covering up the accident and making it impossible for anybody to ask rational questions. If someone dares to do so, he or she is branded as a public security criminal. They control the media or turn journalists into voluntary accomplices. This is not the way you run a healthy society.
The Cheonan incident is important in terms of inter-Korean relations, but it also calls on us to reflect fundamentally on the health of our society and the way the nation is being governed.
While I’m on the subject, I’d like to talk about the media’s reporting on the Cheonan incident. Recently, three media workers groups (the National Federation of Media Workers Unions, the Journalists Association of Korea, and the Korean Federation of Network Program Directors’ Associations) gave a press conference raising issues with the announcement of the JIG findings. But it received almost no coverage in the newspapers or on television.
I didn’t see a piece even in PRESSian, which I would otherwise say has been a model in its reporting on the Cheonan incident. The Hankyoreh could be acknwledged as a representative independent media on other issues, but I think it’s been very disappointing in its reporting on the Cheonan to date. There’s no need for the newspapers to print every story that floats around the Internet, but wasn’t the report presented this time created by major media workers’ groups?
PRESSian : How do you view President Lee’s May 24 address to the nation?
Paik : This address by the President was practically an extra-legal measure. Since it was in the format of a Presidential address to the nation, it was up to him to speak from the Blue House or the War Memorial of Korea, but does it make any sense to give an address that overturns some two decades of national policy in that way without having any consultation with the National Assembly or sounding out of public opinion?
By the government’s own account, the final announcement of the Cheonan investigation team is not supposed to come out until July 20. That means that the May 20 announcement was just an interim report. On the basis of this flimsy and problem-ridden interim report, the President, with through a mere presidential address, goes out to demolish all kinds of inter-Korean agreements made to date, including the Inter-Korean Relations Development Act that was passed by the National Assembly [in 2005] with a bipartisan consensus.
This isn’t just a reversal of a decade’s achievements by liberal regimes. It does away, in a single stroke, with the accomplishments of 22 years of improvement in inter-Korean relations since the July 7 Declaration by President Roh Tae-woo in 1988. It is also a momentous action that could undermine the developments in South Korean democracy that have progressed in conjunction with the advancement of inter-Korean relations.
But since its format was a presidential address, there remains the possibility of reversing its content once again with a new address, and pressure from the public and the National Assembly could keep him from implementing it. Such a possibility has widened as a result of the June 2 local elections. But if South Korea’s National Assembly and civil society give him a free hand, they will be tacitly approving a kind of “subvesion of the constitutional order by installment.” (Laughter) Park Chung-hee made a single down-payment coup, so to speak, and Chun Doo-hwan subverted the constitutional order in two installments, on December 12, 1979 and May 17, 1980. This administration isn’t carrying out a military coup. but instead, it’s trying to alter the Republic of Korea’s constitutional order bit by bit on a long-term, five-year installment plan.
PRESSian : I have a question about the achievements and limitations of the June 15 Joint Declaration over the past decade. There have been several agreements between South and North before and since then, including the July 4 Joint Statement and the October 4 Declaration. Why, of all of these, should we pay more attention to the June 15 Declaration?
Paik : To understand the meaning of the June 15 Declaration, it is important to compare it with agreements that came before it. Since the October 4 Summit Declaration of 2007 represented a kind of practical guideline based on the June 15 Declaration, the proponents of the October 4 Declaration won’t be at all upset if you say that the June 15 Declaration is more fundamental.
The July 4 Joint Statement of 1972 promulgated the three major principles of South-North unification. But specific measures, such as the South-North Coordinating Committee, were immediately discontinued, and for a long time there was no progress regarding the three principles of unification, either. So its significance is more or less limited to the fact that it was the first official agreement between South and North Korea authorities and that it stated the principles for unification.
In comparison, the South-North Basic Agreement of 1991 was far more advanced. There are a lot of specific items in it that surpass the June 15 Declaration. But there are two respects in which it does not have as much significance as the Declaration.
First of all, the Basic Agreement was signed not through a direct negotiation between top leaders but at the Prime Ministerial level. In the North Korean system, a document that has not been signed personally by President Kim Il-sung or Chairman Kim Jong-il can be changed at any time with little problem. Of course, the situation is different in South Korea, but even here a limitation exists, in that the Basic Agreement did not go through ratification procedures at the National Assembly.
Second, the issue that always creates problems whenever an agreement is attempted between South and North is the reunification plan. In particular, North Korea has maintained that there is no point in making agreements on minor issues while leaving alone “basic questions” like the method of reunification. But when the Basic Agreement was adopted, North Korea seems to have been in a very pressing situation, with the socialist bloc collapsing and China and Russia opening diplomatic relations with South Korea. So under that kind of pressure, it made an agreement in which it conceded a lot and skirted the issue of a unification plan. It only contains a clause on how the relationship between South and North is “not a relationship between country and country, but a special relationship tentatively formed in the course of aspiring to unification,” and there is no mention of how this tentative special relationship is to be evolved into a reunification process.
But if you look at Article 2 of the June 15 Joint Declaration, there is an agreement on unification plan, albeit a very vague one. It says there are commonalities in the plans of two sides, and agrees to proceed in that direction. There were no immediate follow-up measures, but because there was that agreement, inter-Korean exchange and cooperation came to reach a level far beyond anything in the previous years, even though the provisions regarding them were far vaguer than the comprehensive and specific items in the Basic Agreement. The levels of interchange before June 15 and after June 15 are two entirely different ball games.
But the Lee Myung-bak administration was skeptical from the very beginning about the June 15 Declaration. First the President said that the Basic Agreement was better, and then at a later point the administration did advance to the point where it said it would respect the spirit of all agreements. Now, however, the President said in his May 24 address that South Korea would halt all inter-Korean interchange. In other words, he expressed the intention of abandoning even the Basic Agreement. But there still is a way out since he did not state explicitly that South Korea would be abrogating the Basic Agreement or the June 15 Declaration. That much is fortunate. And while the Kaesong Industrial Complex is, as someone put it, “on a respirator” right now, there is still a chance for resuscitation. But I can’t help feeling distressed that we are greeting the tenth anniversary of the June 15 Declaration in this state.
PRESSian : Based just on the current situation, it could be argued that we’ve failed to achieve the expected levels of advancement in the ten years since the June 15 Declaration. What do we have to blame for that?
Paik : You can’t pinpoint any one thing. For instance, I think that with the June 15 Declaration the North made a strategic decision to try resolve inter-Korean issues together with the South, but still it probably has a lot of problems on its side that we don’t know about, and a lot of conflict between different camps, so North Korea must have encountered various domestic impediments of its own.
But the really decisive blow in the post-June 15 situation was the change of administrations in the U.S. After George W. Bush took office in 2001, all kinds of stumbling blocks to inter-Korean relations were put up for the next six years. But South Korea at least had the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations, so that things did not deteriorate more than they did. Under their influence, combined with Bush’s loss in the 2006 U.S. midterm elections, the position of the U.S. government changed.
“The main front in solving Korean Peninsula issues now lies within South Korean society”
So I have been saying that, since late 2006, the main front in solving Korean Peninsula issues has shifted to within South Korean society. Before that, the biggest issue, and the main front, was antagonism between North Korea and the U.S., but a situation has unfolded in which things now hinge on what the South does. This is how the South Korean government managed to take advantage of the shift in the U.S. attitude and to produce the second Inter-Korean Summit in 2007.
But the forces pursuing inter-Korean reconciliation and the advancement of democracy in South Korea lost both the 2007 presidential election and the 2008 general elections. There was no chance of inter-Korean relations being resolved after such a defeat on the main front. The situation became such that regardless of who took office in the U.S., whether it was Obama or someone else, and regardless of whether North Korea showed more or less good faith, it would be impossible to solve problems unless the approach of the South Korean government changed. The way things have progressed since 2008 is a testament to this.
Of course, even if things weren’t goingd well, it is questionable whether North Korea did the right thing in hastening to launch a rocket and conducting a second nuclear test. But these are things that would not have happened if the situation in South Korea had not deteriorated.
If the main front has shifted to within South Korean society, the responsibility of not only the government but also the South Korean people becomes that much weightier. Perhaps in early stages, the government’s role is decisive and the general public must play a supplementary role. In things like summit meetings and economic cooperation, it’s the government that takes the initiative, and after it businesses have a major role. Civil society winds up playing a supporting role.
But I believe that if you take the long view, the question of whether we continue developing inter-Korean relations in conjunction with democratization ultimately hinges on ordinary citizens. And you have to say that the extent to which citizens do a good job of protecting the four major rivers or preserving media freedom and fairness also has a profound effect on the resolution of Korean Peninsula issues.
When I emphasize the role of civil society in this way, I am often asked, “How can civil society determine inter-Korean relations?” I believe that the defining characteristic of the division of the Korean Peninsula is that it cannot be surmounted merely through actions by government authorities.
Vietnam waged a total war mobilizing the entire people, but it was, essentially a government-led military unification. And in Germany, the possibility for unification presented itself through the actions of civil society, but it was the government that wrapped things up with a rapid unification-by-absorption. As for Yemen, it was unified through collusion between leaders from both sides. But the situation on the Korean Peninsula is such that none of these methods would work. For that reason, no matter what kind of progress the government accomplishes, they are liable to be reversed if left to governements alone.
So while inter-Korean relations are in need of improvement, South Korean civil society itself needs to wage a far more comprehensive and diverse range of efforts to restore true law and order, healthy common sense, and some elementary state of human cultivation. As it happens, the link joining the two tasks, inter-Korean and domestic South Korean, is the effort to find out the truth about the Cheonan. This is not the type of issue that can be resolved through demonstrations and denunciations. We need to muster expertise, but at the same time we need to be cautious of lapsing into excessively expert-oriented discussions. We also need to establish a perspective that views these issues as linked with other domestic issues, and to improve our performance on the international stage as well.
PRESSian : Civil society does play an important role, but the government also has a major part to play. If the main front in solving Korean Peninsula issues has moved to within South Korean society, the 2012 presidential election will be a watershed. What is your view?
Paik : Of course, it matters a great deal. But there is a lot that needs to be done before 2012. Right now, the conditions are exceedingly poor, with an administration in power that is working against democracy and inter-Korean reconciliation, and a National Assembly overwhelmingly dominated by forces blindly obedient to this administration. But we need to slow down the government’s one-way traffic at least a bit, and develop new forces. The recent local elections were historic in having furnished a starting point for initiating such an effort. But I had those tasks in mind when I said that the immediate situation was no more than a respite.
PRESSian : North Korea probably remembers how it changed the approach of President Bush with its first nuclear test in 2006. So many people are speculating that it might conduct another nuclear test if tougher sanctions and pressure are applied this time.
Paik : If even China and Russia cooperate in pressuring North Korea over the Cheonan, there is a chance Pyongyang might conduct a third nuclear test. But I wonder if the North Korean leaders aren’t overly conscious of only one aspect of the first nuclear test. They only see the positive outcome, the fact that the Bush administration’s stance changed and negotiations produced some tangible results after the test.
What they don’t see is how greatly distrust and dislike of the North Korean regime grew in the U.S. and South Korean society because of the nuclear test. It’s not just an issue of the North Korean regime declining in popularity. Really, they didn’t bring into calculation how narrow their room for maneuver becomes when something like the Cheonan incident occurs.
As an obvious example, if North Korea hadn’t conducted a nuclear test, the cockamamie “Denuclearization, Openness, 3000” platform presented by Lee Myung-bak in his presidential run would not have gone over. And with the Cheonan incident, a lot of South Koreans think, “North Koreans are weird enough to do anything.” So even the opposition parties shy away from tackling the JIG’s announcement head on. But there’s a world of difference between “They might do anything” and “They did this particular thing.”
PRESSian : North Korea says, “We are being uncompromising because the Lee Myung-bak administration is being uncompromising.”
Paik : Inferring from the internal situation in South Korea, I imagine that there would also be many in North Korea, especially within the ruling elite, who would be upset if reconciliation and cooperation happened. Those people would be thrilled even if North Korea caused the incident, and if it didn’t, they would be thrilled to see South Korea voluntarily pursuing a policy of antagonism. Right now, they’re probably exulting over the hard-line response of the Lee Myung-bak administration, saying, “Look at that! Did you really say you wanted to cooperate and reconcile with these guys?”
PRESSian : Is there anything you would like to say about North Korea’s response?
Paik : Many people calling for implementation of the June 15 Declaration have been advising them not to overreact, and I would give the same advice. And as I’ve said before, I hope that in the long term, they will focus more on the trend of popular sentiment in the South.
PRESSian : Are there any important social change since the June 15 Declaration that you would particularly point to?
Paik : The big news outlets are blaming South Koreans’ “national security apathy,” but this could actually be a trait that represents an adaptation to the changed situation on the Korean Peninsula since June 15 Declaration. If something like the Cheonan incident had happened in the days before such changes, it might have put South Korean society into a state of panic, and the party that should be put on trial in the elections might have garnered most of the votes.
But there was very little of that, and places like Paju and Kosŏng, the so-called “areas on the enemy border” where votes used to go to conservative candidates in the past, were all taken by the opposition. This is another evidence that advancements in inter-Korean reconciliation over the ten years following the June 15 Declaration became directly linked to the real-life needs of the people in these regions.
It is because nobody can afford to rock the economic base created in South Korea by the June 15 Declaration, that the President, who at one point was saying, “I’m not afraid of war,” has recently had to affirm, “I don’t want war” and “There is absolutely no chance of an all-out war.” The June 15 Declaration has become embedded in our lives to that extent, and undoing it will not at all be easy.
Recorded by Hwang Jun-ho & Ahn Eun-byeol
Translated by Colin Mouat with the collaboration of the author