Editor, Creation and Criticism Quarterly . Professor Emeritus of English Literature, Seoul National University
This is the text of a special lecture delivered at the 2007 IFJ (International Federation of Journalists)-JAK (Journalist Association of Korea) Special Conference in Korea on ‘Peace and Reconciliation in the Korean Peninsula’, 12 March 2007, at Lotte Hotel in Seoul.
ⓒ Paik Nak-chung 2007
It is an honor to address this gathering of journalists from all over the world who have come to Korea to discuss and promote peace and reconciliation in the peninsula. ‘Special news’ in the title is meant to whet your professional appetites, but as seasoned journalists you must also be aware that the actual content does not always live up to sensational headlines.
In any case, let me start with what is no longer news. With the February 13 agreements at the Six-Party talks in Beijing, the situation in and around the Korean peninsula has taken a distinctly favorable turn towards the twin goals of denuclearizing the peninsula and normalizing the relations between DPRK and the United States. It’s too early to predict the final outcome, but this time we have a very specific action plan, though a limited one, and both between the two Koreas and between DPRK and each of the directly concerned parties (notably the U.S., Japan, and the IAEA) serious contacts and negotiations have either already begun or are soon to take place. All in all, prospects for peace and reconciliation in the Korean peninsula look brighter than at any time in recent years.
As I say, this is hardly news.
What I offer as special news is that not simply ‘peace and reconciliation’ but reunification of the Korean peninsula is in progress, and has been in progress for the past several years. Even this isn’t exactly a breaking news, for a book I published last year (alas, in Korean only) was titled Unification Korean-Style, Present Progressive Tense. But is this ‘special news’ a true report? Isn’t it a wild exaggeration, or even an outright falsification, given the undeniable continuance of the Military Demarcation Line dividing the peninsula?
My claim would all too obviously amount to sheer nonsense unless we were to perform a radical redefinition of the term ‘reunification’. And here I offer you another piece of news: such a redefinition, too, has been going on for some years now. Moreover, the success of that task is crucial not only for reunification but for peace in the Korean peninsula. Many foreigners, genuinely concerned for peace in Korea but naturally less preoccupied with reunification, tend to be puzzled by such conflation of the two issues. Why can’t Koreans be reasonable, they often ask, and try to co-exist in peace rather than always be harping on unification? Peaceful co-existence was exactly what the Germans in the decades of division worked for, with the result that they not only managed to preserve peace but even achieved reunification as an unexpected reward. Koreans should do the same, (so the argument goes,) and while they may or may not be rewarded with a similar surprise, they will in any case have peace, which represents both a more tangible and a more universal value than national unity. Nor is such a way of thinking limited to foreigners, needless to say.
In contrast, if we take the case of pre-unification Vietnam, advocating ‘peace in division’ would have been but a thinly disguised apology for continued colonial dominance. Some Koreans place a great emphasis on this lesson and still consider ‘national liberation’ the fundamental task of the day.
The actual situation, however, falls somewhere in-between. In other words, Korea’s reality fits neither the German nor the Vietnamese pattern. In the sense that the country’s division in 1945 was imposed without any legitimate cause, an act of further victimizing a nation previously victimized by the aggressor power (Japan), it resembled Vietnam’s more than Germany’s division, and also in representing an attempt by the hegemonic power (USA) to control a Third World people. But in contrast to Vietnam, the Korean War ended in a stalemate in 1953, and the structure of division since then has acquired a certain stability and power of self-reproduction-enough to justify, in my opinion, finding a ‘division system’ in force. Yet the fact that such stability was reached only through a bloody civil war (as well as an international one) makes for another crucial difference from Germany, where the division was sustained mainly by the East-West confrontation and thus could lead to a quick reunification when the Cold War ended.
It naturally follows then that neither the German nor Vietnamese formula for unification would work in Korea. On the one hand, overzealous pursuit of reunification would pose a threat to peace, because the North will resist at all costs the German type of peaceful annexation, let alone military invasion. Indeed, simplistic discourse of national unity must delay reunification itself, since it will only strengthen the division system by fanning popular fear of what a sudden reunification might bring.
On the other hand, pursuit of peaceful coexistence at the expense of national unity is also an illusory project and ultimately destabilizing to peace as well. This is so in principle because of the fundamental illegitimacy of the division system, which makes any project for its perpetuation lose legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of the population. But in more practical terms, we must note that the system has already been dangerously destabilized-The Shaking Division System (Seoul: Changbi Publishers, 1998) is another title of mine-due to 1) democratization of South Korea since 1987, which removed one of the main props of the division system by putting an end to military dictatorship; 2) the end of the East-West Cold War, which, though not as decisive a factor as in German division, nevertheless did away with another major prop; and 3) an increasing imbalance of power between the two Koreas, partly as a consequence of that geopolitical change, prompting the imperiled North to rely more and more on military force even to the extent of undertaking nuclear armament.
If neither a Vietnamese nor a German type of solution will do, what other way is there? (I will just remark in passing that the somewhat different Yemenite type doesn’t apply, either.)
Now the frequently forgotten fact, even among Koreans who ought to know better, is that a distinctly Korean way out of the dilemma was already agreed to and promulgated by the top leaders of the two Koreas in the year 2000, in the June 15 North-South Joint Declaration. Article 2 reads: “The North and the South, recognizing that the low-level federation proposed by the North and the commonwealth system proposed by the South for the reunification of the country have similarity, agreed to work together in the future for reunification in this direction.”
For all the intentional (and in its way quite admirable) ambiguity of expression, the article clearly stipulates that Korea’s reunification will differ from all the preceding examples of Vietnam, Yemen and Germany in being a gradual, step-by-step affair, and that the initial stage will be some kind of a commonwealth or ‘union of states’ in which each side will retain most of the functions of a central government. Pyongyang prefers to call this a ‘low-level federation’, but there is every indication that its first priority is preservation of DPRK as an independent entity and, even after security guarantees by the U.S. and other powers, it will at best settle for a quite loose confederation, (which in fact is the word used in its official translation of the proposed Koryo Democratic Confederal Republic.)
But there is another essential feature of this Korean-style reunification that the two political leaders may or may not have bargained for. When reunification is made into an extended, many-staged process, there inevitably opens up a space for civic participation, which the civilian sectors (including business corporations) of South Korea, at any rate, are ready to fill. If such participation does its work, it will even define to a large extent when and how the authorities on the two sides could or should proclaim a union or confederation. In other words, such a formal proclamation will amount in large part to a post-facto ratification of what people on the ground have worked out through political, economic, social, cultural contacts and exchanges. And let me assure you that since the June 15 Joint Declaration this process has never really stopped, not even in the darkest days of nuclear crisis.
I will conclude by trying to answer two questions. First, even if a confederal structure comes into place, will such a union-probably much looser than the European Union in its current state-deserve to be called reunification? I say yes because we are operating in a completely different historical context, where, unlike the already unified nation-states of Europe moving toward a closer union, a forcibly divided nation with a long history of unified national life behind it will be taking an irreversible step toward recovery of its unity, and where the two sides will have devised for the first time a meaningful mechanism for managing a process far more explosive than anything in present-day Europe or the two Germanies of the past.
But secondly, is reunification even in this peculiar sense feasible? An affirmative answer at least sounds less doubtful today than it did two or three months ago. Implications of a negative answer have also become much more dire since North Korea’s nuclear test. No doubt, it will take time to reach what I have called the twin goals of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula and normalization of DPRK-US relations, but for proponents of Korea’s ‘participatory reunification’ that is no great matter. For we can use the time to deepen people’s participation in the reunification process and thus help to build a more humane and democratic society in the Korean peninsula. □