The South Korean government earlier this month announced a plan to set up a fund as early as this year to begin raising around $50 billion to cover minimal cost of its eventual reunification with North Korea, assuming the unification is peaceful and it takes place within the next 20 years. North Korea called it a "trick" aimed at regime change in Pyongyang.
Taking major events on the Korean peninsula during the past 15 years into account one is tempted to see whether mere collection of funds will contribute to any progress on the issue of Korean reunification.
Though the nuclear tests in October 2006 and May 2009 by North Korea and the sinking of a South Korean navy ship last year have been the major contributing factors for tension on the Korean peninsula, President Lee soon after assuming office in 2008 discontinued all relations coming under the term ‘engagement' with the communist regime and tied any aid to its denuclearization.
On the way the conservative Lee administration also virtually wasted all the investment made by South Korea since 1998 to bring about change in North Korea under the sunshine policy of 2000 Nobel Peace Laureate and then president Kim Dae-jung.
Hopes for the Korean reunification emerged after Kim Dae-jung's summit in Pyongyang with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in June 2000 where the two sides, for the first time since the Korean War (1950-53), found a point of convergence. The summit declaration focused on promoting mutual understanding and frequent exchanges in different fields to boost inter-Korean relations leading to reunification.
President Roh Moo-hyun also followed the engagement policy and held a summit with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in October 2007.
However, a radical shift in policy of Lee administration and the renewed talk of ‘contingencies' and ‘succession struggle' in North Korea effectively stopped any exchange of ideas over the reunification. Conflicting U.S. and China policies on North Korea is another factor that has bedeviled reunification.
In their joint communiqué in Washington on 16 June 2009 President Lee and US President Barack Obama announced that any Korean unification would be based on the principle of "free democracy and market economy". This was in stark contrast to the principle of "co-existence of different systems leading to reunification through confederation" enshrined in the 2000 and 2007 North-South summit declarations. Setting the goal of democracy for a communist state means a full stop to engagement on the unification issue.
In my view, the aim of the sunshine policy was to create openness in North Korean society through aid or whatever possible peaceful means and to give the North's people voice to prepare them for change and unification, even if it takes decades. On the face of it, the policy was not aimed at achieving swift return benefits and other goals like denuclearization.
Even presently, creation of right environment will be of prime importance for achieving the goal of reunification and denuclearization - a daunting task, particularly before the implementation of at least one of the international commitments made, such as the 2000 and 2007 South-North Summit Declarations or the lifting of international sanctions on North Korea.
Besides, there should be a sustained inter-Korean dialogue, which would attract responses from regional powers, including the U.S., which would help shape the future strategy of the two Koreas.
In the absence of engagement to build trust between the Koreas mere collection of funds as planned by the Lee administration would not contribute to any start-up for a peaceful reunification.
Instead of stopping aid the Lee administration could have conditioned it to specific development projects in North Korea that would have triggered greater mobility of the people and frequent exchange of information among them - the seeds of change.
Developments since the Korean War such as the North Korea's defensive stance, its sole dependence on China, and its nuclear program have made the path to reunification more difficult. Besides, the isolation of North Korea is not a good omen for future reunification, which would need the support of almost all the world powers, especially the U.S., China, Japan and Russia - all members of the six-party talks for the North's denuclearization.
According to Selig S. Harrison, a ‘permanent siege mentality' has born of North Korean fears that the US and Japan are just waiting in the wings for some upheaval to cause its collapse and thus its absorption by the South.
During the last two decades, it was through the engagement policy that the US and South Korea developed their economic and other relations with China. Today, the US is China's leading trade partner, and South Korea has developed a policy of accommodation in its relations with Japan. Thus it is clear that through sustained engagement, countries can establish robust relations even if they have conflicting political goals and regional interests.
As a first step, the two Koreas could start engaging on different forums with a policy of accommodation for each other so as to narrow down their mutual differences. One thing Seoul could do is to announce full compliance with the two summit declarations and the Pyongyang to commit to denuclearization even if takes a decade.
Once the basic commitments are made to the satisfaction of the regional powers, including the US, it will be easy for the two Koreas to follow the path of reunification with their support and of course, to utilize the funds collected for the purpose.
See my 2010 research paper on: "Korean peninsula: peaceful engagement for humanitarian concerns".
Hamid Ur Rehman is a visiting journalist from Pakistan. He will work at The Press of Atlantic City in partnership with the ICFJ till Nov 28 as part of the US-Pakistan Professional Partnership Program for Journalists.