The Koreas: What to expect in 2001

It would be reasonable to expect a consolidation and a furthering of the ties the two Koreas developed during 2000, if the South Korean president's optimism is a guide

By Ronald Meinardus  / 

Wed, Jan 03, 2001 - Page 9

Some day the year 2000 may well be recorded in Korean history books as the year two leaders of the divided nation -- the Southerner Kim Dae-jung and his Northern counter-part Kim Jong-il -- kicked off a political process that eventually lead to the peaceful reunification of the divided peninsula.

The present situation in Korea is special: Here history is in the making.

What was hardly imaginable just 12 months ago, has almost become political routine: senior officials from South and North gathering around a negotiating table aiming at promoting the relations between the two countries. For the political observer it has become rather burdensome to keep track of all the meetings and contacts, the statements and communiques. Put together these exchanges document just how much "in a political-diplomatic sense" the Koreas have moved closer to what we may term normal bilateral relations.

In the many reviews published these days the June summit between Kim Dae-jung and Kim, Jong-il in Pyongyang has been termed the outstanding political event for Korea this past year. In the political process leading up to the summit the international actors usually very involved in the Korean question were degraded to mere diplomatic onlookers. In their Joint Declaration of June 15 Seoul and Pyongyang agreed to "resolve the question of unification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people".

This wording continues to sound like a diplomatic slap in the face for all those non-Koreans aspiring to play a major role in peninsular affairs. It is in this regard, that the most significant changes should be expected in the Korean developments in the coming year: I anticipate the Korean issue to be increasingly internationalized, with the international powers once more playing a more prominent role.

There are indications that we may witness extraordinary developments as soon as March. Why?

One explanation is, that by then President Kim Dae-jung hopes to have completed his domestic homework, that is the economic and administrative reforms and restructuring, freeing once more his hands to deal with the North Korea-file.

More diplomacy

Furthermore the political situation in the US should have cleared up by then, with the new Administration not only under control, but also determined on how to proceed regarding Korea. Presumably we will see even more summit diplomacy in and around the Koreas in 2001 than we saw in the year before. And most probably the South Korean President, decorated with the Nobel Peace Prize and respected throughout the world, will once more take up center stage: President Kim was one of the first foreign leaders to speak on the phone with President-elect George W. Bush. It seems the two leaders have already found common ground as to when to meet. "I am considering visiting the US in March," President Kim was quoted as telling Bush.

According to a Russian news agency which,due to old, friendly ties in Pyongyang is usually well informed on North Korea, March will also witness the historic return-visit of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to Seoul.

According to that source, the two sides are already working out the text of the joint declaration to be signed at the second inter-Korean summit. Kim Dae-jung has lifted the expectations as to the importance of that document: "We are going to sign an agreement more far-reaching than the June 15th Declaration, if Chairman Kim, Jong-il comes to Seoul," the South Korean leader said recently. He then said, more specifically, that he intends to seek an improvement of epochal proportions in terms of peace on the Korean Peninsula, leaving little doubt that the signing of a peace treaty to replace the armistice agreement may well be the next historic achievement.

Although there is general agreement that the signing of a peace treaty is high on the political agenda, the procedures to be followed are all from clear. Possibly, the Koreans will first come to an agreement on this crucial matter in their bilateral dealings, and triumphantly announce this at the end of the second summit meeting to be held in Seoul sometime in the first half of the new year.

This announcement could then be followed by an international agreement, signed by the participants of the Four-Party-Talks, that is the Chinese and the Americans together with the South and North Koreans. Another option would be to enlarge the group of signatories, and invite the Japanese and Russians to join the party. Seoul has favored this option, and clearly the Russians are pushing for a seat at the conference table. On the other hand, there are indications that Washington sees with suspicion Moscow's overtures in Northeast Asia, and may thus prefer the Four-Party-Framework. But then, all this remains open.

Eventually many high-level meetings will deal with the format of a Korean peace treaty.

At the same time we may expect that the Koreans "and first and foremost the government in Seoul" will keep up the pressure for a quick solution: This desire is lead mainly by the aim not to loose the favorable political momentum built up since the summit meeting in June 2000. One of the very big question marks at the beginning of the new year continues to be North Korea's position regarding the peace treaty. So far Pyongyang has insisted on establishing a permanent peace regime not between the two Korean governments, but between itself and Washington. Seoul has refused to accept this position. It should not come as too big a surprise should Pyongyang move away from its position, and agree to a treaty with the South.

Although for obvious reasons related to the ongoing diplomatic process there are no publicized indications of this shift in Pyongyang, Kim Dae-jung's at times extremely positive accounts of his North Korean negotiating partner almost provokes the conclusion that he has good reason to be hopeful: While many observers question the sincerity of the North Korean dictator's dealing with the South, President Kim seems convinced Pyongyang's intentions are earnest: North Korea the president said in an interview after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo "is showing enthusiasm toward reducing tensions and promoting cooperation with the South!"

Expectations

The new year will not only bring diplomatic activities on the highest political level. Developments may also be expected regarding lower-level North-South relations in the political, the economic and the cultural fields. Much needs to be done in all areas and much can be done. Presumably the pattern of interactions will not change dramatically from what we have seen so far: the South will press for more people-to-people contacts in a bid to soften the harshness of the national divide. The North will ask for more economic aid, in an effort to revitalize its moribund economy, at the same time limiting to an absolute minimum all personal contacts.

Seen from Pyongyang's angle the personal exchanges are potentially the most dangerous aspect of the whole engagement process.

In the course of the new year and towards the latter part of 2001 the domestic debate in the South as to the pros and cons of the Sunshine policy may well become ever more fierce.

The opposition will lash out at the government accusing it of giving in to the communists throwing scarce South Korean money at the dictator Kim Jong-il.

Although, quite fortunately for the government, 2001 is not an election year, there will be two votes in 2002: one for local offices in the first half of that year, and then the presidential elections in the second half. One needs not be a prophet to predict that the closer we move to election day the more vicious the battles between the government forces and the opposition will become.

There are indications that the North Korea-policy (and not the economy) will dominate domestic politics in South Korea in the months ahead.

It will depend very much on the progress achieved in North-South relations who will have the better arguments on his side when it comes to the big show-down at the ballot-boxes.

The year 2001 will be of crucial importance in this regard.

If President Kim Dae-jung (assisted by Kim Jong-il) does not succeed in pushing forward the peace process in the months ahead, his political camp will have even lesser chances of survvingelections in the future.

Ronald Meinardus is the resident representative in Seoul of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, a German foundation for liberal politics which enjoys close links with Germany's Free Democratic Party.