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It’s North Korea’s choice to make

by Han Seung Soo

NEW YORK — When the Republic of Korea was established in 1948, Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world. GDP per capita was $67 in 1953, immediately following the Korean War, and rose to only $79 in 1960. At that time, North Korea’s economy was much stronger than that of the South. Natural resources were abundant in the North, and even electricity was supplied from North to South. Most industry was located in the North, whereas the South was mainly agricultural.

Today, the South’s GDP is 40 times larger than that of the North. Comparing the two Korean economies is virtually meaningless.

Such disparities do not arise from different historical experiences, because Koreans have shared a history for thousands of years as one nation. The gap, instead, reflects recent historical choices.

By persistently adhering to a planned economy and obsolete ideology, North Korea is trapped in a vicious cycle, suffering from unstable food supplies and low, or sometimes negative, economic growth. Nonetheless, North Korea has shown little interest in reform. Instead, it has developed a nuclear weapons program that threatens stability in the region and places a heavy burden on its economy.

South Korea, which is enjoying unprecedented prosperity, is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with North Koreans’ economic despair. Probably no two neighboring countries have such a huge economic gap, let alone countries that share the same ethnic and historical background. The danger is that such a discrepancy can become a source of instability and conflict.

To overcome its economic deficiencies and attain social stability, the North has no choice but to abandon its nuclear weapons program and move toward reform and greater openness. South Korea is trying to persuade the North to make this strategic decision.

We are more than willing to help the North achieve economic growth, which is almost always the source of peace and security. As such, North Korea’s economic recovery is vital for an enduring peace on the Korean Peninsula.

So, in accordance with the six-party talks (North and South Korea, the United States, Russia, China and Japan) my government wants to create a Korean Economic Community in collaboration with the North. In cooperation with the international community, we will help North Korea raise its annual per capita income to $3,000. To this end, we will carry out joint projects in five key areas: education, finance, industrial infrastructure, quality of life and economic development. But an institutional mechanism is needed to implement this initiative, such as an inter-Korean consultative body.

Of course, mere economic assistance or investment is not sufficient for a country to bail itself out of the vicious circle of underdevelopment and poverty. A national economy can take off only when the necessary infrastructure, an adequate level of competition and reasonable government policies are in place. We know how difficult it is to achieve such conditions, because we had to do it ourselves. Our vision for an inter-Korean economic community is based on sharing our experiences with the North.

True, inter-Korean relations have already expanded. But this expansion has not brought fundamental change to the two Koreas’ relationship. An incident at Mount Geumgang last July demonstrated the relationship’s vulnerable nature. A middle-aged South Korean female tourist was shot to death while walking on the beach, having inadvertently crossed over the boundary of the tourist zone. No North-South dialogue has emerged to investigate the incident, or to prevent a recurrence.

Under these circumstances, there are greater calls in South Korea for a new approach toward the North. We now believe that inter-Korean relations should conform to principles and standards that any member of the international community should respect.

Another key consideration is to consolidate a sustainable peace structure on the Korean Peninsula. This cannot merely be a state of affairs like the current one, in which hostilities are absent. It refers to an enduring peace, which is not easily affected by incidents or accidents and is able to prevent politico-military crises such as that caused by the North’s nuclear program. The only way to realize such a peace is by completing North Korea’s denuclearization and establishing a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.

As of today, the six-party talks is the principal framework to open up the future of the North. If the North abandons its nuclear-weapons program, many benefits can be gained. Relations between the North and its neighbors can improve, along with a greater probability of forming a Northeast Asia peace and security mechanism.

Fortunately, America’s removal of North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism has re-started the denuclearization process. But the North’s prior threat to resume work at the facilities suggests that this process may be fitful.

Moreover, since South Korea’s new government took office earlier this year little progress has been made in relations between the two Koreas. But our vision will eventually open up ways to solve North Korea’s problems, not only bringing a better future for the North, but also making the Korean Peninsula a gateway for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.

Leaders in the North may mistakenly believe that they can circumvent or outmaneuver the South — the so-called strategy of driving a wedge between the Republic of Korea and the U.S. But in the end, South Korea is the neighbor whom the North can truly trust and rely on the most. The North should realize this and make a wise choice.

Han Seung Soo is prime minister of South Korea. © 2008 Project Syndicate/Asia Society