The June summit in Pyongyang kicked off a summer of symbolic and historic “firsts” on the Korean Peninsula, marked by the dramatic symbolism of inter-Korean reconciliation after more than five decades of stalemate. Sufficient time has now passed to evaluate what might be called the “honeymoon period” — the first hundred days of an unfolding peace process that will require considerable political will and the making of some hard choices if it is to be sustained and consolidated. One need only turn to recent events in the Middle East or Northern Ireland to recognize that maintaining momentum in a peace process is hard work in which setbacks, detours and reverses are not uncommon. And domestic political support is an essential prerequisite for progress.
The inter-Korean peace process has already shown several distinct characteristics, however. First, the historic meeting between Korean leaders took place without the mediation of a third party, unlike the processes in Ireland and the Middle East. The fact that it was possible to set aside differences and directly arrange an inter-Korean summit through purely Korean efforts is a tribute to both sides, and it underscores the autonomous character of Korean reconciliation. This is a principle enshrined in the 1972 North-South Joint Declaration and reaffirmed in the June Declaration as well. It is clearly an important starting point and reflects a context and history that is unique to Korea.
However, an unmediated peace process also poses two particularly difficult challenges that will have to be addressed at some point in the Korean case: how to overcome temporary setbacks or apparently intractable differences and how to incorporate verification measures as part of the implementation of agreements. The third parties that may be usefully incorporated into such a process may not necessarily be nation-states or even foreigners, but they do have to be trusted by both sides as fair and impartial intermediaries, even if they are not necessarily neutral.
A second distinctive characteristic of the inter-Korean peace process is that, unlike the Irish and Middle East peace processes, in which the symbolic “handshake” between leaders of opposing sides represented the consolidation and institutionalization of the first phase of an already existing process, the “handshake” between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung preceded the formal initiation of the process, thereby representing a symbolic hope of future reconciliation rather than the consolidation of work already accomplished.
The symbolism of reconciliation has given a powerful emotional and psychological boost to efforts by both sides to live up to the promise embodied in the June summit. Kim Jong Il himself acknowledged in his initial meeting with Kim Dae Jung that “the world is watching,” and both sides have already made extraordinary efforts to overcome vast differences between their two systems. However, many of those efforts have been designed primarily to win psychological validation of the process; only within the past month have there been signs of a second stage, in which practical cooperation at the working level might be institutionalized.
The North-South meeting of defense ministers held on Cheju Island in late September envisages the establishment of working-level cooperation between the two militaries to provide the necessary security-support measures to carry out the reconnection of rail and highway links across the demilitarized zone. Simultaneously, the initiation of working-level inter-Korean talks to build the infrastructure for economic cooperation, including investment guarantees and taxation, is necessary if trade and investment between North and South Korea is to be sustained. If these meetings are not regularized, as envisaged in the 1992 Basic Agreement, this latest peace effort, too, will prove unsustainable.
Recent events in the Middle East and Ireland also provide two cautionary lessons. First, the principle of starting with easier issues and moving to harder issues is the right way to build momentum, but it is also important not to feel compelled to address the “hard” issues prematurely. The consequences of overreaching may compromise the entire process. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak admitted the obvious when he stated some weeks ago that the issues surrounding the final status of Jerusalem were “not ripe” for settlement. Attempts to force the issue have virtually erased almost a decade of hard-fought efforts on behalf of peace in the Middle East. Korean leaders, too, will need to show political leadership and discretion to provide momentum for Korean peace without overreaching.
Second, domestic political support is essential to sustaining momentum for a peace process. Barak is currently facing a vote of confidence with core support from only one-quarter of the Israeli Parliament, and Yasser Arafat’s ability to control the Palestinian Authority has also increasingly come under question. In South Korea, it will not be enough to ride the wave of international support for inter-Korean reconciliation if domestic support cannot be secured.
South Korean public opinion is a central factor in determining the pace and substance of the process that neither Kim can afford to ignore without forfeiting the gains already made The first order of business is the effective management of the country’s economy and the provision of successful, efficient and clean domestic government. Only when South Korea’s own house is in order will it be possible to ensure sufficient domestic support for Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy,” which — in combination with Kim Jong Il’s consolidation of political leadership in the North — has opened the way for the first time to the possibility of inter-Korean reconciliation.
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