A deep sense of shared identity between citizens of North and South Korea remains alive and well, and the potential for at least some reconciliation should be at the center of America’s diplomatic efforts, former top U.S. officials and regional experts said Tuesday.
Speaking at The Washington Brief, a monthly forum hosted by The Washington Times Foundation, analysts said that the Biden administration must consider issues beyond just Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program when crafting its broader North Korea policy. The U.S. and its allies, they said, must weigh how the reestablishment of economic and other ties between Seoul and Pyongyang could create a far less hostile environment on the Korean Peninsula.
“There is a Korean identity that is not totally dependent on what passport you carry. There’s a Korean pride, in a way, that transcends a more traditional nationalism,” said Kathleen Stephens, former U.S. ambassador to South Korea and now the president and CEO of the Korean Economic Institute of America. “Koreans have remained Korean … and I think that’s true in both North and South.”
“There has to be some kind of … reconciliation. And I think the United States, the international community, have a certain obligation as we think about the challenges of North Korea to also pay attention to that issue of reconciliation,” she said.
Indeed, while former President Donald Trump’s in-person meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in 2018 garnered the greatest share of media attention, that same year also saw multiple meetings between Mr. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in. Those conversations sparked hope that a new era could be on the horizon, potentially including a formal treaty to end the Korean War or other steps.
“At least for a moment … there was a reminder that, ‘We speak the same language and we do share something that Koreans don’t share with anybody else.’ And I think that’s very powerful,” Ms. Stephens said.
At the same time, there are apparent signs that the concept of reunification between North and South Korea is losing steam, at least among South Koreans. A recent poll conducted by the Seoul-based Institute for Peace and Unification Studies (IPUS) found that just 44% of South Koreans believe “reunification is necessary,” the lowest figure since the annual poll began in 2007.
Some South Korean specialists attributed the drop to disappointment following the 2018 diplomatic outreach by Mr. Trump and Mr. Moon. When Mr. Trump’s efforts failed to produce a denuclearization deal with Pyongyang, and relations between North and South Korea returned to a stalemate, a segment of the South Korean population may have given up hope for reunification.
“People’s expectations … were so high in 2018 that the disappointment that followed was huge — the negative aspects would have been strengthened from those disappointments,” Kim Bumsoo, head of the Center for Unification Studies at IPUS, told the website NKnews.com last month.
Inside North Korea, analysts said, there’s also deep skepticism of reunification, with the chief fear being that North Korean leadership would essentially lose all authority and power in a newly unified country with the more prosperous South.
Instead of pursuing that path, Mr. Kim instead seems to be seeking the benefits of closer ties with South Korea without any of the responsibilities or risks, according to Alexandre Mansourov, professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.
Mr. Kim “does want to have a better relationship so that on the one hand, whatever government they have in the South will recognize the legitimacy of the North Korean rule,” he said at Tuesday’s event. Mr. Kim, he added, wants to see the two nations’ “economies get increasingly harmonized” so he can take advantage of South Korea‘s successful economy for his own benefit.
Even if support for reunification has dropped, regional experts say the South Korean people still want to see action taken to help citizens across the heavily armed border.
“I do feel there’s a growing anxiety in [South Korea] about some of the economic problems in North Korea that could lead to mass starvation … and that’s where there is a certain Korean-ism,” said Christopher Hill, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea who moderated Tuesday’s panel. “I don’t think Koreans in [South Korea] want to stand by and watch North Koreans starve.” (2021.11.02.)