Learning About the Inter-Korean Puzzle

David Webber
June 5, 2014

Figuring Out Perspectives about Inter-Korean Interaction: A Puzzle of Business Cards, Helping People, Human Rights, and Engagement

This essay reviews my year-long (April 2013-May 2014) effort to understand the major themes underlying discussions of “what to do about North Korea?” It is based mostly on listening to speakers, conversations with academic experts and South Korean citizens, reading and watching English-speaking Korean media and, of course, reading more academic works. I have spent about 18 months between 2009-2014 teaching political science, mostly American Public Policy, in Gwangju and Seoul, South Korea. While my knowledge of inter-Korean history, conflict, and politics is better than that of a well-informed American citizen following U.S. media, I am not an expert. While that has allowed me to freely think about and consider ideas that I heard without any intellectual, ideological, or political predisposition, my limited knowledge may be just a step from being naïve and simple-minded.

Throughout the year, the simplest theme I learned to listen for was “human rights.” Often I was confused about the motive of the user: are North Korean living conditions the real concern or is it a slogan that is sure to capture some public attention? Similar to concern for the federal government deficit in the U.S. there are those who genuinely are concerned about the economic and social impacts of large deficits and there are those who are fundamentally anti-government and just grasp at the deficit straw for political ammunition.

In this essay I recall how my interest developed and the key events and ideas I experienced in 2013-2014. I am grateful to more than two dozen South Koreas who have helped me figure out where I wanted to go and to get me there on time. This essay overviews my journey to clarify my understanding of South Korean researchers and public opinion about potential unification. At the same time, I have learned about other aspects of Korean history, politics, music, and culture. At the end of this essay, I conclude with my concerns and conjectures about “what should be done about North Korea?”


My interest in Korea developed because of chance, timing, and curiosity. I was born during the Korean War and heard about the “Forgotten War” from time-to-time. During the Vietnam Era, U.S. forces would be assigned to South Korea for preparations and for R&R. I took a course in “Far East History” in college. I knew about the “Han River miracle” back when the focus was on Japan’s economic completion. In my first graduate seminar at the University of Missouri (MU) in 1986 I had four (out of 12) graduate students from Korea. Perhaps because of our age similarities, I have followed their careers since then. Additionally, I had a senior colleague at MU who was elected to the Korean National Assembly in 1989. Perhaps because these personal relations took precedence over “international relations” or “foreign policy” as an academic specialty my interest in Korea grew over several decades. Similar to my academic specialty, American Public Policy, I have mainly been interested in South Korea’s economic and education policies but Korean unification was always at least in the background. Over the past few years, “human rights abuses” have been the principal theme focusing Americans’ attention on North Korea but I have been more focused on South Korea’s economic and political development.

In 2013-2014 I have been a visiting professor at Ewha Womans University and have had the opportunity to pay much closer attention to the topic of Korean reunification, specifically South Korean public opinion about reunification. I observed, and have been confused, about the way South Koreans, and some international scholars, talk about “unification,” “human rights abuses,” “engagement policy,” “hard liners,” current President Park Guen-hye’s “trust politics,” “bringing down the regime,” “NK defectors,” and “sanctions,” and “North Korea sympathizers.” I sensed that I was listening to a coded discussion and I was often puzzled that I did not hear consistent themes. I have read at least five books, attended five conferences, and read or listened to countless media stories about Korean unification the past 12 months.

I have enjoyed the objectivity of being in a foreign land. Often, I do not know enough about a Korean situation, setting, or person to make a judgment. I surprised myself that I disliked, almost instantly, three people I met this year–they were all non-Koreans, all westerners, for that matter. I do not seem to react so judgmentally to Koreans; most likely because I do not have the cultural and personality cues that I use as a crutch with westerners.

    Pre-2013 Background

My university, the University of Missouri, has a long tradition of educating Korean graduate students. This goes back to Soo Sung Cho, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in the mid-1950s and was hired at the University of Missouri. Cho was elected to the Korean National Assembly in 1989, when he was in Korea on sabbatical leave.
I had four graduate students from Korea in my first graduate seminar at Missouri in 1986. I have seen three of them in Korea since they graduated. One of them Kim, was instrumental in my visiting Ewha Womans University for a year.

I first visited Korea in 1991 and visited three of the students in Seoul. I remember that one of them was working at the Korean Unification Institute and I teased him asking “What will you do when your position becomes obsolete?”
The tone of my feelings toward Koreans was set by the four Koreans in my 1986 Public Policy seminar. I remember our conversations were always respectful, pleasant, informative, and with a sense of purpose. I visited several of them in 1991 on a short stop-over in Seoul and they took me to a traditional restaurant at the foot of a mountain for lunch. We sat on the floor, ate with chopsticks, and at times they spoke to each other in Korean. One of them said to me, “You look very comfortable here.” I said, “I am.” I have always been comfortable in Korea.

In 2009, I taught at the International Summer School Session at Chonnam National University in Gwangju (southwestern South Korea), the home of modern day Korean democracy. I learned about the May 18, 1980 “Gwangju Massacre” and visited several related monuments and memorials. I only vaguely recalled the event 29 years earlier when I was finishing graduate school. Among my lasting questions were “why did Gwangju citizens and students resist?” but that has not happened in North Korea.

Although not directly on the 2009 course syllabus, North Korea and unification became topics for discussion because I required all students in the class to read their home constitution and one of another country. My actual intent was to show the differences in format of constitutions and the differences in the structure of government that the constitutions specify. As it turns out, Article 4 specifies “The Republic of Korea shall seek unification and shall formulate and carry out a policy of peaceful unification based on the principles of freedom and democracy.” It surprised me, and most of the students, that “formulating and carrying out a policy of peaceful unification” was officially a goal of South Korea. At first I was surprised to hear that college-aged Koreans do not share the same priority for unification as their parents. Students would say, “We are different countries” or “We have other problems to deal with.”

Another provision students mentioned was Article 13 stating “(3) No citizen shall suffer unfavorable treatment on account of an act not of his own doing but committed by a relative.” This provision, which prohibits the arrest and imprisonment of a family member when a relative is accused of a crime, would prevent a practice that is widespread in North Korea.

That summer I visited the DMZ for the first time with Kim, a political science professor who was one of the students in my 1986 graduate seminar. More than anyone else he has been my guide through Korean politics and history but he does not disclose too much. On a Friday afternoon in the summer of 2009, he called me and said “You probably want to go to the DMZ. I will pick you up at 3:00.” At first we talked about hotels, traffic, and Korean politics but our conversation and mood became quieter during the 50 kilometer drive to the DMZ observation area. Looking to the North over the peaceful countryside with barbed wire, guard towers, and decaying bridges, he told me his mother had family in North Korea and said “We should be one, we are the same blood. Maybe someday.” On the return to Seoul, after a while we listened to American 1960s and 70s music on his new CD player and we ate a bulgogi restaurant that I now walk past at least once a week.

In 2013 and 2013, I returned to the DMZ as a member of tour groups and recollected how unification is a real issue for Kim and millions of people—it is not just an academic debate or a tour stop. In 2012, I visited the Dorasan Station on a freight train line that went to the Kaesong Industrial Region in North Korea (a South Korea funded economic development zone that was closed by North Korea in 2008 and partially re-opened in 2014). Dorasan Station now services a “train to nowhere” with a banner proclaiming “Not the last station from the South, but the first station toward the North.” The new, modern, yet empty train station projects both hope for the future but also frustration with the past.

President George Bush’s speech of February 20, 2002 is inscribed on the Dorasan Station wall along with photos of then-South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. I read the speech in 2012 posted on the wall, and several times later, and remember having mixed feelings. President Bush mostly said things I agreed with about the Korea Peninsula, the efforts of Kim Dae-jung, and the hope for peace, but in less than one month, he referred to North Korea as part of the “Axis of evil” with Iran and Iraq thus grouping them as common enemies in his “War on Terrorism.” While Dorasan Station and Kim Dae-Jung remain as symbols of what was so near, of what could have been done, I have wondered if many South Koreans would rather just forget the whole era.

When I returned home to Missouri in 2012, I led a discussion of Barbara Demick’s NOTHING TO ENVY: ORDINAY LIVES OF NORTH KOREANS for MU’s “Summer Read” in 2012. The book was not a good selection for that purpose, but I was happy to read it because it was about Koreans. During the group discussion I had second thoughts about the value of introducing American students, and the American public, to Korea through the lens of North Korean defectors and prison camps. Like most Americans, I believe that there are “human rights violations” in North Korea and it is a brutal place to live and hard to figure out. Moreover, I question the effectiveness of labeling them part of “an axis of evil” or making fun of their leaders on American late night TV.

I obviously like Korea. I have visited four times: 1991, 2009, 2012, and this year academic year 2013-14. It is a good vantage point for viewing U.S. foreign policy during my lifetime because of its central location. I have found Koreans to be helpful without being pushy. They are reserved in the same way that I am. But they can be a little too reserved at times. While I respect and am often the beneficiary of Korean’s respect for professors and their elders, this trait can make it more difficult to understand Korean political attitudes. Often Koreans seem to approve of a topic when they actually are just being too polite to disagree.

    Learning About Korea in 2013

On February 12, 2013 North Korea announced they had conducted a third nuclear test in violation of previous “Six-Party” agreements. This was followed by strong rhetoric and smaller acts of provocation that suggested the Korea peninsula was not a safe place to visit. More than increasing uncertainty about my upcoming year-long stay in South Korea, I regretted that this issue would dominate diplomatic relations and the news.

In April, 2013 I met five North Korean defectors, accompanied by a U.S. Department of State interpreter, when they visited the University Of Missouri School Of Journalism. By luck, I heard of their visit and was allowed to attend presentations for them, and by them, and a group picnic. The defectors personalized dismal stories about living conditions in North Korea and the challenges of defecting that I had read about in Demick’s NOTHING TO ENVY. Their presentation to an MU class was rather representative of how the plight of North Koreans is heard in the U.S. There was the standard announcement that “no picture can be taken because the families of our guests could be arrested and possibly executed if their identities get back to North Korea.” The five North Koreans detailed the hardship of daily live and the fright of defecting to a new country often without friends or family. Perhaps unique, since these defectors were all similar to journalists in the U.S., was their explaining that they could get a message to specific people in North Korea. It was never clear if they meant family members or defector enablers and supporters, but either way, this was one sign of hope. I suspect most of the largely student audience left in a sad mood without any direction about what they could do. While I am all for alerting students to how the world can sometimes be a mean place, I thought that Americans need to hear some effective stories of success before they will become active about the future of North Korean citizens.

The picnic the following day was more cheerful but rightfully focused on their hard times. Several of the defectors, or political refugees, had left spouses and parents behind in North Korea and found it very difficult adjusting to South Korea life. I talked with each of them, usually via an interpreter, but was not that comfortable consistently asking “what is it like to do this or that?” I exchanged business cards with them and planned on visiting them since I would be in Seoul for the 2013-2014 academic year. These five cards were to become very important in my journey to understand Korean unification but I have still not yet met with them.

During their visit, I learned more about North Korea’s food shortage and their efforts to grow food near their housing and their picking grasses and other leafy plants for salad from public areas. One American professor talked about his efforts to improve their food production by improved management of their soil which has been eroded, over-used and is tired. In addition to improving agricultural practices on the large collective farms in North Korea, his working with North Korean scientists on a specific project in farming exposed them to the outside world. The techniques learned are now being applied to improve agricultural production. I remember thinking “now that is a good idea—actually doing something that could improve normal people’s lives.”

    Fall 2013 in Seoul

After the summer session at Chonnam National University, I relocated to Seoul to be a visiting professor at Ewha Womans University– a position that Kim, my former student and long-time friend, arranged. Although I was to teach a course on “Democracy” and “Education Policy,” for which I was not required to know Korean history, during August and September I read several books about Korean history and culture. Like many non-Koreans I wondered why Korea had not unified since the end of the Korean War in 1953, or in the 1970s, or in the late 1990s. Among the books I read were Bruce Cummings, KOREA’S PLACE IN THE SUN and Wan Bom Lee’s KOREAN HISTORY 1945-1948. The academician in me recognized the ironies of history that the division of Korea was an unplanned bureaucratic decision that rigidified over time and that the Clinton Administration was too slow to push for unification in the waning days of his second term because the contested Bush-Gore election in 2000.

A newspaper interview with Bruce Cummings revealed that he was a controversial figure who was often interpreted as saying that the South initiated what came to be the Korean War. His two volume work was reduced to a few sentences by the media but also by several academics whom I asked about Cummings.

English-speaking Korean media devoted many stories to two human interest stories: the cancellation by North Korea of meetings of family members that had been separated by the Korean War and tensions between Japan and Korea concerning the long historical debates about comfort women and Dokto Island. Inter-Korean relations are often mentioned in the news but usually as a security issue or at a general level. There may be an implicit notion of “unification” but unless there has been a specific proposal or high level speech, it is more likely “stalled six-party talks” or “North Korean provocations” will be mentioned.

The first educational conference I attend in Seoul was the UN’s Council of Inquiry on “North Korea Human Rights violation” held at Seoul’s Lotte Hotel. For me, the conference was narrowly focused on documenting the existence of human rights abuses and violations by the North Korean regime rather than discussing what could be done to solve the problem. Perhaps this was necessary from a legalistic-diplomatic point of view but it seemed rather moot if considering practical actions that could be taken would be delayed for at least another couple years.

In September, the Asan Institute held a two day conference on “the Future of North Korea” attended by academic and think tank researchers from around the world. It was clear the most of the audience knew one another. The collapse (rather than the development or, or policy towards) of North Korea seemed to be the primary interest. The presenters appeared to be quite knowledgeable and familiar with one and (2) most of the attendees were familiar with one another, some knew each other for over 25 years. It also seemed they were making the same familiar arguments to one another.

One new topic I learned a lot about at this conference was the illegal activities, (e.g. drug manufacturing and currency counterfeiting) that the North Korean regime had been using to provide hard currency and to circumvent economic sanctions. The tenor of that day was to tighten sanctions, to increase financial monitoring, and to hit NK where it hurt—the domestic economy. It was clear to me that this was an old issue and one of a recurring professional interest of several speakers. It was approached largely as a legal and strategic topic with little mention of the potential impact on North Korean citizens.

“Applying pressure on North Korea” via economic sanctions or UN resolutions seemed rather in effective to me. Somehow, the North Korean regime has been very able to survive while the East Europe communist rulers were not. North Korea is isolated and insulated but it is hard to imagine that more economic and legal sanctions will start working in 2014 when they apparently have not yet.
There was some discussion of the economic benefits and conflicts of Korean unification and I distinctly recall someone mentioning that Korean business interests had a great deal to gain from unification. I sensed that many of the researchers at the conference were part of “the international relations community” that knew official diplomats, DC establishment people, and business executives. I bought Jonathan Pollack’s NO EXIT specifically because of the Asan Institute conference and the academic in me appreciated his analysis of the complexity of the current constellation of Asian diplomatic interests. On the other hand, my instincts kept thinking “grow grass roots and lives will be improved, sooner-or-later information technology will give North Koreans access to the outside world.”

The pragmatist in me returned to two ideas: 1) maybe the focus of inter-Korean relations should be on “normalization” not unification, and 2) the international community should propose that China offer to provide rail service through North Korea to the East Sea inviting North Korea to use it to develop their own economy. In the meantime, non-governmental organizations should educate farmers, provide information services, and help North Koreans improve their health. I don’t know what to do about North Korea’s nuclear material but I suspect it will remain unless, and until, North Korean officials feel secure one way or another.
In October, I was considering contacting the five defectors whose business cards I had and whose information websites I often visited. If I had known of an interpreter I would have contacted the defectors. I figured that contacting them would be a one-time visit unless it went extremely well.

My Korean language teacher while I was in Columbia had told me about a group which was a South Korean network to help women who had defected from North Korea adjust to their new homes. She arranged for me to meet the executive director. Because she did not speak English well, she arranged for the group’s attorney to accompany her to our meeting. The executive director gave me their brochure showing their motto as “Harmony of peace and mutual understanding.”

The brochure stated the group’s purpose as “We pursue people-centered unification instead of the regime and ideology based framework . . . We attempt to create a female-based peaceful unification through dialogues, not through unilateral declaration.”
The feminist angle was fine with me. The diplomatic circles seem to be all men and I teach at a women’s university so I was not put off that an organization was focused on developing North and South Korean women’s personal networks. I believe in active citizenship where citizens are involved in their communities, schools, neighborhoods, work organizations, etc. The stark statement in the group’s brochure of creating peaceful unification “through dialogue, not unilateral declaration” caught my attention.
I told the executive director and the attorney about the two conference about North Korea that I had attended and showed them the business cards of the five defectors I had met in Missouri the previous April. We talked briefly about their organizations, including Radio Free Chosun, Open Radio for North Korea, and Daily NK. I mentioned that I periodically checked their websites for news, that I enjoyed meeting them and that I might try to visit them this year.

Somewhere during our pleasant conversation about her group and ways to further integration of North and South Korea, the executive director said to me abruptly, “you must be conservative.” I remember feeling confused and thinking “Where did that come from?” I asked what she meant and we reviewed recent Korean history that included words like “trust,” “hard liners,” “grass roots,” and “President Park Guen-hye’s approach.” I was keenly aware that talking about unification was a complicated topic with a long history and I knew that did not understand enough to make sense of these terms and concepts.

A few days later strictly by chance, I noticed a book at Kyobo bookstore titled ONE KOREA: A PROPOSAL FOR PEACE written by a Shepherd Iverson, a political science professor at Inha University in Incheon. It was rather pricey (more than twice my “buy it on a whim” threshold) but contained a forward by Andrei Lankov, a respected North Korea expert who I had seen in person and in the media. Because I had no organized academic introduction to the topic of Korean unification, I bought the book. I enjoyed it so much that I emailed the author a short note. A few weeks later he asked me to write a review on Amazon. I declined saying “I learned a great deal, but to be honest, I don’t know enough about the subject to agree or disagree.”

Iverson’s argument is that rather than just focusing on Kim Jong-un, unification advocates should focus on the military and economic elites around him. Iverson proposes creating a Korean Peace Fund (of about $300 billion) that would be used to motivate these elites to change their behavior and to work for unification. While it would all depend on how the Fund is administered, this idea is appealing: it would deactivate the ruling elite of North Korea, induce an economic stimulus into North Korea, and convert Kim Jong-un into a transformational leader. I would add a second phase to the Fund to be awarded to NGOs around the world for creating North Korean counterparts who work with citizens to improve their lives.

A few weeks later I met the group’s attorney for dinner to continue our discussion. She had invited her husband, a professor to join us. The attorney and I recounted the conversation about NGOs in Korea and the executive director’s use of the word “conservative” I sensed that she was aware that I was surprised and confused with the executive director’s comment about “being conservative.” I showed the husband the business cards of the North Korea defectors. He looked at them carefully and initiated what turn out to be a riveting discussion of NGOs, government regimes, individual action, and social change. I remember thinking this was similar to the best graduate seminar I had participated in—three people thinking and trying to communicate their ideas about a specific problem. After a while, perhaps an hour, he arranged the business cards of the North Korean defectors in one column on the table with one above the other. He said, “These organizations all are have the same ideology—they are highly critical of the North Korea regime and their top goal is to bring it down.” He used his hand to visually show another column, continuing, “but there is another perspective—that many NGOs have and that is to try to help the North Korean people have better lives and to become politically involved in their country.”

Ah, this was becoming clearer: Korean conservatives want to use the power of their government to bring down the North Korean regime and liberals want to organize grass roots efforts to care for North Koreans and enable them to become more involved in their own lives. What about “human rights?” I thought. I now suspect that it go both ways. Often it is used as a rhetorical tool by conservatives to delegitimize the North Korea regime without really addressing the underlying condition of the North Korean people. Regardless of ideological perspective, helping North Koreans certainly requires ending abuse, repression, and starvation.
My new realization of the different perspectives for viewing South Korean attitudes about how to deal with the North in 2014 allowed me to better understand debates I have heard about economic sanctions: economic sanctions may be justified for furthering regime change even if inflicting a good deal of human suffering.

Over the semester break I discovered and was fascinated with Suzy Kim, EVERYDAY LIFE IN THE NORTH KOREAN REVOLUTION, and 1945-1950. (Cornell, 2013). Kim focuses on the local community in North Korea during these pivotal years describing their breath and depth of community involvement. While I wish Kim wrote a South Korean focused volume 2, this book describes vibrant grass roots that make up everyday life and that should be the focus of community and social development in a growing democracy.
Spring 2014

Much of my education about Korea has been from visiting museums, taking language and culture courses, attending music events, and listening to public lectures that I become aware of. On March 11, I attended the meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society to hear a speaker from something called LINK (Liberty in North Korea) talk about “Accelerating Change from the Bottom Up” who described the current state of North Korea through the eyes of recent defectors. I had not previously heard of LINK but I appreciated the approach taken by the speaker. He argued that change in North Korea was slow and that its continuation was inevitable but could be helped along by active NGOs. He said that ideological erosion and bureaucratic corruption were widespread and weakened the legitimacy and autocratic power of the regime. Furthermore, North Koreans are quite knowledgeable about recent economic and political developments in China. The pivotal change in North Korea, he argued, was the emergence of networks and markets because of the failure of the official food supply.

This approach was appealing to me and similar to what I believe is the importance of social capital and community networks. People tend to be joiners, although those in regulated societies are less likely to be so. Grass roots community development activates and empowers citizens. Additionally, I thought, this approach is fundamentally conservative—it is pro-free market and sees society focused on achieving political freedom from individual action.

On March 29, 2014 President Park Geun-hye gave a much anticipated speech in Dresden, Germany detailing her proposal toward Korean unification. The speech was broadcast in Korea on a Friday evening and I heard it through a television interpreter. She had previously said that unification would be a “bonanza” (sometimes it was “jackpot”) but it was not clear how it would be achieved or what programs and spending would be required. In Dresden, she mentioned had three themes—humanity, co-prosperity, and integration and proposed specific programs of joint economic development projects, a Northeast Asia Development Bank, and education and cultural exchanges. My impression was that Park’s speech was well-received but I do not know if these were new ideas nor how important they were for Park, the National Assembly, and other Korean leaders. Further, I do not know who the intended audience for her speech was. I have heard several times that she was really speaking to South Koreans to relieve concern about the high cost of unification given the benefits.

In early April, I met a new lawyer involved with a NGO promoting the North Korea Human Rights Act, a law signed by President George Bush in 2004. During our conversation I sensed that her group opposed grass roots NGOs trying to develop North Korea in favor of the “international sanctions for human rights violations.” I was surprised that she was so adamant, saying, “focus on the regime.” Later she told me that she aspired to be a member of the National Assembly for the Saenuri Party (the majority party in 2014, which is considered “conservative.”)

Every afternoon between 1:00 and 2:00 the NGO displayed signs at a popular Seoul intersection proclaiming, I am told,: “The U.S. passed the North Korea Human Rights Act, Japan passed the North Korea Human Rights Act, it is time for South Korea to pass the North Korea Human Rights Act.” After lunch we walked to her protest location and she caught me off guard when she asked “Can I take a photo of you holding the sign?” I said “Sure.” That afternoon it was on Facebook. I had been careful to avoid any political activities this year and would have preferred not to have been photographed.

I had not heard of the U.S. North Korea Human Rights Act at the time but have since read about. In 2004, it authorized $24 million to support refugees from North Korea. It has been reauthorized until 2017 with funding reduced to $2 million (so it is rather tiny) but now includes a provision calling on China not to repatriate North Koreans in the process of defecting.
Again, the timing of my education about North Korea was perfect. On April 24th, I heard Robert King, the United States special envoy for North Korean Human Rights Issues give a lecture at Ewha Womans University. I was, however, disappointed. He repeated the frequent change that North Korea is the worst place on Earth and reviewed the progress of the UN’s Commission of Inquiry that recently filed its report. Most disappointedly, however, was his response to a Ewha student who asked, “Has anything changed? Are there any signs of improvement?” He answered in a flippant way, “No, not that I can think of.”

Also in April, I attended another Asan Institute program, probably my seventh of the year, this time a two-day conference on “The Future History” that focused on China, South Korea, and the United States and even Japan much more than it mentioned North Korea. Participants and speakers at this conference seemed to be like many I have seen this year: academicians and international relations establishment folks. I attended a workshop on “North Korea Human Rights” where the emphasis of the moderator was clear. He said, “The UN Commission of Inquiry is the best shot we have to do something involving North Korea in years. We need to put China on record: does it support human rights or not?”

In April, I heard a public presentation by a staffer from the Chosun Exchange http://www.chosonexchange.org/ and NGO based in Singapore that organized small workshops in North Korea about marketing, financial, and general business practices. Their goal was to expand North Korea’s free market thinking so as to increase the potential for them to become more active citizens. The speaker was met with a good deal of skepticism with one audience member telling him that he was wasting his time and that the North Korean regime needed to be replaced. As I had sensed with many speakers, audiences of public speakers seemed to be divided between “replace the regime” and “grow the roots” perspectives.

I discovered a CRS report by Mark Many in and Mary Beth Nikitin “Foreign Assistance to North Korea” that reviews U.S. aid for food, energy, and denuclearization over the past 20 years. There are starts-and-stops due to diplomatic interruptions relating to nuclear weapons development. The report identifies four NGOS (Mercy Corps, the Eugene Bell Foundation, Global Resources, and Samaritan’s Purse) that received U.S. foreign aid during the Bush Administration to improve medical facilities and energy and food supplies. Congressional restrictions have restricted federal aid because of North Korea nuclear development.

The Sweol ferry tragedy of April 16 continues to dampen the national mood with potential consequences for the upcoming June 4 local election (I wrote a TRIBUNE op ed about this). Similar to how unification and engagement is discussed, the media and Korean’s reactions often have a political tone: some citizens are quick to blame President Park and the government for not reacting quickly enough while others criticize protests groups for taking advantage of the tragedy for political purposes.
On May 13, while visiting the Seoul Public Library to look for a book about China, I happened upon Chung-In Moon’s THE SUNSHINE POLICY: IN DEFENSE OF ENGAGEMENT AS A PATH TO PEACE IN KOREA. I have only skimmed parts of the book so far, but I expect this book will be very helpful on at least two counts. First, Chung-in describes different models of unification. His “absorption” model is similar to the East German case and seems to be the implicit model when unification is mentioned. Secondly, “engagement” with North Korea, aka the Sunshine Policy, may be so closely associated with Kim Dae-jung that the whole topic ion Inter-Korean relations has underlying political predispositions.

On May 26, the Asian Business Daily, the University of Missouri and several other organizations co-sponsored the Seoul Asian Finance Forum at the Lotte Hotel. This forum focused on the likelihood of unification and its financial aspects, i.e. how much would it costs, who will pay? Overall, the prepared speakers were thoughtful and realistic but the program should have included someone an explicit discussion of models of unification. One speaker cautioned about using East Germany as an analogy because their income gap was far less than between the Koreas and they had more direct contact prior to 1989.

Several times speakers from the finance and insurance industries made comments that suggested their model of unification was “all North Koreas will buy our stuff so we should be prepared to make profits but the government should accept all the risks.” Some speakers referenced President Park’s “unification as a bonanza” theme. I heard “unification as a growth engine” several times.
One of the speakers said that several years ago a Korean official proposed that South Korea enact a “unification tax” to establish a fund to prepare for bearing the cost of unification. This, not surprisingly, turned out to be very unpopular. This lesson nay be one reason the focus in 2014 seems to be on the positive aspects of unification. Several speakers mentioned that President Park has proposed establishing a “development bank” that could fund, through bonds, North Korea infrastructure development and the bonds would be retired through the sale of North Korea resources.

During the year, several times I have thought “why everyone is so sure that North Korea wants to unify”—that thought was recurring several times during these speakers.

One of the keynote speakers was my new-University of Missouri colleague, whom I had not yet met. I recognized and appreciated her political scientist perspective. Her unique points were:
1) Planning for a “big bang” re-unification versus a “gradualist” unification,

2) Asking what is a unified Korea going to do with the North Korean military and internal security apparatus? (and I would add: what are they going to do with US commitments and strategic military bases), and

3) Explaining how the North Korean “criminal economy” makes re-unification much more difficult because the potential North Korean losers may well be powerful organized crime interests.

A few days later we met for coffee and I learned that she is quite knowledgeable about North Korea’s organized crime. She has met several of the experts whom I had heard back in September make the case for “North Korea as an organized criminal.” I have since read some of her work documenting the growth of networks for drug manufacturing and distribution and for currency counterfeiting.

The Sweol ferry tragedy of April 16 continues to dampen the national mood with potential consequences for the upcoming June 4 local election (I wrote a TRIBUNE op ed about this). Similar to how unification and engagement is discussed, the media and Korean’s reactions often have a political tone: some citizens are quick to blame President Park and the government for not reacting quickly enough while others criticize protests groups for taking advantage of the tragedy for political purposes.

    Concerns and Conclusions

My year of exploring how Korean unification is perceived has come full circle returning to the state of North Korea and the likelihood of major steps toward reunification. I have two concerns and three major projections based on how the topic has been discussed.

Concern #1.

I am not able to discern the opinion leader sentiment about inter-Korean relations because most audiences are a narrow segment of the Korean population. All one has to do is to look at the audiences for most of the speakers and programs I have attended and see that they are not representative of different perspectives and interests. There are not grass roots NGO folks at Asan Institute programs (although there were non-profit research organizations).

    Concern #2.

Certainly even with less at stake than all of Korea, I am rather impatient about unification progress to date given the amount of global attention and resources it has received. North Korea has a population of 24 million, about two-thirds of the state of California, yet it has dictated, and sometimes paralyzed, Asian affairs for almost 70 years. Looking at the map of Northeast Asia raises my concern South Korea could be isolated. The border between North Korea and China is long with a great deal of North Korean resources and economic activity is developing in that northwest area. If those two countries “normalize” economic and social relations, South Korea could be isolated. In that light, South Korea should care for their relationship with Japan and other allies. I have never heard this concern mentioned in the conferences I attended.

I have three major conjectures about which I wish I could ask knowledgeable Korean leaders and researchers.
1. There appear to be a morass of conflicting economic and ideological interests that will prevent much ROK-US movement toward establishing more ties with North Korea. In the past 70 years the current stalemate has produced many political careers, economic successes, and domestic implications that are now quite stable and settled. Unification would be a shock to many actors. At a minimum there is a policy inertia that is unlikely to result in unification.

2. North Korea is not going to give up its nuclear capacity via the “Six-Party Talks.” There is “no exit” on this issue. The North Korea regime will only de-nuclearize when it is secure. Perhaps it will achieve a sense of security in an alliance with China but it is unlikely the U.S.-ROK-Japan will let that happen.

3. The UN Commission of Inquiry is not going to achieve much—it appears to be an academic and legalistic exercise. Ultimately, regime change will come from grass roots development. When there are economic markets, easy access to international information, and neighborhood networks then change at the top is more likely.

As a U.S. citizen, I propose that the U.S. take a new approach in leading the effort to improve the security and welfare of North and South Koreans. Namely, normalization not unification should be the goal. The U.S. North Korean Human Rights Act should be more fully funded and implemented to encourage NGOs and appropriate government education to assist in the development of all information, social, health, education, economic, and agricultural resources in North Korea. If unification in one form or another occurs someday the world would be a happier and safer place; until then the welfare of North Koreans can be enhanced by building their social infrastructure. While it is likely that U.S. policy concerning humanitarian and development policy will be consistent with that of South Korea, the U.S. should encourage many counties and NGOs to assist in the development of social capital in North Korea.

Contrary to my expectations in April 2013, I never did contact the five North Korea defectors whose business cards I have but I have thought of them. While they may represent “conservative regime change interests” they are really grass roots activists who can help LINK, other NGOs, and governmental agencies continue and expand their efforts at supporting the growth of social capital of North Korea.
Speech by Bill Richardson, “Searching for Peace With North Korea” Asia Society, July 7, 2013
1. What should be our goal? He says “denuclearize NK and get them back to the negotiating table?”
2. What are they up to?
With Don Gregg, CIA, now Pacific Century Institute

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