On September 22, North Korean border guards killed a 47-year-old worker from South Korea’s Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries. The South Korean government responded by immediately calling for a re-start of inter-Korean talks to begin joint projects, with Moon Chung-in, one of the president’s key advisors, suggesting an inter-Korean summit was necessary. President Moon Jae-in himself stated that the shooting provided an “opportunity for dialogue and cooperation.”
The Moon government’s constant push for dialogue with North Korea should not be surprising. His maneuvering represents South Korea’s attempt to fulfill a 40-year-old plan for economic cooperation and eventual unification.
From Chun Doo-hwan to Moon Jae-in, South Korean presidents have all proposed similar unification formulas. The formulas have attempted to trigger inter-Korean dialogue, economic cooperation, the formation of a joint community and eventual unification.
Despite claims that Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy presented the beginning of economic and peace overtures in inter-Korean relations, proposals began earlier. In 1981, Chun Doo-hwan introduced an inter-Korean plan introducing an approach to create trust, prevent another fratricidal war, and pave the way for peaceful unification through the unconditional resumption of dialogue. This initially fell on deaf ears in Pyongyang. Nevertheless, on January 12, 1982, Chun introduced the Formula for National Reconciliation and Democratic Unification in an effort to induce North Koreans to join high-level dialogue.
Chun’s administration was also the first to publicly propose an inter-Korean summit; a Seoul-Pyongyang highway; a joint South-North tourist zone that saw the linking of Mount Kumgang and Mount Seorak; the opening of harbors in both Koreas to aid free trade; and the idea of sending joint teams to the Olympics. Roh Tae-woo followed Chun by proposing an inter-Korean league; stating that he was ready to make pre-emptive concessions to Pyongyang; and advocating that North Korea be depicted as a partner rather than a mortal enemy. These were not prompted by grassroots movements or by a unique progressive ideology. Instead, inter-Korean relations were, and remain, elite-driven, with only sporadic interest from the South Korean public.
In October 1988, the Roh government pledged to present a feasible plan to peacefully unify the Korean Peninsula. Lee Hong-koo, the former unification minister, announced the Unification Plan for One National Community. Lee’s plan was based on three principles – independence, peace and democracy – and called for the creation of a Korean Commonwealth as a transitional stage for an eventual democratic republic. By September 1989, Roh had introduced the Unification Plan of the Korean People’s Community.
Roh’s plan announced a shift in South Korea’s relations with North Korea. Seoul now recognized Pyongyang’s political system, and would also pursue coexistence and common prosperity (meaning economic projects and slow integration) as the interim stage of an eventual unification.
The Formula for Success
In 1994, Kim Young-sam introduced a new unification formula – the Korean National Community Unification Formula – that was similar to Roh’s. Unification was envisioned as occurring in three stages. First, the Koreas would recognize each other as separate states and engage in exchanges and cooperation, resulting in coexistence and co-prosperity. The second stage would see a South-North Union in which the two country’s systems, and governments, would co-exist. The final stage would be unification, in which a unified constitution would be introduced with the creation of a single government with democratic freedoms.
Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun sought similar processes to prompt integration. In particular, they attempted to engage in exchanges and cooperation, which led to joint economic projects like the Kaesong Industrial Complex and the opening of the Mount Kumgang Tourist Zone, and inter-Korean summits being held in 2000 and 2007. Nonetheless, neither leader was able to institutionalize dialogue, and some have accused Kim Dae-jung of enticing North Korea to meetings through a cash-for-summit deal.
Conservatives also adhere to the unification formula. Lee Myung-bak, who has been labelled hardline and anti-communist, initially responded to North Korea sinking the ROKS Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 with a series of new sanctions known as the May 24 Measures. However, by the end of 2010, Lee began to talk “as though reunification of the peninsula was not far off and of the need for a ‘reunification tax…’ [By early 2011] the ROK was apparently still willing to discuss the possibility of a further summit.” Park Geun-hye also attempted to bring peace and unification through the Trust-Building Process on the Korean Peninsula. Despite these efforts, Lee and Park also failed to encourage North Korea to engage in high-level dialogue, and by 2016 most inter-Korean economic projects had ceased operations.
Moon Jae-in’s Push to Realize the Formula
Moon Jae-in has steadfastly tried to institutionalize the well-tried three-stage formula. After Moon entered the Blue House, the Ministry of Unification emphasized the idea of the “3 Noes” – no desire for North Korea to collapse, no pursuit of unification via absorption and no pursuit of unification via artificial means. The 3 Noes are in line with the key principles of the Korean National Community Unification Formula, which the Ministry of Unification notes has been adopted by former administrations of South Korea dating back to 1989. Moon’s formula is also based on the idea of a step-by-step unification consisting of three phases: reconciliation and cooperation, a phase of Korean Commonwealth and finally a unified Korean nation-state with one political system.
The formula for interacting with North Korea has undoubtedly evolved since the embryonic idea was introduced by Chun Doo-hwan in 1981. Summits have been held, inter-Korean projects have been initiated and limited military dialogue has taken place.
However, the key concepts have remained stagnant. All South Korean elites advocate dialogue and eventual economic cooperation with North Korea. This is true for both conservatives and progressives. South Korean progressives are usually more ambitious with their plans, promoting epochal shifts where “new maps” are drawn allowing South Korea to benefit from reaching the Asian mainland. A major charge against conservative elites, meanwhile, is being unrealistic and deliberately crafting policies that will be unsatisfactory to the Pyongyang regime. For example, Lee Myung-bak’s Vision 3000 is commonly viewed as a drastic shift in policy that did not have the “slightest chance of being accepted by the North,” due to being premised on North Korea’s denuclearization. I would argue that if Lee’s policy had no chance, then neither have any of the policies implemented since the early 2000s. Roh Moo-hyun, Lee Myung-bak, Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in have all explicitly stated that economic interactions, especially integration, will only occur if North Korea denuclearizes. North Korea does not appear interested in denuclearizing, making the formula fairly unsuccessful.
Inter-Korean relations have, sadly, not been a success story. Despite numerous rounds of economic talks, five inter-Korean summits and the signing of countless agreements, South Korea’s formula to entice change in North Korea has failed. Despite this failure, Korean leaders have continually sought to achieve the three-step unification formula.
It should not be surprising then, that Moon attempted to re-start dialogue with North Korea almost immediately after a South Korean was shot to death by North Korean border guards and after North Korea unveiled multiple new weapons systems at a military parade on October 10. No South Korean president in the last 38 years has ever trodden outside the elite preference to interact with North Korea using the Korean National Community Unification Formula. The tried and tested approach has not resulted in successes. Perhaps it is time to turn to a new approach on the Korean Peninsula. However, finding a leader to initiate these changes may be more difficult in a country with a clear state preference.
Dylan Stent is a Korea Foundation Graduate Studies Scholarship recipient and currently a Ph.D. candidate at Victoria University of Wellington. His study looks at the development of a unification consensus among South Korean elites when crafting inter-Korean policy in the democratic era.