Koreans’ quest for reconciliation

In a gesture of friendship, South Korean President Moon Jae-in hosted a luncheon for Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un after the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It was the most significant diplomatic encounter between the two Koreas in many years.

Their meeting was preceded by another event, when dignitaries from around the world assembled at the Olympic Stadium’s VIP box. In the box sat twelve world leaders and their spouses, who included U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, North Korea’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, and Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister. The presence of Ms. Kim signals a thawing of tensions between the two Koreas.

Interestingly, Pence who was seated on the front row with his wife Karen to his right, was just a few feet away from Kim Yo-jong who was seated on the second row right behind Mrs. Pence, an arm’s length away from Pence. It was reported in the news that Pence seemed to have made no effort to acknowledge her. It’s interesting to note that by not acknowledging her presence, it is considered a “snub” – an insult in Asian cultures. It certainly would have earned Pence – and by extension, the United States – some respect had he simply nodded to acknowledge her presence. It was a diplomatic faux pas, which Pence could have avoided with a smile. But as it turned out, he coldly ignored her and watched the entire show with a stiff neck.

Missed opportunity

What could have been a great opportunity to start a new chapter in U.S.-North Korea relations, Pence’s seemingly arrogant stance had doused any prospect to jump start bilateral talks between the two countries… or even better, a trilateral negotiation including South Korea. It could also open the door for the inclusion of China in future talks, particularly the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. But to convince North Korea to abandon her nuclear program would be an exercise in futility. It would be like telling a little boy to throw his marbles away. No way!

But as North Korea grows up and matures into a more responsible society, the notion of peaceful coexistence between the two Koreas gains viability. But first, the two Koreas must end the state of war that they’re in since the Korean Armistice was signed in 1953.

Korean Reunification

But a final peace agreement has yet to be achieved, not with the current political situation. And for it to evolve into a détente between the two Koreas, they must demonstrate that they’re willing to sit down and discuss the issues that have driven a wedge between them. The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics would have offered that opportunity. For the first time in 65 years, the two nations joined together in an Olympics parade as One Korea. And proudly beaming with a smile, South Korean President Moon seemed to be enjoying playing host. Surely, he is looking at the Winter Olympics as an opportunity to re-establish bilateral talks with North Korea.

Although it’s too soon to talk about reunification without inciting protests from South Korean conservatives who have been critical of the use of the Unification Flag – the timing for such an overture fits perfectly well. The conservatives claimed that the Reunification Flag has undermined South Korea’s “big moment” as host to the Olympics.

Generational loyalty

Incidentally, the conservatives used to be avowedly pro-reunification. However, over the years, their numbers dwindled, which paradoxically is indicative of generational loyalty; that is, younger generations of South Koreans identify themselves distinctly different from North Koreans. To them, the concept of “One Korea” and “shared nationalism” is fading away. As one South Korean think tank researcher said, “The more and more we move to younger generations, the idea that we are one people is disappearing.” A recent survey by RealMeter showed that only four out of 10 South Koreans favored the idea of the two Koreas flying the Unification Flag at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. By contrast, a similar poll conducted in 2002 showed 76% of South Koreans approved of flying the Reunification Flag during the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, South Korea.

While South Korean “nationalism” may be a major factor in blocking any attempt to reunify the two Koreas, “family reunification” has a strong emotional pull in bringing the two Koreas under one government in an open society. It’s hard to imagine how this could be achieved with North Korea ruled by an authoritarian government in a communist society, while South Korea, by contrast, is governed democratically in a capitalistic free market economy. South Korea is one of the richest countries in the world, while North Korea is a pauper state.

Unifying the two Koreas

Politics aside, it would be ideal to unify the two Koreas under the South Korean model simply because the union would have a better chance of thriving. It would bring progress to the lives of 25.6 million North Korean. If unification is to be done under a North Korean government, what do you think would happen to the lives of the 51.1 million South Koreans who would be forcibly integrated into a repressive communist society?

But the problem with unifying the two Koreas under a South Korean government is that China would most likely object to such union. There is just no way that China would agree to letting go of North Korea, which has served as a buffer zone to China’s eastern flank. And with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that North Korea could use to threaten South Korea, Japan, and America’s western periphery, the U.S. nuclear defense umbrella is weakened.

But China’s objection to a unified Korea under a South Korean government is not the only problem. Although the U.S. must appear to favor “One Korea” under a South Korean government, the U.S. could be taking a political risk because once a unified Korea is achieved under a South Korean government, there is no assurance that South Korea’s defense alliance with the U.S. would survive in its current form. Indeed, with the elimination of a North Korean nuclear threat and massive troop invasion, the U.S.-South Korea defense alliance would no longer be as needed as it is today, which means that South Korea would eventually ask the 28,500 American troops to leave. And in the case of China, there would no longer be a need to be adversarial. China had always been trying to maintain friendly bilateral relations with South Korea and if North Korea doesn’t exist anymore, there is no reason why they can’t be friends. After all, China is South Korea’s biggest trading partner. Indeed, China would immensely benefit — politically, economically, and militarily –from a unified Korea

Kim Jong-un’s invitation

During the luncheon hosted by Moon, Kim Yo-jong extended a formal invitation to Moon to visit North Korea. Moon responded by suggesting the two countries “should accomplish this by creating the right conditions,” adding that talks between North Korea and the United States were also needed, and requested that “North Korea be more active in talking with the US.” That was a smart move by Moon. Clearly, Moon still needs the protective nuclear umbrella of Uncle Sam.

If Kim agrees to Moon’s suggestion to bring the U.S. to the negotiating table, then it would open the door to a peaceful resolution of the Korean people’s quest for reconciliation and reunification.