Park's Dresden Speech

03/27/2015 05:09 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015

One year ago today, on March 28, 2014, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea delivered what she clearly hoped would be a historic speech in the former East German city of Dresden, calling for reconciliation and reunification of the divided peninsula. Park may have thought she was holding out an olive branch, but her counterpart in North Korea did not see it that way. State media of North Korea derided it using sexist insults while its military threatened another nuclear test and fired artillery across the sea border. A spokesman of the National Defence Commission, arguably the most powerful body within North Korea, memorably condemned it as "daydream of a psychopath."

Why has the outreach failed? One reason may have been the lack of communication. South Koreans reportedly had not informed or consulted the North prior to Park's speech.[1] From the North's point of view, it may well have seemed like announcing an engagement without notifying the fiancée. Park's one-sided approach contrasts sharply with that of former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung, who shared in advance the draft of his "Berlin Declaration" with the North. Park cannot expect the North to take her proposal seriously when they learn about it through news channels.

Another reason has to do with the substance of cooperation on offer, or the lack thereof. Park focused on three concrete examples in her speech: reunion of separated families, building of multi-farming complexes and expansion of cultural exchange. While all of them are worthy initiatives in themselves, they fall far short of the wide-reaching agreements which former president Roh Moo-hyun negotiated with Kim Jong-il in October 2007. Back then the agreement centred on easing tension in the peninsula, by replacing the armistice with a permanent peace treaty and establishing a joint trade zone around the disputed sea border. Unfortunately, Roh's successor Lee Myung-bak chose not to carry them forward -- he forestalled any further negotiation by demanding the North give up its nukes first -- and Park seems in no hurry to take them up either. (Besides, Park's actions do not match her lofty rhetoric. As Aidan Foster-Carter of Leeds University points out, she has yet to take such easy and obvious steps as easing the ban on trade and investment, allowing humanitarian aid by NGOs and resuming tours to Mount Kumgang in the North. )

The third, most profound reason may be symbolic. Dresden was the place where Helmut Kohl, former Chancellor of West Germany, delivered his historic speech on German reunification. By choosing Dresden as her venue, Park signalled that Korean reunification should follow the German path. As she explicitly stated during her joint press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel, "Germany is an example and a model for a peaceful reunification of our own country." This is hardly a comforting message for the North Korean leadership. For them the German model represents not a merger of equals but a "reunification through absorption," a takeover of North Korea by the much larger and more powerful South. While this may be a good prospect for North Koreans over the long run, it also poses an existential threat to the elite in Pyongyang. Erich Honecker, former leader of East Germany, was charged with corruption and put under house arrest shortly after the Berlin Wall fell. Many of his colleagues also lost their jobs and faced trial -- not an exciting precedent for North Korean leaders.

Just to be clear, I am not defending the offensive language or provocative actions of the North by any means. I am simply reiterating common sense that any effective negotiation should start by understanding the needs and fears of the other side. As negotiation expert Stuart Diamond puts it, "You can't persuade people of anything unless you know the pictures in their heads."[2] Regarding North Korea in particular, he sums up their stance this way: "When people feel threatened, they fight back."[3] What this means for the South is that, for any meaningful dialogue to take place, they would first have to demonstrate they are not interested in undermining the regime in the North.

If Park is sincere in her desire to bring about reconciliation -- and I believe she is, despite having lost her mother to an assassin from North Korea -- then she should drop reunification as her policy goal, stated or otherwise. Although reunification is an ideal which most Koreans hold dear, the term could also be interpreted by the North as a code word for regime change. And the North would not be completely wrong about that: there are hawks in the South who prefer "reunification through absorption" to peaceful reconciliation, even if such reunification involves military means. In a revealing example, the former head of South Korea's intelligence agency Nam Jae-jun once told his staff, "Unification is possible in 2015. Let's die together to bring about the unification of our land under liberal democracy!" He was later chastised by Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, who said "it is a little early to be talking about this at present." I prefer Park's administration did not talk about it at all.

For the South, giving up on reunification would be tantamount to acknowledging the legitimacy of dictatorship in the North -- the reason why many South Koreans, especially those with bitter memory of the Korean War, find this idea hard to swallow. But then South Koreans have already normalized relations with the one-party dictatorship in China and the one-man dictatorship in Russia. Why can't they do the same with their brethren in the North? What South Korea needs right now is not some vague ideal of unification but more interaction with the North, namely free movement of people and goods across the border. Guaranteeing (or at least not threatening) the security of the Pyongyang regime through diplomatic recognition and peace treaty would be the most realistic means of achieving that goal. In return the South could demand gradual but verifiable disarmament of nuclear arsenal by the North.

To achieve such a grand bargain, however, South Korean leaders would have to overcome their ideological prejudice and accept the North for what it is. There won't be any lasting peace between the two Koreas unless they learn to treat each other with mutual respect. In the long run, it may represent the only nonviolent course by which the peninsula can be reunited. And what if North Korea successfully reforms itself from within -- say, by following the China model -- but chooses not to integrate itself into South Korea? That would be totally fine. Reunification per se is not the goal. Peace and prosperity on the peninsula is.

[1] J.S. Lee, The Kyunghyang Shinmun, April 3, 2014
[2] Stuart Diamond, Getting More (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2010), p.6
[3] Ibid., p. 354