03/26/2015 11:33 am ET Updated May 26, 2015

Broadening the Spectrum for Engaging North Korea: Creative Approaches for Making Progress and Final Steps Towards Integration


Read the first, second, third and fourth installments of this series here, here, here and here.

Maintaining dialogue with North Korea, using a variety of communication means, is the critical factor. We must ensure that such dialogue is ongoing and consistent. At all times dialogue should be going on at some level, regardless of the level of tension between the two Koreas. If dialogue becomes permanent, in the long run its scope and depth will inevitably grow. North Korea's mentality will not change overnight by using diplomatic tricks. Such meaningful change requires consistency over time. Eventually, if trust can be built up through this process of continuous dialogue and communication at all levels and times, a platform for resolving outstanding issues will be created.

For that reason, contacts between civilian groups should continue regardless of domestic politics. Such a policy of continuous dialogue would build up trust between the North and South, and could extend to humanitarian, religious, and cultural areas. In the last five years or so, those contacts have been severely constrained by the reaction to the sinking of the Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong. But they still need to be continued.

Religious groups, both Christian and Buddhist, are deeply involved in the humanitarian efforts to help North Korea. That effort has been joined by a range of NGOs as well as overseas Koreans. But we need to do much more. We need cultural exchanges - music concerts and festivals, sports events and educational programs that will break down the walls between the two countries. We need to let civilians be creative in developing exchanges. Right now, every little part of North-South exchanges has to be officially approved by the ROK government. It would be much better to have just a few activities requiring special approval, while most interactions could merely be reported after the fact.

If the North allows its citizens to visit the South, that would improve the relations between the two Koreas. Soccer tournaments and other sports events are an excellent means to encourage exchange, as the recent Asian Games hosted in Incheon showed. Concerts and other musical and artistic events can do much to encourage closer relations. Initially no doubt the North will demand money in return, but that is a reality that we have to accept as we have in the past.

Right now, in my view, the limit imposed by South Korean authorities on travel by our citizens to the North is the easiest problem to solve. We would witness tremendous progress if Seoul would simply change its policy. Our authorities are trying to save face: they think they must hold out for an apology for the North's past actions. But despite the tragedy and sensitivity of the Cheonan incident, what is gained by dwelling on this and waiting for an apology that will never come? There are ways to get the North to offer some words of regret about the incident in general and the casualties. A statement to the effect that such incidents will not happen again could be forthcoming, if we handle the negotiations appropriately.

Returning to the bigger picture: Inter-Korean relations must not go at a snail's pace - the contrast with China-Taiwan relations is painful - nor in fits and starts, as hitherto. We must ensure that we constantly move forward, realizing that the long-term prize we cherish means we cannot afford to suspend talks and engagement, even in cases of provocations like the attack on the Cheonan. We must create an enduring, permanent, parallel track for major non-political pan-national projects, which are the sinews of Korea's future reunification.

Reforestation is a case in point, and an obvious place to start. Making North Korea green again is a vital task which will take decades and require a great deal of expertise and resources. A former Prime Minister, Goh Kun, has been deeply involved in this issue, which has important knock-on effects and linkages to farming and more widely. Restoration of forest cover in the North will combat erosion and help preserve topsoil. While the US focuses on the nuclear issue, our ally will surely understand why we need to advance on a wider front. And we have so much to offer in expertise and technical know-how on environmental issues and agriculture. We have the human resources: the experts who ran South Korea's highly successful agricultural programs and reforestation in 1960s and 1970s. Now retired in their 60s and 70s, these people have the time and will to work on the same problems in the North.

Indeed, our national dish can serve as a bridge between North and South. Currently Seoul imports much of its kimchi from China. Why can't we start bringing it over from the North? We could provide our technology, our know-how, and fertilizer to North Korea to help them while we provide a very solid market to them. We would not have to worry about the problem of pesticides that arises in the case of kimchi from China. Moreover, we could rent the land and thereby introduce some modern agricultural economics to North Korea. Along the way, we could build one or more kimchi factories in the North, thus help them learn how to use advanced technology for kimchi production.

The point is a wider one. If South Korea starts to invest in invigorating North Korean farmland in the same way that we invested in the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), we can make a tremendous contribution. Compared with going to China, it is easier to control quality in North Korea and to produce high-quality kimchi - and other foods - at a low price. Why, in 2014, is it still so hard for us to think along such simple and obviously win-win lines?

Final Steps Towards Integration

Whatever people may speculate, we do not know, and cannot know, exactly when and how Korean unification will come about. All we can do is make preparations to ensure that this would be peaceful, based on mutual respect and acceptance of peaceful coexistence and cooperation. We cannot expect that the North would consider dismantling its nuclear arsenal until they feel that their security is guaranteed and that their prosperity will grow as they demilitarize. We can move towards a higher level of integration later after North Korea reaches a certain level of per capita income: perhaps 70% of South Korea's.

Of course, that process will take time and it will involve conflicts and difficult negotiations. But as we have surely learnt the hard way by now, it would be naïve to assume that the Pyongyang regime will collapse very soon. Besides, a sudden collapse would not be desirable for either side. Hence we need to maintain a progress in dialogue and exchange that will lead eventually to a stage at which the North Korean leadership and people will acknowledge that they will benefit by giving up the military component of their strategy.

Such a task is both long-term and multi-pronged. On a multilateral basis, it could still be that the Six Party Talks might be revived and develop into something more substantial and permanent, that can play a diverse role in encouraging true cooperation in the region. Or maybe some other institution will appear in the future.

But whatever regional or international architecture may emerge, for Koreans the bilateral North-South dimension is always there - or should be. We, and perhaps only we, can help break the current stalemate. Washington has been very consistent in calling for no direct talks with the North until Pyongyang gives concrete assurances that it will seriously pursue denuclearization. We Koreans can bring that day closer, by exercising our prerogative - at the end of the day, this is our country - and our imagination to draw the North into dialogue and win-win cooperation.

Pyongyang's signals are often mixed, and 2014 has seen many ups and downs. But if one reads each side's more positive proposals carefully, there is enough common ground between (say) President Park's Dresden Declaration and the DPRK National Defense Commission's Liberation Day statement to form a basis for concrete progress. We should be bolder in exploring such possibilities. In 1945 no Korean could have imagined that the 'temporary' partition imposed by foreigners would last seven decades. Future generations will not forgive us if, through inertia or fear, we allow this wound to become a permanent.

The author is chairman and CEO of the JoongAng Media Network -- one of South Korea's leading media groups, including the prestigious JoongAng Ilbo daily -- and a former South Korean ambassador to the United States.