South Koreans seek pragmatic change in North

Korea 2007

By Elizabeth Sullivan

June 09, 2009

Published in The Plain Dealer

Seoul, South Korea -- South Korea's pragmatism has a distinctly can-do American aura.

Need a world-class airport? Build one on an artificial island! Need new highways to ferry the hundreds of thousands of tons of extra food and fertilizer into North Korea? Sacrifice the farmland and shift government funds so the construction boom proceeds apace.

Yet pragmatism in this tiny land amid giants like China and Russia has decidedly non-American tendencies when it comes to a calculated foreign policy.

The Iraqi example of sudden regime change via overthrow and war is far from Seoul's ideal template for how to unite peaceably with North Korea.

South Koreans eschew hasty moves that fail to take recent history into account.

The violence that attended the final phase of Vietnam's reunification and the social costs of the sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall in Germany are the two big no-nos.

"We hope to avoid the Vietnam model of reunification, and also the German model," South Korean Unifica tion Minister Lee Jae- jung told a group of U.S. journalists visit ing on a recent Gate keeper Editors' trip sponsored by the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins University.

Instead, the South is aiming for drawn-out efforts with the dictatorial North "to understand each other," Lee said, and to reconcile economies that are mismatched by a factor of 30-to-1.

Pieces of DMZ barbed wire are for sale in South Korean gift shops, yet there is no apparent frenzied desire here to tear down the wall, as in Berlin two decades ago.

With competition increasing for good-paying jobs, some young people even ask if togetherness is worth it, at any cost.

"I don't want unification, really," said Kim Hyung-jin, a 22-year-old South Korean business major, during a college students forum with the Gatekeepers' group. "The old generation -- they have families in the North," he said, "while the young generation -- we just view North Korea as a foreign country."

Kim's view is far from the norm, however. Most South Koreans favor reconciliation.

That includes virtually the entire field of presidential wannabes vying in Dec. 19 elections.

Former South Korean President Kim Dae Jung argues that the payoff is coming for the Sunshine poli cies he inaugurated more than seven years ago that led to two North-South summits -- one when he was president in 2000 and one just last month.

"Now, we are ready to move to a new era of reconciliation," Kim said at an impromptu news conference in his out-of-the-way presidential library in a residential Seoul neighborhood.

South Korea is using what former President Kim calls package diplomacy -- food and fertilizer boxed in small crates labeled as coming from South Korea that circulate "by the hundreds of millions" throughout the north.

At the same time, the country's huge corporate "chaebol" business groups allied with the government seek to emulate the economic assimilation practiced by Hong Kong businesses that invested in special economic zones in China two decades ago.

Jang Whan-bin, senior vice president for international business of Hyundai Asan, the South's major corporate investor in North Korea, lived in Hong Kong from 1995 to 1998.

"Our future vision" is to turn the new industrial zone of Kaesong just across the DMZ from Seoul into a growth engine similar to Shenzhen in China, he said.