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More on Dresden

Last week, we provided a cautiously positive appraisal of President Park Geun Hye’s Dresden speech. Those sentiments were not shared by either the North Koreans nor a number of colleagues we respect, so we report some other views here.

We argued that while Park did not try to hide her values, she simultaneously acknowledged that “a nation is not made whole again simply by virtue of a reconnected territory or the institution of a single system.” We read this as acknowledging the obvious: that despite the German analogy and all of the rhetoric—some of her own making—“unification” needs to be treated as a very long-run objective. In the meantime, the only way forward was through small-scale steps, in effect the very kind of détente that was at the heart of Brandt’s Ostpolitik. She outlined a series of cooperative measures—humanitarian, with respect to infrastructure and people-to-people exchanges—that would rebuild a shared identity. Moreover, she delinked these steps from progress on the nuclear issue, which was the central barrier to any progress on North-South relations during the Lee Myung Bak administration.

The North Koreans were not buying it, and reverted to some particularly offensive rhetoric (“Her behavior reminds everyone of a spinster wandering to hunt for a “political husband”; “…it is said that if she made public anything against the national interests, she would be shot to death like her father.”). We are so inured to North Korean excesses that it is easy to overlook how deeply misogynist they actually are; The Guardian tracks the recent escalation.

The core North Korean complaint however was straightforward: that “lurking behind her plan is a sinister intention for “unification by absorption”, which will escalate north-south confrontation and war danger and keep national division permanently.” Hankyoreh raised similar concerns in their overview of the speech. In a commentary later in the week, Rodong Sinmun noted that the most reasonable way of reunifying the country is a federal formula which would effectively assure that the Northern system remain intact.

At 38North, Ruediger Frank provides very useful detail on the nuances of the West German analogy. Frank acknowledges that unification was ultimately to the benefit of East Germans and that no other option was possible under the historical circumstances. But his central point is a quite simple and human one: how to speak to North Korea and North Koreans about their historical experience in a way that does not condescend? The problem is that, unlike West German interaction with the East prior to unification, President Park has no direct channel of speaking to North Koreans; at the time that the Berlin Wall fell, about 70 percent of East Germans could watch West German television. President Park can only address her proposals to a leadership which has dynastic interests at stake. And yes, her people-to-people initiatives are arguably subversive. But this was no less true of Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy,” which also initially received a harsh reaction from the North on exactly the same grounds. Pyongyang embraced the sunshine policy precisely as it became clear that it not only posed no challenge to the regime but it didn’t even require modest diplomatic accommodations.

Also at 38North, Aidan Foster-Carter is highly critical as well (Part 1, reviewing past approaches to North-South relations; and Part 2, which goes after the Dresden speech in particular). As with Frank, Foster-Carter’s take is nuanced, acknowledging the incredible headwinds put in the way of progress by Pyongyang during the early months of her presidency. But he then argues that things went wrong when Seoul failed to put family reunions, Kaesong and Kumgang on the table all at once, even though we have no evidence that the North was willing to address the most basic and fundamental issues of security surrounding the Kumgang project let alone the fact that the assets had been confiscated; in a post from the end of January, Scott Snyder at the CFR tells the history through a somewhat more skeptical lens. However, Foster-Carter is right that the burst of talk about unification in the first part of this year seemed devoid of strategy and that issues such as NGO aid were botched when they could have easily provided a less complex place to start than Kumgang. But then why isn’t Dresden read by Foster-Carter as an effort to “reset,” to use a US-Russian analogy?

In an interview at Hankyoreh, Joel Wit offers a long-standing defense of engagement: that any North-South initiatives are doomed unless coordinated with the US. Similar points have been made about the Kim Dae Jung-Roh Moo Hyun era: that the problem was not engagement per se, but the failures of the Bush administration.

Running through the critics is the notion that if we could just get South Korean and US policy right, then a path forward would suddenly open up. It seems to us that the extraordinarily modest ideas put on the table by the Dresden speech may be the best we can do at the moment. The outstanding question is whether the Park administration has actually thought through the next concrete steps and here we agree with Foster-Carter; unfortunately, we are not yet seeing it.

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