Fare Thee Well, Unification Ministry?
Lee Myung Bak has officially unveiled his plans to axe the Ministry of Unification, along with 5 other ministries. New York Times runs with the headline “South Korea’s Sunshine Policy Dims” and I think that’s an apt description of the policy change that’s just around the corner. Of course, the Ministry of Unification was the agency that spearheaded reconciliation initiatives, and was often accused by conservatives as being too lenient with the North. According to the New York Times, neither the Ministry of Unification nor the North Korean government have made an official comments on the matter, though the Times notes:
…analysts here said it was likely to react harshly, further complicating six-nation talks on ending its nuclear weapons programs.
Lee Myung Bak has made closer cooperation with the United States a central plank in his foreign policy. According to the Times, some analysts see the move to shut down the Ministry of Unification as part of his plan to appease the US, as previous attempts to coddle the North generated “friction” with Washington. Now, before any one gets all misty-eyed, remember: Lee’s plan is subject to approval by the Liberal-dominated National Assembly, who see closer relations with the North as an important part of their ideology. No doubt a contentious battle is about to be waged, and Lee Myung Bak faces an important test of his political skills.
So, what will happen to cross-border communications if Lee can pull this off? The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade will take up the duties of the Unification Ministry. Simply put North Korea will treated like a regular country. Meanwhile, the Hankyoreh has the liberal perspective on things in an editorial written by Yang Mu-jin, affliliated with the Graduate School of North Korean Studies at Kyungnam University. While Yang acknowledges the need for closer relations with the U.S., and acknowledges problems associated with gift giving to and coddling of Pyongyang, Yang notes that North Korea is not just another country. Yang opens by playing the old “single race” card:
First of all, inter-Korean relations and foreign relations are inherently different. Inter-Korean relations are at the same time an issue for a single race of people and an issue for the international community. The South and the North are in a very unique relationship as they manage the status quo while pursuing unification.
He also invokes the old “if we go forward with this, the foreigners are gonna interfere in our affairs” plea:
If inter-Korean relations become intertwined with foreign relations, the national interest will likely be damaged and its status will become weaker in foreign relations as well as inter-Korean relations. If Korea loses its leverage because of a negative turn in inter-Korean relations, it will weaken the nation’s voice in the diplomatic arena. If the two Koreas cannot lead efforts to solve the problems on the Korean Peninsula, the international community will intervene and consequentially, our problems will be out of our hands.
Finally, Yang notes that the advantage of the Unification Ministry is that it is staffed by North Korea experts, and not just regular civil servants:
The argument that reducing or doing away with the Unification Ministry would be more efficient and functional also makes no sense. This is a ministry full of “experts” who have handled inter-Korean relations for the past 40 years.