Tuesday, January 22, 2013

On The Korea Project, Northtalgia, and the DaimlerChrysler Syndrom

Picture yourself in Korea, about 20-25 years after the reunification, and try to imagine what it means, what it takes to get it right.

And please, get John Lennon out of your head: don't "picture yourself in a boat, on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies", and don't "imagine all the people, living for today... imagine there's no countries". Try to be as realistic as possible.

Now in order to be realistic, you not only need to study scenarii for Korea, but for the whole region as well. Even China (especially China?) won't be the same player as the one we're used to today. And how will the much needed* regional truth and reconciliation process have evolved (if it ever begins)? Start with international relations and you're sure to end up with "kaleidoscope eyes"...

Hopefully, IR only came in the third and final phase of The Korean Project. This program led by David C. KANG (Director, USC Korean Studies Institute) and Victor CHA (Chair, Center for Strategic and International Studies Korea)** tackles the strategic challenges towards Korean reunification and beyond, and the first two phases focused on functional aspects (eg education, transitional justice, nation building, health, agriculture, environment, military, law and order...), pooling experts on each issue with experts on North Korea, leveraging experiences from all over the world.

Today, Phase III*** confirmed the difficulties added by international relation challenges to an already utterly daunting and complex task. And each contributor could only give his best shot at what would be the reactions from his own country, reflecting only a fraction of a wide array of mindsets. But precisely, the voices of the moderates could be heard, and the probably utopic compartmentalization (a debate not polluted by pseudo-nationalistic interferences) could happen.

Of course, not all issues could be raised in one day (and I plead guilty for phagocytizing, with my silly remarks, an indecent part of the time devoted to Q and As), but the event hosted by The ASAN Institute was a success, and not only because US Ambassador to Korea Sung KIM said hi, or because there were moments of "Détente" in spite of the tense international context:

"Détente" time at the Asan Institute: The Korea Project Part III with David C. KANG, PAN Zhenqiang, Victor CHA, CHUNG Jae-ho, Evan RAMSTAD (photo © Stephane MOT) 
Chinese opinions on Korean reunification are not that common, and the voice of PAN Zhenqiang, a Retired Major General of the People's Liberation Army, counts a lot. Yes, there were more references to Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zeming than to Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping. Yes, we're still tempted to read between the lines, but all players can be suspected of having their own interpretations, and today, there were more questions about nuances and vocabulary than there are shades of grey: what's your "threshold" to intervene? what does "moving first" mean? what do you mean by "move"? what could trigger/justify/legitimize a movement? what's your definition of involvement/interference/intervention? how do you distinguish "regime collapse" and "state collapse"? what does threatening China's "core interests" mean? "Do you love your mother"? (thank WOO Jung-yeop for that moment of Détente - no reference to any motherland, mind you)

So China feels Korea's pain, "being a divided nation itself". General PAN clearly referred to Taiwan (by the way: "China's formula of "one country, two systems" may have some exemplary value"), but didn't go into the details regarding what Reunited China would cover ultimately. Anyway, China wants "an independent and peaceful unification" for Korea. "Independence" to a certain point: the UN Security Council has a role to play (along with China and its veto rights). And "Peaceful" means not only an absence of conflict but also a clear consensus between both Koreas (the North Korean regime being of course totally independent from Beijing). "Unification" means that Korea was never united before, and thus never an independent entity. And oh: "China is the great stakeholder in the peninsula".

Since General PAN declared that the government followed the mainstream, "serious research community", and didn't condone the more exotic ones, I raised the Northeast Project issue: I'm glad to hear that, but I wish we could hear the mainstream, "serious research community" out loud, if not denouncing the impostures, at least standing for serious records. No answer to that question, but to the question "how mainstream is the view, within China, that Korea shouldn't get reunited if you consider how Vietnam turned its back to China", he answered: "we have a lot of amateur strategic analysts, not to be taken seriously". And as you, Dear Reader, well know, the same could be said about this excuse of a writer, who defines his blogs as "Weapons of Mass Disinformation".

SOEYA Yoshihide spoke very frankly about where Japan stands, the cost of unsolved regional feuds, and the gap between how much Japan could help and what it will probably be allowed to do (beyond serving as an ATM and financial supporter, that is). I renewed my wish that Japan seized the opportunity and led the much needed truth and reconciliation effort across the continent: instead of being cast to the periphery of a region geopolitically redrawn following the reunification, Japan could become the undisputed leader in diplomacy and strengthten its positions at all levels (political, economic, social). The shortest and surest way to become the solution is to stop being the problem but of course, that's not on top of Shinzo Abe's agenda, not his idea of "moving first" or "acting as a leader".

I've already said that Russia is, among the 6 parties, the player who objectively has the best cards to play nowadays. Everybody agrees on the need to improve key bilateral mutual understandings to pave the way for as smooth a transition as possible: South-North, USA-China, Japan-Korea, and that leaves Russia with the opportunity to be the key facilitator, the only (potentially) true win-win-win-win-win-win player. Russia knows well that the political and meteorological climate change can totally boost the Eastern half of its own nation, and that common sense will lead reunited Korea to manage risk by balancing its strategic entry points to the continent between China and Russia.

Unsurprisingly, Alexander VORONTSOV highlighted the importance of railways and pipelines, or the potential of Rason container terminal. But he's also very much concerned about military questions, and insisted on the importance of a potential border issue between Russia and reunited Korea, stating that it would definitely help if South Korea recognized the borders as agreed between Russia and the DPRK well ahead of the reunification.

One should hope Seoul already studied the fine prints in all the treaties between the DPRK and other nations. But one must take into account the fact that the Republic of Korea recognises itself as the only legitimate government in its constitution, that not everybody recognises the DPRK as a nation.

Victor CHA insisted on having everybody's vision about legitimacy and alignment for good reasons. The ROK is very much aware of the precautions needed, but never questions its own legitimacy to lead the reunification effort. The "UN" scenario described by SNU's YOON Young-kwan could be messy indeed. According to him, conservatives would rather follow the German model, and progressives the "Hong Kong SAR" model (step by step, containment to prevent mass migrations). But as WOO Jung-yeop put it: "will we have the luxury to chose a model?", and "we don't know what we want". South Korea cannot lead a reunification effort tomorrow if it can't even reach a consensus on key principles today.

I don't feel comfortable with the way the reunification is presented as the simple integration of the North to the South economy or democracy. As if it were an acquisition and not a merger. We all know this won't be a merger of equals at the demographic or economic level (let's cut the DaimlerChrysler hypocrisy), but the people and the regions of the North must be respected and involved in the process as stakeholders as important as the people and the regions of the South. Besides, 60 years of history should not be obliterated, and just like Ostalgia bloomed in Eastern Germany, some positive form of "Northtalgia" may become a cultural asset (beyond dark tourism).

Furthermore, you can't put the failure of the North Korean regime on the people of North Korea. South Korea and the international community also failed to achieve reunification so far. David KANG accurately repeats that South Koreans should never come with a "we won, you lose - we're smart, you're dumb" mindset, and I think the time has come to say "we both made mistakes, we may not agree today, but we must work to make sure that in the end, Korea wins as a whole".

Which role for the North Korean diaspora, beyond the defectors to South Korea? The Chosen-seki / Chongryon / Mindan game in Japan looks much less complex than the case of China, particularly following massive mixed marriages along the Yalu river. Nationality issues will be very tricky, and in my worst "Hanschluss" scenario, Beijing could leverage porous borders to impact self-determination ballots in the medium to long term. If international coopetition were not enough, don't underestimate inter-regional tensions: North Korean regions are not less valuable than South Korean regions, and everybody should rejoice to see this rich cultural heritage reunited, but I wouldn't be surprised if Jeollanam-do started complaining about Ryanggang-do getting all the subsidies. And Korea being Korea, I'd recommend a moratorium for all real estate issues, and a protection from the Chaebollization of the North.

There should be no confusion: this is a reunification, not a unification, not the creation of a nation that never existed before. And reunited Korea should be a model republic and democracy. But I raised the importance of how the country will define itself and particularly how it will be named.

Korea, of course. But that's in English. And it's not like Germany, who could keep the "Deutschland" denominator (BRD/DDR). The North uses "Joseon", the South "Hanguk", both "uri nara". Anyway, "Dae Han Min Guk" seems the obvious official name for the republic, and the flag should remain the Taegeukgi, but both the name and the symbol should refer to the whole nation and to the roots of democracy and independence during the occupation, certainly not to the victory of the South over the North.

I'm looking forward to the final products of The Korean Project, and I hope it won't stop there. Reunification has already started, it's a major project and an ongoing process, and beyond the report, the public as well as the authorities will need to visualize threads. We passed the stage where saying "we're working on reunification, we're investing money in it" is enough, and we must move to the stage where everybody can follow the process and say: wait a minute, this specific issue doesn't seem to be advancing, we need answers and outputs. And to have someone to blame or to praise, even if it's just the usual six suspects.

Seoul Village 2013
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UPDATE 20130123: North Korea reaffirmed its commitment to nukes later in the day...

* see "We reject as false the choice between revisionism and nationalism - for a Global Truth and Reconciliation Network"
** special mention to The Korea Foundation, key sponsor of a project very consistent with its mission
*** The Korea Project Part III
Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies
Opening remarks: David C. KANG (Director, USC Korean Studies Institute), Victor CHA (Chair, CSIS Korea), HAHM Chaibong (President, The Asan Institute of Policy Studies)
Session I: Reactions from Japan and Russia (moderated by D. KANG)
- Paper authors: SOEYA Yoshihide (Director, Institute of East Asian Studies, Keio University), Alexander VORONTSOV (Head, Department for Korean and Mongolian Studies and Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences)
- Discussants: Leif-Eric EASLEY (Ehwa University, The Asan Institute), Robert KELLY (Pusan National University), LEE Hawon (Chosun Ilbo)
Session II: Reactions from China (moderated by V. CHA)
- Paper authors: PAN Zhenqiang (Senior Advisor, China Reform Forum and China Foundation for International Studies, Director, Research Institute for Strategy and Management), ZHU Feng (Deputy Director, Center for International and Strategic Studies, Peking University - NB: not present today)
- Discussants: CHUNG Jae-ho (Seoul National University), Evan RAMSTAD (Wall Street Journal)
Session III: Reactions from South Korea (moderated by D. KANG)
- Paper authors: CHOO Jaewoo (Professor, Chinese Foreign Policy, Kyung Hee University), YOON Young-kwan (Department of International Relations, Seoul National University)
- Discussants: Bryan PORT (Deputy Director of Strategy, UN Command-Combined Forces Command-US Forces Korea), WOO Jung-yeop (The Asan Institute)
Roundtable on future steps (V. CHA and D. KANG)

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