The Korean ‘jackpot’

Is reunification worth the gamble? By Tina Jiwon Park.
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December 12, 2014
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This week, policymakers, business leaders, academics, civil society representatives and journalists from all five continents gathered in Seoul for the 7th annual World Policy Conference. Launched in 2008, this conference has grown into one of key venues for conversation on global governance. The agenda included security governance, inequality, globalization, climate change, ISIS and the Middle East, the agriculture industry in Africa, and Big Data.

But it is perhaps not surprising, given that the conference venue was only 50 kilometres away from the most heavily militarized border in the world, that the prospects for the Korean peninsula received much of the spotlight.

Indeed, South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s Trustpolitik and her ambitious “Jackpot theory” for the reunification of the two Koreas was much discussed. Despite some domestic grumbling about the colloquial nature of the term, President Park’s “Jackpot theory” has become her signature calling-card and one of her most treasured policy initiatives since she assumed office in early 2013.

Contrary to the conventional view that Korean reunification will create enormous economic burden for the South, President Park argues that it will actually provide a “huge leap forward” for the Korean economy by bringing together South Korea’s capital and technological advancement with North Korea’s labour and natural resources. The synergy created from merging of two economies will result in exponential growth, akin to hitting a “jackpot” for the Korean peninsula, Northeast Asia, and the global economy as a whole.

President Park elaborated on the theory at length at a speech delivered in the city of Dresden (in what used to be East Germany) in March, where she made a three-point proposal to North Korea for the “humanity, co-prosperity and integration” of the two Koreas if the North would dismantle its nuclear weapons program. This proposal includes regular family reunions between two Koreas and a “1,000 day package project” for North Korean moms and infants. To promote co-prosperity, South Korean companies would invest in infrastructure-building and develop joint projects on natural resources. Lastly, the proposal calls upon Pyongyang to establish an inter-Korean exchange and cooperation office to promote people-to-people exchanges in research, culture, and sports.

As expected, the North Korean media immediately scoffed at this proposal, calling it a scheme to destroy the North Korean government. Nevertheless, the speech (which was broadcast live in South Korea) galvanized debate about the future of two Koreas, especially for the younger generation.

The Dresden speech was certainly not the first attempt by a sitting Korean president to devise a framework for engaging with the North and improving inter-Korean relations. The essence of the “Jackpot theory” contains many of the key elements from previous administrations, such as denuclearization, economic aid, and the reunion of broken families across the border. Yet, compared to President Kim Dae-Jung’s “Sunshine policy” or President Lee Myung-Bak’s “Grand Bargain”, both of which were ultimately unsuccessful, President Park’s approach appears to be far more detailed, bolder and innovative.

Previous administrations in the Blue House have attempted to lure North Korea with economic incentives or impose measures to chastise the North for provocative action. However, neither the carrot nor the stick has proven effective at promoting denuclearization or opening up the North Korean economy, let alone having any meaningful impact on North Korea’s dire humanitarian situation. Furthermore, scholars have criticized Seoul’s appeasement of the Kim regimes. Decade of bilateral aid have only strengthened the North Korean regime and continued to fuel the development of nuclear weapons and other military capability, rather than addressing real political and economic problems.

Despite these failed attempts, the South Korean government has every reason to try to engage the North. Surrounded by powerful neighbours in a region with the highest concentration of military capabilities in the world, the geostrategic realities of the Korean peninsula has always necessitated a careful and persistent appraisal of the neighbour’s capacities and priorities. The United States has had a “special relationship” with South Korea since the latter was founded, to the great consternation of the North. And even without considering “what-if” scenarios involving North Korea’s nuclear weapons, there are enough conventional weapons on both sides of the DMZ to inflict immediate and serious harm on both Seoul and Pyongyang due to their proximity to the border.

Living next to a nuclear North Korea, of course, is a risky endeavour not only for South Korea but also for the entire region of Northeast Asia, thereby posing a serious threat to the world peace. Amongst the wide range of security threats facing our world today, none compares in magnitude to a nuclear Armageddon. In the words of Dr. Ramesh Thakur, “A mix of hubris and arrogance on the part of nuclear armed states expose us to the risk of sleepwalking to a nuclear disaster.” For a Nuclear Armageddon to break out, deterrence needs to break down only once, and anything from a human error to a system malfunction, not to mention the risk of proliferation due to state collapse or leadership failure, are all possible with a regime as totalitarian and unpredictable as North Korea. Numerous attempts at six-party talks have failed to bring a peaceful resolution for dealing with nuclear North Korea, largely because of the irreconcilable goals and priorities of each party involved. At its core, bilateral and multilateral efforts to engage with North Korea have failed not because of lack of will but because of lack of trust across the negotiating table.

It is under such historical context that we must carefully assess President Park’s Trustpolitik before dismissing it as mere political rhetoric. Trustpolitik begins on the Korean peninsula, but it aims to expand into building trust in North East Asia and creating an infrastructure of trust and confidence in the Eurasia region. On land and sea, a rise of extreme nationalism and territorial disputes are fuelling public anger in many parts of Northeast Asia, in addition to Russia’s expansionist tendencies, the rise of China, and widening inequalities gaps between the rich and the poor across the region. Regional instability in Northeast Asia can no longer be seen as an isolated problem. Through trade, immigration, and human connections, we live in an interconnected world where we are affected by each other’s behaviours whether we realize it or not.

As critics point out, Trustpolitik and the “Jackpot theory” are extremely ambitious and optimistic. But unless the two Koreas can learn to trust each other and focus their attention on a collective future, countless rounds of negotiations on nuclear weapons program will fail to yield any fruitful results. Too often, third parties, especially neighbouring countries and the United States, have exercised too much influence on inter-Korean relations. The two Koreas, and its peoples whose lives have been shattered by the Cold War and the Korean War, offer too many compelling and tragic stories to prolong the division.

Ultimately, reunification will necessarily be a long and evolving process, requiring diligent planning and incremental execution. It is unreasonable to expect that any single framework or a strategy alone will be sufficient. The case of Germany provides ample evidence of the complicated nature of reunification and President Park and Chancellor Merkel have had a number of discussions on their visions and experiences. There are many lessons to learn, but the real challenges will only begin to surface in the aftermath of political agreement, much of which will require trial and error on a case-by-case basis.

The real potential for Trustpolitik and the “Jackpot theory” lies in mobilizing public opinion and starting the dialogue for a more peaceful future on the Korean peninsula. Once we accept that there will be no quick blueprint for the reunification, we can better appreciate these new frameworks as starting points for moving the dialogue forward.

Already, despite all the criticisms, the “Jackpot theory” is bringing more media attention and encouraging public discussions on the viability of reunification. But we must remember that hitting a jackpot against all the odds requires persistence, patience and a willingness to keep trying even when things look impossible.