"The inter-Korean relationship has worsened in the past few years, and we need a high-level discussion between the Koreas to clear any misunderstanding and move forward," Park, 70, said during an interview with The Korea Times at his office at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES) in Samcheong-dong, Seoul.
He served as unification minister under the late President Kim Dae-jung in 1999. He is also the incumbent president of Kyungnam University, which runs the IFES.
This year would have been the optimal time for Park Geun-hye, who began her five-year term in February 2013, to hold the inter-Korean summit, according to Park. He added that any further delay could hamper her efforts to build trust between the two Koreas because she will essentially be a lame duck from 2016.
"I'd say a summit between Park Geun-hye and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is crucial," he said.
"The two Koreas should discuss ways to resolve inter-Korean conflicts, such as the May 24 Measures. By clearing them up, we can convince Pyongyang to focus on economic development over nuclear arms development and to share ideas for how to resume the six-party talks for the denuclearization of North Korea."
The May 24 Measures, Seoul's economic sanctions against Pyongyang, are seen as key obstacles to the improvement of the inter-Korean relationship. Effective on May 24, 2010, the set of punitive sanctions bans all inter-Korean trade and other forms of cooperation, except for those within the Gaeseong Industrial Complex in North Korea, in response to Pyongyang's sinking of the South Korean frigate Cheonan in March of that year. They were implemented by then President Lee Myung-bak, Park Geun-hye's predecessor.
"Unless some changes are made in the May 24 Measures — either leniency or revocation — it would be difficult to anticipate any improvements in inter-Korean relations," Park said.
"We must make use of a two-track strategy that deals with the nuclear weapons issue and the improvement of inter-Korean relations separately through dialogue, cooperation and exchanges.
"Those who are familiar with inter-Korean issues say the ball is in our court with regard to resuming dialogue between the two Koreas," he added.
New form of Cold War alliance in NE Asia
Park's remark came amid Pyongyang's recent move to enhance its ties with Moscow as indicated by the visit of North Korean special envoy and Kim's confidant Choe Ryong-hae to Russia from Nov. 17 to 24.
On Nov. 20, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov hinted at a summit between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Park shot down speculations that Pyongyang is leaning toward Moscow over Beijing, its most important ally, while he acknowledged that Sino-North Korean relations are at their lowest point in decades.
He instead said a new form of Cold War alliance is emerging in Northeast Asia — the United States, South Korea and Japan in one group, and China, North Korea and Russia in the other.
"Russia has been pushing to revive its influence over the Far East as in the Cold War era," Park said.
"Both China and Russia are gearing toward building military power. The incumbent and former communist states in Northeast Asia should form a strong military alliance against their rival group.
"Such an alliance, however, is different from that in the Cold War era because the countries in the region would pursue economic cooperation with one another."
He cited the Trans-Siberian Railway and the gas pipeline connecting Russia to South Korea via the North as pivotal projects for Russia to expand its economic partnerships with the two Koreas.
In order to draw support from regional powers amid such a complex situation in Northeast Asia, South Korea should become the main agent of inter-Korean unification and actor in the region, according to Park.
"We must work together closely with the U.S. and Japan to persuade North Korea, China and Russia that the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula will contribute to peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia and will not be a disadvantage to anyone's national interests," he said.
Seoul should be prudent in adopting THAAD
According to Park, the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system could accelerate the military alliance among China, North Korea and Russia.
THAAD, which is an array of advanced U.S. missile defense technologies, is designed to intercept short, medium and intermediate missiles. THAAD's interceptors have an estimated range of up to 200 kilometers and do not rely on explosives to destroy incoming missiles. Instead, they destroy targets by colliding with them using the so-called "Kinetic Kill" technology.
South Korea has repeatedly shot down speculation that it plans to implement the THAAD system on its soil to address North Korea's ongoing military threats. However, political observers say Seoul is interested in adding THAAD to its arsenal, which includes an independent, low-tier missile shield, the Korea Air and Missile Defense. China's and Russia's consideration of THAAD will cause tension on their respective doorstep, and they have bickered with the U.S.
"We must clearly calculate whether the consequences of deterring the North Korean threat would be bigger than the costs of the breakdown of Sino-South Korean relations," Park said.
"I believe a public discussion is necessary. Additionally, the deployment of a THAAD system means that politically, Japan and South Korea are involved with the U.S. missile defense system against China.
"Therefore, in the context of the U.S.-South Korea alliance and Sino-South Korea relations, we must exercise prudence and diplomatic wisdom."
The follow is the Q&A with Park Jae-kyu, a former unification minister and incumbent Kyungnam University president.
Q: How would you evaluate the Park Geun-hye administration's current policy towards North Korea? What are the pros and cons of this administration's North Korea policy compared to the time you spent as a unification minister under the late President Kim Dae-jung?
A:The Park administration is in a much more difficult situation.
While inter-Korean relations may have been stop-and-go during the Kim Dae-jung administration, it consistently adhered to the policies of cooperation, reconciliation, and peaceful coexistence with North Korea, and proactively approached inter-Korean relations with patience.
The Park administration is focusing on moving forward in inter-Korean relations and overcoming the difficulties experienced during the Lee Myung-bak administration by emphasizing normalization of relations and building mutual trust.
It is most important that the President be determined and believes in giving priority to the values of cooperation, reconciliation, and peaceful coexistence. It is also critical not to send conflicting signals and mixed messages to North Korea.
Above all, policy must work towards solving the nuclear problem through the improvement of inter-Korean relations via trust-building based on reconciliation and cooperation.
Q: Do you believe that the inter-Korea unification initiatives can be materialized during Park Geun-hye's five-year term? Or do you think that these efforts may be able to build a foundation necessary for unification in the future?
A: Unification preparation is not something that can be done overnight or merely through rhetoric; it demands a substantial amount of time.
Unification requires a process and stages; it cannot be accomplished all at once.
Up until the day the two Koreas unify, continuous effort to make unification into a so-called "jackpot" is necessary. The Park administration's "establishment of foundation for peaceful reunification" must carry over and continue during the next administration in order to achieve success.
The reunification of Germany was a result achieved through consistent cooperative exchanges. By engaging in cooperative exchanges and quietly preparing for unification, a "stronghold of trust" will be built between the Koreas, and unification will come naturally.
Q: Some say that the Park Geun-hye administration's unification policy focuses on South Korea's unilateral unification via absorption, inciting backlash from the North. What do you think of this notion?
A: I believe that the Park administration's unification policy is not unification by absorption, but rather peaceful unification based on free democracy and market economy.
Neither unilateral unification via absorption nor the collapse of the North Korean regime is a normal method of achieving unification.
When viewed from the perspective of neighboring countries' interests, those neighbors would not simply sit back and let this occur.
The unification of the Korean peninsula may be a problem between the North and South. But the reality that cannot be overlooked is the fact that inter-Korean unification is also deeply tied to the international relations with neighboring countries.
"Messages to North Korea" must be managed well so as not to give rise to misunderstandings like the "regime collapse theory" or unification through absorption.
Q: How much could the Korea-China-Japan consultative body for nuclear energy, mentioned by President Park Geun-hye in her 69th Anniversary of Liberation address on August 15th, contribute to the peace and stability in the Northeast Asian region?
A: Since the Fukushima nuclear incident, awareness of nuclear safety has increased. Nuclear incidents are not issues that can be solved by any single nation acting alone.
I understand Park's proposal suggests that despite the existence of historical and territorial disputes in the region, mutual cooperation in common security issues should be encouraged at the pan-national level.
I believe that the Korea-China-Japan summit proposed by Park at the recent ASEAN+3 summit falls along the same lines.
The Park administration's Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative strives to create multilateral cooperation in regards to global and regional issues, and if realized successfully, will contribute to the ensuring of peace and stability in the region and transform conflictive relations into cooperative relations.
Q: The New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) motioned for a "Revised Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act" on November 12th to set legal limits on leaflet dropping activities. The revision reads, "In cases where inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation will clearly be harmed, the Minister of Unification cannot approve the import and export of goods." Do you believe that it is necessary for the government to intervene and take responsibility over leaflet dropping activities?
A: The NPAD's revision has no legal justification to prohibit leaflet dropping, but I fully understand their intentions to create legal justification in order to improve strained inter-Korean relations and stop the leaflet dropping.
However, this will create serious domestic conflict within South Korea.
Therefore, I feel that further consideration is necessary to decide whether or not this law meets the intents of the Inter-Korean Exchange and Cooperation Act. This problem needs to be solved through inter-Korean dialogue and with the cooperation of private organizations.
Because North Korea is also fully aware that the South Korean government cannot ban leaflet drops, it is important that we quickly restore inter-Korean dialogue channels in order to negotiate the issue of halting mutual slander.
<위 글은 THE KOREA TIMES 2014년 11월 28일(금)자 04면에서 전재한 기사입니다.>