- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2015

SEOUL — The U.S. should embrace China’s growing relations with South Korea, and all three nations should prepare for the inevitable collapse of North Korea and the hard work of unifying the peninsula.

That’s the message that Washington’s former top negotiator with Pyongyang brought with him on a visit to South Korea this week.

Former U.S. Ambassador Christopher R. Hill said he doesn’t know when or how the demise of the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will come about, but he believes it is inevitable. When it happens, he said, “we need to make sure that China, [South Korea] and the U.S. all understand what we’re going to do.”

Mr. Hill spoke Wednesday at a regional security conference hosted by The Washington Times in Seoul, where officials from the South Korean government office for reunification say they are pursuing small steps and confidence-building measures aimed at rebuilding relations that have worsened with Pyongyang since 2012 when Mr. Kim succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il.

Relations between the two Koreas occur mainly through the joint Kaesong Industrial Complex, which is inside the demilitarized zone that has divided the two nations for more than 60 years.

Officials with South Korea’s Ministry of Unification say their efforts are focused now more than ever on establishing what has come to be referred to as a “World Peace Park” inside the DMZ. The facility, the officials said, will feature tourist-oriented wildlife attractions aimed at opening an era of positive cultural interaction between the two sides.

“When this park is established, it will help heal the scars of division and will promote exchanges between the Koreas,” said Lee Duk-haeng, a senior policy officer in the ministry.

“Our view is that if we reconnect the ecosystem between the two Koreas, it will channel into peaceful exchanges,” he said.

Whether Seoul will move to finance the effort is an open question. That uncertainty is likely to cause unease among skeptics of advancing — and paying for — initiatives that do little to address North Korea’s nuclear weapons program or confront its antagonistic rhetoric toward much of the world.

It is not uncommon to hear young South Koreans lament their government’s history of providing aid to the North despite Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons in defiance of the United Nations.

At the same time, there are big questions over the extent to which officials in North Korea will embrace the peace park project inside the DMZ. Mr. Kim has made overtures in recent months suggesting an openness for diplomatic engagement with Seoul, but he has spent much of the past three years threatening the South militarily.

Mr. Hill said Seoul and Washington must find ways to interact positively with North Korea and that China, long considered the country with the most influence over Pyongyang, should have a central role in such efforts.

“I can think of no better way to do this than to continue to intensify our discussions [and] dialogues with China,” he said. “This dialogue can be done with the U.S. and the Republic of Korea” — the official name for South Korea — “sitting together with the Chinese, or it could be done with the Republic of Korea and China sitting together, or the U.S. and China sitting together. It doesn’t really matter.”

Building on momentum

Mr. Hill appeared eager to build on any momentum from July, when Chinese President Xi Jinping made a high-profile visit to South Korea — the first time a new Chinese leader has visited Seoul before stopping in Pyongyang.

The point, Mr. Hill said, is that Washington and Seoul should be finding ways to convince Beijing that its support of North Korea is a barrier to wider international integration. He also said efforts should be made to draw Japan into the conversation as well.

“I hope that at the end of this difficult process we can all perhaps build a statue to the North Korean leadership, thanking them for the fact that they brought China and the Republic of Korea and the U.S. closer together,” Mr. Hill said. “Because at the end of the day we need to be together … [and] we need to do more to bring Japan into this.”

A committee established by South Korean President Park Geun-hye announced Tuesday that it had set a deadline to finish preparatory work on a reunification blueprint in the next two to three years. The committee, which includes members of the unification and foreign ministry, plans the first public hearings on the planned unification “charter,” Vice Chief Chung Chong-wook told members of Ms. Park’s ruling Saenuri Party, according to South Korean press reports.

For some, the comments felt like a throwback to the late 2000s. As U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the time, Mr. Hill headed the Obama administration’s first effort to breathe life into stalled six-party talks aimed at steering North Korea away from developing nuclear weapons.

The effort foundered in 2009 when Pyongyang carried out an underground nuclear test, defying warnings from the international community.

But Mr. Hill, who now heads the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, said Wednesday that it would be wrong to simply accept North Korea as nuclear armed state. Controversial as it may seem, said Mr. Hill, regional leaders should be putting their weight behind efforts to positively engage Kim Jong-un.

The best way to start, he said, would be to get behind the reunification talk coming from Seoul. “Reunification, should the Korean people want that, is very much in our interests,” Mr. Hill said. “A unified Korean Peninsula is something that would benefit not just the region but the world.”

Many regional analysts, citing a lack of trust in the intentions and sincerity of the Kim Jong-un regime, say tension between North and South Korea is far too deep to take such talk seriously. Any serious move toward reunification, these analysts say, may depend on the collapse of the Kim regime.

Reunification faces other hurdles, not least the cost of integrating the far poorer North Korean economy with that of the South. Polls show a majority of young people in the South lean against the idea of reunification for fear that it will bankrupt their thriving economy.

Reunification advocates in South Korea tend to play down such fears. They liken the challenges of integrating the North and South to those that were largely overcome between East and West Germany after their reunification in 1989.

Critics say the economic and social differences that have developed between the Koreas over the past 70 years are far greater than those that developed between the divided German states.

Mr. Hill acknowledged such factors Wednesday but asserted that they should not stand in the way of attempts by leaders in Seoul to promote the idea of reunification. Mr. Lee, meanwhile, said Germany remains the best model for the peninsula.

“Germany achieved reunification, but Korea remains divided,” he said. “It’s time to think about our reunification. … We hope the international community will join in the effort.”

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