SEOUL — The government of South Korea President Park Geun-Hye’s government is making a major push to host a new U.N. regional headquarters coupled with a proposed “international peace park” that could be built on land inside the highly sensitive Demilitarized Zone that has divided the nation from North Korea since 1953, according to a key lawmaker.
The ambitious plan has drawn critics here, who say North Korea is highly unlikely to cooperate. But Na Kyung-won, who recently became head of the South Korean National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, says the initiative will have “widespread support” in the assembly as a potential game changer toward easing hostility between Pyongyang and Seoul.
“Right now the DMZ is actually a highly militarized zone, not ‘demilitarized,’” Ms. Na said Monday at a Northeast Asia peace, security and media conference being hosted in Seoul this week by The Washington Times and its sister publication, the Korean-language newspaper Segye Ilbo.
“Having a peace park in the DMZ could change it back to a dream zone — for the dream of peace between the two Koreas,” she said.
While Ms. Na said the initiative currently involves a push to also locate a U.N. headquarters in the DMZ, she acknowledged that the idea may be unrealistic, and said that a more likely path could see the U.N. facility built in the Songdo International Business District near Seoul.
Either way, project supporters say the plan would be tied to the development of an international peace park in the DMZ, complete with tourist attractions aimed at promoting “ecological stability” while building trust with the North.
Regional analysts and journalists participating in the conference were divided over the idea’s viability — and some were outright critical of the U.N.’s relevance to President Park’s strategy for easing North-South tensions.
“The last thing that the world needs is another U.N. office in Seoul,” said Claudia Rosett, a journalist-in-residence at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who appeared on the panel at the conference in Seoul.
“It is a recipe for a massive enduring boondoggle that, in the end, will probably turn it against the purpose for which it was created,” said Mrs. Rosett, who has written extensively on corruption at the U.N. “The problem is, when you set up a U.N. office, there’s no real control over it. … Think ‘Animal Farm’ [and] George Orwell, not democratic bodies.”
The United Nations presently has four designated headquarters, in New York, Geneva, Vienna and Nairobi.
There is speculation that the idea for a fifth is being driven in part by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — himself a South Korean — to boost the international body’s profile for resolving disputes across Asia and especially on the Korean Peninsula.
While Mr. Ban may have the stature to bring the development to the fore — as well as the influence to get the South Korean government to pay for it — skepticism looms large over the prospects of building the headquarters office inside the DMZ.
“If you’re seriously talking about building something in DMZ, well, guess what? You have to get North Korean permission, and everybody knows that there is no way the North Koreans would want a U.N. headquarters or a peace park in the DMZ,” said Alexandre Mansourov, a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
“It’s wishful thinking, but the time just has not come for it yet,” Mr. Mansourov told The Times after appearing on a panel at the conference in Seoul on Monday.
Wishful thinking or not, some in South Korea are taking the initiative very seriously.
Mun Byeung-cheol, a political science professor at Seoul National University, said he and others in the nation’s civil society “expect that the U.N. could contribute to building a ‘World Eco-Peace Park’ in the Korean DMZ,” and that placing the fifth global U.N. headquarters there would underline the U.N.’s “institutional commitment” to the project.
That, in turn, “may lead all the parties to the Korean War — that is, two Koreas, the U.S. and China — to contributing to easing tensions and peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula,” Mr. Mun argued.
The Park government, which has sought a better relationship with the North since taking office in February 2013, reportedly first raised the idea for a new regional U.N. headquarters on an informal basis during the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York in September. Mrs. Kyung-won’s comments on the idea Monday marked the first time the initiative has been so publicly pushed to international media.
Some in attendance were open to the concept. Humphrey Hawksley, a journalist who has reported extensively in Asia for a host of news organizations, including the BBC, said the idea may present a new avenue for North-South reconciliation.
“You can say what you will about the U.N. and its problems as a whole, or elsewhere in the world, but when it comes to a possible office that might ease tension between North and South Korea, any development would be a welcome development,” he said.
Mr. Hawksley first reported on the initiative in the Nikkei Asian Review last fall, writing that “an Asian U.N. headquarters in the DMZ could serve to coax Pyongyang from its isolation without feeling it has been defeated.”
“It would cast so far insoluble disputes, such as the future of [North Korea’s] nuclear weapons program, into the context of a much broader basket of issues as diplomats in the DMZ dealt with problems ranging from Myanmar to Kashmir,” he wrote.
But there are still big questions at play. The DMZ is one of the world’s most heavily guarded borders, and any development within it would require unprecedented cooperation from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Since succeeding his father in 2012, Mr. Kim has hurled antagonistic rhetoric toward the West and has repeatedly threatened to hit South Korea with a barrage of missile attacks, while ruthlessly consolidating his power at home.
But North Korea’s isolated economy remains under immense strain from international sanctions. And there is hope that Mr. Kim may move to contain his bluster — at least by some degree — in the face of increased international pressure and a deep U.N. push for reconciliation with Seoul.
The Associated Press noted in January that the North Korean leader said during a New Year’s speech that he was open to talks or even a summit with South Korean President Park.
The gesture came after U.N. officials had issued a scathing October report that described widespread human rights abuses being carried out by Pyongyang as comparable to World War II-era crimes committed by the Nazis. It also followed heated international criticism stemming from U.S. allegations that North Korean hackers had carried out a massive cyberattack on Sony Pictures linked to “The Interview,” a Hollywood comedy that portrayed an assassination attempt on Mr. Kim.