Careful Aid for N.Korea Is the Best Policy

      August 30, 2011 12:59

      Han Sung-joo

      North Korea recently lobbed artillery rounds south of the Northern Limit Line, the de facto maritime border between the two Koreas, even after the government informed Pyongyang it would send food and medicine to the North amid plans to ease sanctions that were imposed after the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan in May 2010. And effective Aug. 21, the regime froze South Korean property in the North's scenic Mt. Kumgang resort. That raises the question whether it is wise to resume aid to the North, and whether there is any point in trying to engage with it.  

      There has been a lot of debate in the country over the past few years. Former president Kim Dae-jung, who spearheaded the "Sunshine Policy," claimed that generous support to North Korea would lead to rapprochement and peace on the Korean Peninsula and eventually reunification through inter-Korean exchanges and reforms in the North. His successor Roh Moo-hyun went further by saying North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons program if its economic situation improved and its security concerns were addressed. As a result, the Kim and Roh administrations gave the North a total of W8 trillion (US$1=W1,075) over their combined 10 years in office.

      Critics point out that aid to the North ended up bolstering its military power and prolonged the Kim Jong-il regime, thus making reunification more difficult. They therefore suggest that the government minimize support for North Korea and implement a quid-pro-quo method for all aid. If the government can achieve its policy objectives by providing a certain degree of benefits to North Korea, most people would probably support it. But the problem is what objectives it is pursuing and what benefits it is willing to provide.

      Before East and West German reunification, I asked government officials in the West, including former chancellor Willy Brandt, what the objective of the "Ostpolitik" was. They gave me the following four answers. First, freeing East Germany from Soviet control. Second, boosting the freedom of East Germans. Third, expanding people-to-people exchanges, home relocation and communication between East and West. And fourth, ultimately achieving reunification. In order to achieve these objectives, West Germany gave loans to East Germany, provided financial assistance to promote human exchanges, paid 1 billion Deutschmarks for the release of political prisoners and aided the construction of roads and other public infrastructure in the East.

      If South Korea provides humanitarian aid to North Korea, it will not be able to get Pyongyang to shift its policies toward it or its nuclear weapons development. But it can expect the following effects. First, it will be able to help the North Korean people avoid starvation, improve medical services and help them in many areas affecting their daily lives. Second, it can help them overcome the pain of division to some extent by allowing the reunions of separated family members and civilian exchanges. Third, it can give the people of North Korea hope for the future if they see the progress South Korea has made and feel the genuine goodwill of the South Korean people, strengthening the sense of ethnic unity. Fourth, it can ameliorate the North's dependence on China and Russia. In the end, all of these factors will contribute to achieving change and reforms in North Korea and help speed up reunification.

      What is North Korea's aim? Whenever South Korean aid comes to a halt, the North tends to blame the South for the breakdown in dialogue and for food shortages and other hardships. By stressing the cutbacks in support from the South, North justifies military expansion. To counter such tactics, the South must take a more active approach in offering humanitarian aid. North Korea is wary of the social impact of aid from South Korea and may not accept such gestures. But in that case, it has only itself to blame.

      The South must take adequate steps to help North Koreans while understanding the limitations of the engagement policy. And it must prevent any shipment of materials, particularly cash, that can be used for military purposes. Aid to North Korea must be provided considering both the positive and indirect effects they will have on North Korean society. If aid to North Korea is designed to help the people of the North and not the regime, a significant portion of the dilemma surrounding provocations by Pyongyang can be resolved.

      By former foreign minister Han Sung-joo

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