Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I am truly delighted to be standing here before you all.
As we gather here, today, I am reminded that we are here to discuss the last battlefront of the twentieth century, dormant perhaps, but hardly dead.
Yet, I believe that we were brought here together today, because we share a common purpose; that after six decades and a war, reconciliation, redemption, and re-unification are not beyond hope; that the Korean Peninsula has an opportunity to rise above the failings of the past; and seize a collective future in which its security is more than some illusory promise but an eventual reality.
The example of the European Union, the example of East and West Germany, both come into mind. In the first example, after killing over 100 million people in Two World Wars, finally Europeans have come together recognising that they share a common culture, a common history and a common set of values bound by a contiguous geography. In the second example, a Germany unified by Bismarck over 100 years ago was reunified 25 years ago reversing the dislocation and division catalysed by different political systems allied in one case and enforced in the other by the two super powers after the second world war. Whereas the German example appears immediately more apposite to the issue of North and South Korea, in fact it is the example of the European Union, an embodiment of how to share power and trade together which may prove a better road map for the future of the Korean peninsula.
Recently the World has again, after an interregnum of 25 years, become a very dangerous place.
International terrorism, anarchy in the Middle East, NATO – Russian tension over the Ukraine, economic and market turbulence, a resurgent and powerful China legitimately ambitious to extend her global spheres of influence, and the continuing nuclear threats of North Korea have all compounded to the crucible of global tensions.
In my view the issue of North Koreas militarisation and nuclearisation has been a saga of missed opportunities that could have been put right; a long time ago; however with reference to the most recent rumour of a missile launch in October, I strongly urge the North Korean leadership at this very critical time to not escalate regional tensions. At a time when the Japanese peace constitution is being challenged whatever the scientific and technical reasons may be, this is not a good time.
I believe in that famous axiom articulated eloquently by Lord Palmerston who said, Britain does not have permanent allies or permanent enemies. She only has permanent interests. Peace negotiations or any negotiations for that matter underpinned by policies, which, by unwittingly setting preconditions or stipulations that goes on to sabotage itself and the long term interests of that country is a foolish policy. Diplomacy is not about egos or dignity. Its central purpose is the pursuit of the national interests by whatever means possible as long as those means are legal. If the long term national interests are thwarted because of negotiating pre conditions, then those conditions however legitimate, however sensible, however practical, are a Trojan horse achieving the very thing nobody wanted in the first place. The history of the Korean peninsula and the tensions created within it are littered with preconditions and such Trojan horses. We have now come, I believe to a point that nobody wanted. Not even dare I say the North Koreans.
The biggest of such Trojan horses in the long drawn out saga of the Korean peninsula were the events leading to North Korea leaving the Non Proliferation Treaty and going on to build a nuclear bomb; after 1994. It could have been avoided, with more skilful diplomacy; but the West played her hand very badly. Now we have the very thing we were determined to avoid. The discovery of hitherto unknown centrifuges in North Korea, whether revealed by design or accident, catalysed the destruction of the Agreed Frame Work of 1994 which had until then acted as somewhat of a brake on North Koreas nuclear development, which was being carried out clandestinely and very slowly. The end of the Agreed Frame Work left North Korea withdrawing from the Non Proliferation Treaty and openly accelerating her nuclear ambitions. How clever was that? How did it ever serve the U.S., South Korean and European Union long term interests ? Short answer is that it did not and the whole thing was an own goal.
But let us also not forget that the USA is not only a world power and the protector of democracy and the so called free world, she is also very dexterous at changing policy to suit her long term interests. Just ask the Saudi’s how they feel about the American Pact with Iran, a state of affairs which suddenly came about thanks wholly to the vigorous endeavours of the Chinese in promoting the Silk Road and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank particularly focussed on the development of Central and Western Asia, where for some 1500 years the Persian Empire played the role of bulwark against westward expansion by the Mongols and Imperial China.
Recently, President Obama, having woken up from a long stupor, has worked hard and commendably to attend to the running sores left behind by the Cold War. He recognised that leaving Cuba in limbo served no purpose and has started fixing that relationship. Likewise with Myanmar, which had been left out in the cold for 70 years. Most astonishing he has started to mend the jagged and febrile relationship the US had with Iran, which again like North Korea was allowed to fester under successive US Administrations, serving no purpose other than inadvertently strengthening the resolve and self-sufficiency of her adversary and becoming more and more extreme and resolutely resourceful.
US Admiral William Gortney announced that in his assessment North Korea is now capable of mounting a miniaturised nuclear warhead atop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the USA.
Additionally we have even seen in most recent weeks, the country publically glorifying the re-opening of its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, the largest one it has, now back in full operation. How has the World and more particularly the USA, EU and others allowed this to happen? Clearly sanctions haven’t worked. To me this is a resounding failure of our diplomacy, hand wringing at the side lines, in interminable conferences, rebuking the North Koreans for being untrustworthy while not finding a mechanism for making progress and bringing them into the fold of the international community.
Such a transition, if enacted peacefully, would serve to alleviate the primary source of instability in North East Asia; which if mishandled through misfeasance could lead to a dangerous global crisis.
For an impoverished North, reconciliation would mark a future of re-engagement with the international community, ending economic sanctions in favour of an influx of trade and development.
For Seoul, it would offer a unique prospect; to scale back military conscription, currently standing at 680,000-men, and reduce the necessarily exorbitant defence spending, presently marked at $30 billion a year; a figure which excludes the $1 billion a year sent to Washington, to help cover the costs of a ‘permanent’ U.S. military’s presence on the Peninsula.
Whilst admittedly, this line of thinking is fraught with ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, however any process which would result in the securement of North Korean nuclear weapons and the peaceful demobilisation of its dauntingly sizeable army, would leave Seoul, Washington and Tokyo markedly more secure.
Even China, a rising economic powerhouse in its own right, would benefit from converting its efforts from supporting the Kim administration, predominantly through transfers of fuel and food, to increasing its capital investments in the country; a driving force behind the national development process.
Whilst regional stability rightly remains the fundamental aspiration, long term benefits are considerable. The reunification of the Korean Peninsula is forecast to foster what has been referred to in recent years by President Park as an “economic bonanza”. The combined population of a 75 million person economy would be expected to compete with that of France, Germany, and Japan, creating the eighth-largest economy in the world.
The North’s vast potential for growth, massive mineral deposits and youth-orientated population would serve to ideally offset the slowing population growth of South Korea and its limited natural resources. South Korea’s high-tech electronics sector and booming industry, coupled with a young, educated and eager labour force from the North could generate meteoric economic gains that would ensure prosperity for all Koreans, regardless of region or ideology.
Today in the North, 91 percent of the population is younger than 65 and the fertility rate stands at 2.0 children per women. A reunified or confederated Korean Peninsular would add more than 17 million potential lower waged lower skilled workers, aged 15 to 64, to the nearly 36 million workers already in the South. The prospect of a dynamic, young work force is especially enticing given the rapid ageing of the South Korean population, where life expectancy has reached 81 years and continues to improve and the birth rate stands at only 1.2 children per woman and is among the lowest in the world.
However, reunification is an issue that will not prove simple and is made all the more complex for the dividing methodology and goals exhibited in its pursuit, by both North and South where on paper at least, both sides of the Korean Peninsula are firmly committed to the express principle of national unification but both envisage this process in very different ways.
The South envisages this process as a policy of “trust building,” driven by a three phase plan: Firstly, a phase of reconciliation and cooperation between the two countries on joint activities and initiatives: Secondly, the creation of a trade based Korean Commonwealth: And finally, geographic reunification with the attainment of a Korean single state.
The North, on the other hand, has expressed its eagerness to create a Korean Federation; possessed of two distinct ideological social systems which would be expected to co-exist and promote mutual prosperity.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the North and South have such wildly divergent aspirations. South Korea is democratic, Capitalist, a technological juggernaut and Asia’s fourth largest economy. North Korea, on the other hand, is authoritarian, Communist and internationally isolated with an economy a third of the size of Ethiopia’s.
As such, I am wary of reports like the recent release by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Korea National Diplomatic Academy, which claims that unification will be attained by 2040-2050. It is not the timeline that proves troubling, but the idea that there is some silver bullet, a hidden ace up the sleeve which will solve all our problems; in this case, concentrating on a joint economic system that would see would see North Korea’s national average income, per capita, rise to $10,000. It currently stands at $1800, per capita.
Gyeong-seob of South Korea’s Sejong Institute, put it most succinctly when, commenting on both this report and President Park’s reunification policy, stated that “it was a blueprint for the most splendid building imaginable, but did not demonstrate the ability to construct it.” Lofty ideals may be well and good but as I may have mentioned before, the devil lies in the details.
We must ask whether South Korea actually wants to contemplate absorbing 25 million new citizens alongside paying for the process which has been estimated to cost $500 billion dollars over the next twenty years, despite the fact that a resurgent, unified Korea would prove a major regional power. Yet, democratic South Korea has 80% of the population broadly in support of reunification and, if the outpouring of popular elation that gripped Germany in 1989 is any indication, it would appear unlikely to pose as an issue of contention.
Further examination, however, indicates a certain softness to these comforting polling figures. A recent survey, in March, reported that that 22% of South Koreans in their 20’s would prefer to maintain separate states, higher than any other age group. Generations have been born where division has been the status quo. It is a trend that will only be exacerbated by more time separated. Indeed, only 14% said they felt North Koreans were “one of us.”
Yet what truly worries me is not the undeniable social complexity inherent to the issue, nor the prevalent and persistent challenges that naturally hound any idea of reconciliation; of peace. I am astounded that after six decades, after the cold war is long dead and buried, that neither side have drawn up a peace treaty. I am astounded that what holds the fragile balance of this Peninsula is an armistice agreement signed in 1953. To be clear that is an armistice agreement – a temporary cessation of hostilities – a pause as both sides catch their breath and re-arm for the fight. An armistice agreement that, I feel compelled to add, South Korea has never signed. Yet, both sides audaciously talk of reunification; express their desire to heal, to put past grievances behind them. How can we speak of reunification when we do not even have peace treaty?
In the politics of warfare, conflict comes to an end when one side loses or an armistice is signed, by both sides! After it is signed there is usually a natural desire for a peace treaty. The peace treaty then leads to settlement, reparations, even reunification. These are the normal steps of human endeavour that have ended conflicts in every last corner of the world for thousands of years. Why is this process not being applied in the Korean peninsula?
It has been over sixty years; years in which whole economies, societies and foreign policies have been built upon an armistice; on what?; on trust?; on mutual self-belief that war will not begin again?
63 years later, it beggars belief that successive leaders from both North and South Korea have utterly irresponsibly circumvented the fundamental need to give a more permanent security to their people. Successive leaders have agreed to go on with life, carrying on with their economic and social expansions upon an armistice; an agreement so insecure, so unstable and so irresponsibly based on the expectation that the USA and her taxpayer will stand guarantee for ever till the end of time securing the peace of South Korea. This is wholly based on the premise that the USA have permanent friends, not permanent interests. Even a cursory examination of US foreign policy today, regarding Israel, the Palestine, Iran, et al will show how wrong this can be. Instead we should seize this chance, at a time when the USA is re-evaluating her global strategy and making new alliances, to use this greater flexibility to give greater security to the South Korean people and by default for the people of North Korea.
And, despite the numerous challenges, particularly to South Korea in terms of simple cost, a united Peninsula will find avenues of commerce to China; to Russia and all through Asia to Europe. It will cost money, but it is an investment in the future; in Korea’s future. Not for us here, today, but for the generations to come, it will mean stability, security, peace.
Yet, all this is a pipe dream. Reunification is unlikely to prove spontaneously organic. It needs a platform. It needs peace – in this case a peace treaty. There is no way around it, and this is where we must begin. The road forward will likely prove obstinate to say the least, but to put it plainly: “No peace treaty, no bonanza.”
15 July 2022
8 July 2022