SEOUL – While the United Nations celebrates its 70th anniversary in 2015, Koreans will lament 70 years of national division. Considering all of the challenges and opportunities that the divided peninsula faces – and will continue to confront in the coming years – unification remains an important goal that we must continue to pursue.
Founded formally in 1948 under UN auspices, the then-fledgling Republic of Korea immediately became engulfed in Cold War power politics, which hampered its efforts to join the UN – a goal not achieved until 1991. Since then, however, the Republic has more than made up for its late arrival. It is playing an active role in the UN – the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, and the Human Rights Council – and it is participating in numerous initiatives related to peacekeeping, development cooperation, climate change, non-proliferation, and human rights.
During this time, the international community has also dramatically changed. Globalization and technological transformation have deepened interdependence, and yet insecurity, inequality, injustice, and intolerance remain undiminished worldwide. Two decades after the Rwandan genocide, we continue to bear witness to human cruelty and horror – in Syria, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic, for example. Meanwhile, a billion or so of the world’s poorest people, including women and children, are barely surviving.
Northeast Asia has its share of trouble. A rising China, a resurgent Japan, an assertive Russia, and an anachronistic North Korea have added new complexities and uncertainties to the region. The latter’s pursuit of nuclear arms is particularly worrying. On its part, the United States is now “rebalancing” toward Asia.
Growing conflicts over history, territory, and maritime security, combined with an ugly resurgence of nationalism, risk triggering military confrontation, quite possibly through political miscalculation. Left unattended by policymakers and peacemakers, Northeast Asia’s tensions could undermine the region’s flourishing economy.
It is in this challenging environment that the Republic of Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, took office in 2013. Her foreign policy – called “Trustpolitik” – aims to transform this atmosphere of suspicion and conflict into one of confidence and cooperation, and to build “a new Korean Peninsula, a new Northeast Asia, and a new world.”
The greatest obstacle to achieving this transformation is the North Korean nuclear question. Over the last couple of months, North Korea has threatened to carry out yet another nuclear test. Today’s most urgent task therefore must be to prevent this from happening, and then to check further advances in the North’s nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities.
The semblance of peace on the Korean Peninsula remains fragile, and South Korea’s government has engaged in intensive diplomatic efforts to rally friends and partners in the region and worldwide to deter the North. The UN Security Council has adopted a series of resolutions to impose extensive sanctions, following the North’s three previous nuclear tests. Any further provocation will bring the full force of the organization’s sanctions to bear.
Under these circumstances – in addition to the dire human rights and humanitarian situation in North Korea – Park laid out her vision for a unified Korea. In a recent speech in Dresden, she proposed three concrete and action-oriented proposals to the North that would address its humanitarian problems, build infrastructure for the common welfare and prosperity of the two Koreas, and promote integration of the Korean people.
The humanitarian component of this strategy could be implemented regardless of political and security considerations. For example, it would involve implementing the UN’s 1,000-day project for maternal health and infant nutrition, aimed at ending the North’s chronically high rate of infant malnutrition. We can only hope that North Korea will respond positively to our proposal. It would be an important first step on a much longer journey.
Korea’s road to unification will undoubtedly be difficult, and will require the international community’s support. In return, the new, unified country that we aspire to build will serve the interests of its neighbors and those of the wider international community in promoting global peace and prosperity.
There is a recent precedent for this vision, and thus reason to be hopeful. Some 23 years ago, the geopolitical context that sustained the division of the two Germanys changed radically. Similarly, the day will come when Korea’s two UN nameplates will be replaced with one.