LETTER FROM SEOUL
The slow path to Korean unification
South Korean president Ryo Moo Hyun said it all. He told over 120 foreign journalists on Monday that in the past, whenever journalists or foreigners came to Korea, they would be automatically taken to see Panmunjom, the world's most fortified buffer zone, 50 kilometres north of the capital city.
"Now they are visiting Kumgang Mountain and the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea.
"The number of North Koreans working at the complex will increase from 7,000 to 11,000 in the future. It is symbolic of peace and reconciliation," he said.
Of course, he was elated as he attributed the success of the latest round of six-party talks in Beijing on February 13 to South Korea's policy of consistent and continued engagement with North Korea - sometimes to the chagrin of the United States.
Over the past four years his administration has held bilateral talks on a total of 119 occasions, compared to only 83 during the entire five-year rule of the Kim Daejung administration.
A total of 13 agreements were signed between the two Koreas that covered the whole gamut of cooperation.
South Korean investment in North Korea has doubled, and last year alone at least 100,000 South Koreans visited the North as tourism continued to grow.
The latest round produced positive results that have improved both inter-Korean ties and North Korea's relations with the United States and Japan. President Ryo said that if the programme to de-nuclearise North Korea is completed, relations would improve further.
This would bring greater prosperity to the Korean Peninsula and perhaps eventual reunification. But the president did not spell out in detail what the future scenario would be regarding when and how the two Koreas might come together.
However, listening to the soft-spoken Nak Chun Paik, emeritus professor at Seoul National University, one could easily be convinced that North and South Korea will be reunified sooner than anyone might expect.
Unlike others, the professor firmly believes that under a loose confederation system the two Koreas can coexist and go about their own business without mutual fear.
"Eventually it will lead to reunification. This way it will bring gradual changes on both sides, and that is a win-win situation," he told The Nation.
Paik said that the experience of three recent unifications - in Germany, Vietnam and Yemen - could not be applied to Korea because of the unique situation on the Korean Peninsula and the legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.
The two Koreas fought fierce battles with heavy casualties. The United Nations and the United States both became involved in the hostilities. Over three million people were killed and even today families still mourn for their lost relatives and those who were separated from them because of the conflict that took place over five decades ago.
Paik said that both sides want to take the process slow, thus ensuring the survival of the Kim Jong-il regime. Any sudden change or collapse in the North would destabilise the whole Korean Peninsula and affect the economy and security of South Korea.
It would also cause a great influx of refugees to flee from the North to the South.
"The only way North Korea will give up nuclear arms is if it is assured that its regime will survive and that the United States will not attack," he said.
Paik said that since February's successful talks, progress has been made on two fronts: in inter-Korean ties and North Korea's relations with the United States and Japan. Korean scholars and the public believe that if these important bilateral ties improve further and North Korea continues to be cooperative, then the United States will slowly disengage itself from the Korean Peninsula.
This would also reduce simmering tensions. The number of American troops on the Korean Peninsula could also be reduced for the first time since the Korean War.
Paik believes that it is essential for the two Koreas to be left alone to manage the process and talk about their future integration without outside interference.
Both Ryo and Paik talked about the importance of establishing a council to look after peace and reconciliation.
Ryo said that the six-party talks format could turn into a permanent multilateral security framework to oversee peaceful transformation and settle conflicts related to disarmament or border disputes.
Paik said something like an EU Council would be sufficient to ensure that both sides can peacefully coexist.
Ironically, while President Ryo was stressing the importance of reconciliation and the opening up of North Korea, the daily organised tours to Panmunjom, Dora Observatory and other spots along the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) continue unabated.
One of the more popular tours is to visit the Third Tunnel located near the Demilitarised Zone. The 1,635-metre long tunnel was dug in 1978 by North Korean agents as a means to infiltrate Seoul.
The tunnel is two metres wide and two metres high - big enough to allow the rapid movement of armed soldiers in case of war. Tourists can walk through the tunnel with guides who have memorised in amazing detail how North Korea intended to take the southern capital by force.