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Opinion: Inter-Korea Reconciliation

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Some Thoughts on the Inter-Korea Summit

By HK Suh
October 5, 2007

On October 2, 2007, President Roh Moo-Hyun of South Korea stepped across the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) that divides Korea. Instead of flying from Seoul to Pyongyang, by walking from the Republic of Korea into Democratic People´s Republic of Korea for the inter-Korea summit that took place from October 2-4, 2007, Roh made a powerfully symbolic gesture toward an eventual inter-Korean reconciliation and reunification.

Unacknowledged in the worldwide media, however, was the historical fact that Roh was not the first person to step across the MDL. Indeed, for those of us who have been active for decades in working toward reunification, Roh´s step brought back unforgettable memories of a similar gesture in 1989 when a young South Korean college student named Im Soo-Kyung, after attending an international students´ festival in North Korea, decided to go home by walking across the MDL. Seeking to shatter the psychological and physical barrier that divided Korea during a tense period of inter-Korean actions—and continues to divide Koreans today—her unprecedented march across the MDL spoke to the passion of ordinary Koreans for unification. For this bold, simple, gesture that stirred Korean hearts and minds toward unification, Im was prosecuted under the draconian National Security Law (NSL) of South Korea and imprisoned for five years. (Unfortunately, the NSL continues to be in force today.)

Im, of course, did not seek the permission of the U.S. military to walk from North Korea to South Korea. Yet when President Roh decided to walk across the MDL, in order to walk from one half of the nation to the other, he was required to obtain permission to do so from U.S. General Burwell B. Bell, the head of the United Nations Command in Korea who also heads the (US-ROK) Combined Forces Command as well as US Forces Korea (USFK). General Bell´s command nominally oversees the southern side of the MDL including any business that transpires in or through the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The worldwide media failed to acknowledge the unfortunate reality that the head of South Korea could not move forward toward reunification without the permission of the U.S. military.

Since Im´s first historic step, inter-Korean relations have much improved. The first summit of the two Koreas in 2000 resulted in a flurry of exchanges, trade, and cooperation between the two sides. Over a million and a half South Koreans have visited the North, and hundreds commute daily to the Northern-based Kaeseong Industrial Complex. A highway and railroad track now connects the two sides, and preparations continue for a time when inter-Korean traffic will be both massive and integrated. The need to obtain permission from the U.S. government in order to pursue unification—the single most desired objective of all Koreans—is an anachronistic remnant of the Cold War. After more than half a century, that anachronism is poised to disappear. The two leaders of divided Korea have confirmed their respective governments´ commitment to a permanent peace settlement to replace the Korean War´s military armistice (a simple "cease fire"). Meaningful progress is being made through the concurrent six party talks to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, and there appears to be a genuine political will on both sides to move toward détente and normalization of relations between Washington and Pyongyang. North Korea no longer appears on the U.S. State Department´s list of countries trafficking in narcotics and expectations are that North Korea will be taken off the list of governments that sponsor terrorism by around the end of 2007. For the first time ever, with the Bush Administration´s blessing the North Korean Taekwondo Demonstration Team is undertaking an unprecedented good will tour of the U.S. Meanwhile, the New York Philharmonic is in serious preparations to perform in Pyongyang.

No doubt, skeptics and opponents in both South Korea and the U.S. will attempt to place new hurdles on the road to peace and reconciliation in Korea. But for those of us in the Korean American community who have worked for so long and so hard for reunification, there is no denying that we are in a very exciting and hopeful period. We are both witnessing and participating in the gathering of an inexorable momentum toward a new paradigm of peace and cooperation on the Korean peninsula.

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HK Suh is Secretary General of the National Association of Korean Americans (NAKA) and executive committee member of the National Committee for Peace in Korea. He is the former editor of Korea Report, published by the Korea Information and Resource Center.


(Korea Policy Institute) 10/5/2007