South Korea's New Leader Seeks EU-Style Unification With Kim Jong Un

South Korea's new leader has opted for a tougher approach toward North Korea than his predecessor, but his administration does envision a potential path to a peaceful future for the two rivals and their shared peninsula.

Seen by Newsweek, the framework set up a three-phase roadmap first involving reconciliation and cooperation, then the creation of a Korean Union and, finally, a unified Korea. The plan was rooted in a long history of unification policy dating back at least to 1989, when the three-phase approach was first established and subsequently adopted by successive administrations, most recently by that of President Yoon Suk-yeol, who took office last month.

Speaking on the first step, a South Korean official told Newsweek that "under any administration, we will always support inter-Korean cooperation and exchange."

On the Korean Union, the official described the concept as "very similar to the European Union model, but in our idea of the Korean Union, we have two different systems and two different governments under the same country."

"We have different ideological systems in the country then," the official added, "but we have the same country in which we try to promote a joint, one-market economic model, kind of a de facto unification."

This provisional union would include the creation of a single economic zone and freedom of movement and residence between the two Koreas, officially known as the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK).

The final phase, as described by the official, would constitute a "unified Korea, a unified country, one liberal democracy and market economy in this phase of unification." The official acknowledged that the plan hinged on some level of "assumption" that "there will be some gradual change and transformation in the DPRK," and "that's why we have phase one and phase two."

And while Yoon took on the mantle of a decades-long, seemingly intractable effort to bring the two Koreas together, he has sought to set a rigid tone on certain issues. And the South Korean official asserted that, in this administration, "there will be no appeasement for North Korea."

Among the issues that would need to be addressed was that of human rights, a sensitive topic as North Korea denies any systematic abuses. Nonetheless, the Yoon administration sees it as a priority.

"This administration actually gives more voice to the human rights issues," the official said, "and we're actively trying to participate with the international community on North Korean human rights issues."

Even so, the official said Yoon was willing to extend an open hand to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un with no strings attached.

"We are very open to any kind of humanitarian assistance to the DPRK without any condition or any political and military situation," the official said. "We are very open and consistently try to support the North Korean people."

South, Korea, Yoon, and, North, Korea, Kim
South Korea's new leader has opted for a tougher approach toward North Korea than his predecessor, but a plan put forth by his administration envisioned a path to a peaceful future for the two rivals and their shared peninsula. This combination image shows South Korean President Yoon Seok-youl (left) in May and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un in June. Chung Sung-Jun/Pool/AFP/Getty Images/Korean Central News Agency

Yoon, a former top prosecutor who took office last month after leading his conservative ticket to victory against a contender from then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in's liberal camp, has expressed criticism of his predecessor's first-order focus on inter-Korean peace. Moon met Kim a record four times as part of a peace process launched in 2018 to no avail as frictions ultimately prevailed.

The populist Yoon has instead sought to emphasize a closer alliance with the United States and a need to accelerate an existing push for stronger national defense capabilities.

"Deterrence should be prioritized by ROK-U.S. alliance, and then we have no choice but to strengthen our security cooperation with the United States," the South Korean official said, "then we need more investment on the alliance, deterrence and training."

This was especially the case given a potentially destabilizing international security situation involving major powers in close proximity to the Cold War's oldest active front line.

"We have to cooperate with the United States, that's important," the South Korean official said. "And also this comes with U.S.-China competition and Russia's war in Ukraine. The order of international politics is not compatible with the previous approach of peace-first, as the security on the Korean peninsula is the most important one at this moment."

But the new administration in Seoul has continued to express a willingness to engage with Pyongyang's leadership, and it's looking to offer Kim incentives to reciprocate at a time when the North Korean ruler has admitted to severe shortcomings in his country's economic outlook, a crisis potentially exacerbated by the announcement last month of the country's first confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Should North Korea once again consider shuttering its nuclear weapons program, which reports suggest has only been expanding since the collapse of inter-Korean dialogue, then, the South Korean official said, the Yoon administration was willing to invest in its longtime foe and even offer assurances against future hostilities.

"If North Korea decided to denuclearize, we can provide not just economic prosperity for the DPRK, but also some security guarantees and peace regime," the South Korean official said. "All those ideas could be included in this audacious plan so that we could make some change in Kim Jong Un's calculation."

Unification, activists, raise, peace, train, Korea, DMZ
Pro-unification activists set up an installation showing trains on the Korean peninsula during a rally urging the South Korean government to connect the inter-Korean railroads, at Imjingak peace park near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas in Paju on November 19, 2021, as they wrap up their 70-day nationwide march to mark the third anniversary of the Panmunjom declaration between then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

Korea has been divided since the Soviet Union and the U.S. established separate allied states bordered by the 38th parallel in the aftermath of World War II. Their mutual foe, Japan, had occupied the peninsula since 1910, and the two new states quickly became one of the earliest, deadliest flashpoints in the Cold War as they fought from 1950 to 1953, with the Soviet Union and the newly established People's Republic of China backing Pyongyang, and the U.S. and United Nations allies supporting Seoul.

The devastating conflict resulted in a ceasefire along what is now known as the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Without any peace treaty, the two sides technically remain at war to this day.

The first major breakthrough in tortured inter-Korean ties came at the dawn of the 21st century, when leaders from both sides held their first summit in 2000 and the two sides officially agreed on an eventual path toward reunification. A second summit was held in 2007 and some three summits were held in 2018, as well as a trilateral meeting the following year at the DMZ between Kim, Moon and then-U.S. President Donald Trump, who had held two historic summits of his own with the North Korean ruler.

Before the peace process unraveled in the latter half of 2019, the two Koreas took landmark steps toward reconciliation, including the dismantling of border guard posts, pledges for inter-Korean infrastructure projects and the establishment of a joint liaison office that was demolished two years ago in an explosive sign of a return to tensions.

Trump's successor, President Joe Biden, has said his administration remains open to diplomacy with North Korea and would meet unconditionally. At the same time, he has emphasized deterrence in light of Kim's recent pivot back to frequent weapons tests such as an intercontinental ballistic missile launch in March, the first since November 2017, and calls to develop new nuclear capabilities such as maneuverable hypersonic missiles and tactical warheads.

As Biden and Yoon coordinate their approach to North Korea, Kim has more recently focused on domestic developments, especially attempts to revive his economy and curb the spread of COVID-19. He has called on Washington and Seoul to rescind their "hostile" policies such as strict sanctions and joint military exercises before he would engage in dialogue.

Update 6/29/22, 3:45 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to include additional background on South Korea's three-phase plan for unification with North Korea.

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