According to Newsweek, 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 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.
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.”
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.