The sinking of a South Korean warship in March raised tensions in the Korean peninsula to a high-point not seen in decades.
Pyongyang’s nuclear programme also remains a persistent cause of concern.
South Korea’s unification ministry aims to bring the two countries eventually back together and plays a vital role in Seoul’s dealings with Kim Jong Il’s regime.
But, it’s not plain sailing. Many problems remain as Euronews’ Sophie Desjardin found out in an interview with the South’s Unification Minister Hyun in-Taek.
Euronews: Minister, How has the latest incident affected negotiations between the two countries?
South Korea’s Unification Minister Hyun in-Taek:
‘‘This incident is a military provocation by North Korea. The north Korean submarine attacked
and sank the corvette Cheonan with torpedoes. In this incident 46 South Korean sailors were killed and it’s not the only incident to occur in our territorial waters. Clearly, it’s provocative. Until now the government made efforts to develop relations between our two countries but with this very risky and provocative incident, it is difficult to stay calm. Firstly we would like North Korea to take responsibility and apologise. We would also like those responsible punished and a promise by North Korea that this won’t happen again. Only after that, can our relations take a normal course. From this perspective, this incident is being discussed in the UN security council, with the idea that this must not be forgotten and the incident must not happen again. There’s no way we can turn our backs on what happened.’‘
Euronews:’‘After the sinking of the South Korean ship, your president took a very firm stance and made it clear that North Korea had to understand the South had its limits. What did he mean and has a line been crossed?’‘
Minister: ‘‘We’ve taken diplomatic measures: suspension of trade between our two countries and a ban on North Korean shipping in our territorial waters.’‘
Euronews:’‘You talk about not crossing a line, about this provocation going no further. What exactly does this mean?’‘
Minister: ‘‘This is a specific feature of the relationship between South and North Korea. It’s the North which is behind this incident that undermined security and peace in the peninsula, but at the same time, for the future, we have to think about unification. It’s a big dilemma for my government. We’re limited in how we can solve this problem. On the one hand, we have to take a stance and very firm action to teach North Korea a lesson to avoid such things happening again, but on the other hand, we can’t take measures that risk the relationship between our two country’s. We have to think about the future for the medium and long-term.’‘
Euronews:’‘What are the main obstacles to unification at the moment?’‘
Minister:’‘There are two hurdles, first, North Korea’s development as a nuclear state. If the North persists in developing its nuclear programme, there’s a danger that it will threaten the security of countries in the north-east and finally global security.My government has been working with the international community since the first nuclear crisis broke out in 1993. The disarmament of North Korea is the first thing to do, so it will be necessary to continue work in this direction. Second, there’s the war-like nature of North Korea, that we saw with the latest incident, military adventurism. These provocations are a challenge for us and threaten regional peace and security.
Euronews:’‘Do you think that reunification, like that of Germany, is possible in the near future?’‘
Minister:’‘Oh of course yes! There are two points to your question. First, the necessity of reunification and second, is it possible? We must keep in mind the history of the last 60 years, since 1945, the second world war and the establishment of the new world order. During the cold war the two opposing systems co-existed for a long-time before they fell apart. That allowed Germany to reunify – for 20 years now. We believe that history can bless the Korean peninsula as it blessed Germany 20 years ago. In the short term, the reality of unification will be difficult but ultimately it will happen. Our race has lived for thousands of years, the last 60 years are nothing in historical terms.
Euronews: ‘‘But that can only happen with a change of regime, like in Germany?’‘
Minister: ‘‘Because of this we’re doubling our efforts, but in regards to unification, it’s clear changing the regime will be gradual. Nobody can say when unification will be. Like in Germany, the German people said that unification would happen at some point but nobody could predict when that would be.
Euronews:’‘Forgive me for pressing the point but do you think it’s possible with Kim Jong Il in power? With his regime?’‘
Minister:’‘At the moment North Korea is run by Kim Jong Il. The North has this reality. There’s no point wondering if its good or bad, that’s how it is. Anyway, if our two countries need to talk, it’s with Kim Jong Il. We cannot pursue an ideal by hiding the reality. Therefore all we can do is give North Korea opportunities to change and in the meantime deal with the regime of Kim Jong Il.’‘
Euronews: ‘‘One last question, I would like to return to what you said earlier. You spoke about the UN security council. North Korea is more and more isolated internationally. You have a lot of allies but Russia and China are always reluctant to condemn the regime of Kim Jong Il. Is that something that worries you and what is your relationship with these two countries?’‘
Minister:’‘We have diplomatic, political and economic relations with China and Russia. In regards to the incident with the ship Cheonan, different views were expressed regarding what measures to adopt. But we think China has a good understanding of what happened. The international community is made up of countries with differing interests. Dialogue, understanding, and real-politic are necessary. We’ve spoken with China and Russia and it appears that the results obtained with these two countries will go before the UN security council. Very soon I think we will get what we want from the international community.’‘