Talking it Over

From the March-April 1999 Trumpet Print Edition

North Korea’s recent offer to hold wide-ranging, high-level talks with South Korea has been welcomed by Seoul as a sign that relations between the two countries might be changing for the better. The two countries, which were divided into communist North and capitalist South in 1945, are still technically at war, having ended their three-year Korean war in the early ’50s with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

The proposed talks would be the first in several years. This time, as in the past, the North has attached conditions, including an end to the South’s military cooperation with the United States and a repeal of anti-communist laws.

Seoul has previously rejected both of these conditions. But this time, with an air of good will, despite encouraging the North to come to the negotiating table with no strings attached, it seems ready to talk, and has already approached China, the U.S. and Japan with appeals for support of the proposal.

A South Korean presidential spokesman said, “If we try to look at more of North Korea’s positive sides than its negative aspects, there will be a positive improvement in South-North exchanges.” Later, President Kim Dae-jung stated, “We must give to the North what we can afford to give. For example, we can give the North diplomatic ties with the U.S., economic cooperation and a guarantee for its safety. In return we must get promises from the North that it will never develop nuclear weapons and missiles and that it will never start an armed provocation.”

North Korea is approaching the talks with what is plainly a more definite purpose—“a view to preventing the imminent danger of war and bringing about a radical phase for national reunification this year.” Where is this unusual gesture of solidarity leading?

These moves raise some disquieting questions about the condition and future of democracy in the region. Which political system would prevail if the communist North were to reunite with the capitalist South? It is a far stretch to imagine North Korea opening its arms to democratic principles, especially as it is under the eye of its great communist neighbor, China.

And if South Korea were to relinquish its democratic structures, what might this mean for the region’s other freedom fighters—Taiwan and Japan? Without the strong military and political support given to this region in the past by the U.S., how long will these scattered democracies be able to survive under the intensifying pressure of their enveloping and well-armed communist neighbors?