Forget about the “Trustpolitik,” Let’s Talk Won
In an interview at the Blue House with French newspaper Le Figaro, President Park Geun-hye said that she is willing to meet with Kim Jong-un “any time” and that South Korea is “prepared to help North Korea.” Of course, she did not forget to add that such a conversation would certainly not be “talks for talks’ sake.” That Park left the next day for a tour of Western Europe could be seen as her symbolic way of saying: “Hey nation(s), think about that.” Professor Jin Jingyi (진징이) of Peking University (베이징대학교) did think about it, and had the following to say: it’s all in the structure.
Jin, a Chinese professor of Korean descent (조선족) and columnist for Hankyoreh, brings a pragmatic perspective characteristic of the Chinese, but with an ethnic touch; Korea is, after all, his “nation” too. The title of his column, published after the Park interview: “The Dilemma of North-South Trust Building.”
The dilemma is, according to Jin, that political structure prevents trust building from ever getting off the ground. By definition, a dilemma is a problem offering two possibilities, neither of which is particularly ideal or desirable. An alternative definition of a dilemma, then, is the Korean “problem:” one nation, two polities, two political leaders, each advocating incompatible political solutions to the issue of division. Jin describes this as a zero-sum relationship, as follows:
In a zero-sum relationship, because both sides are trying to beat the other, an equal relationship is not easily cultivated. [On the Korean peninsula] the idea is not simply to beat the opponent in a competition, but to restore oneself. In North Korea, the saying “Holy War for Unification,” and in South Korea, “Unification for Liberal Democracy,” are two different methods by which each country wishes to make the other submit to its will.
To Jin, and as most readers are likely to agree, the “basic roots” of the two different political visions were planted more than a half-century ago following the division of the peninsula at the end of World War II. Since the foundation of their respective governments, the North was to the South a “lost territory” to be recovered, whereas for North Korea, Seoul was initially considered the capital [under foreign occupation]. Even now, both governments view the other as wholly illegitimate.
How can there be trust, Jin asks, when the political goal of each country is to bring about the other’s demise? The only thing worth trusting is “that each side is trying to bring about the collapse of the other.” The root of this distrust,” claims Jin, “is here.” He elaborates:
In a way, North-South domestic political structures are causing a conflict of power. From the time of division until today, North-South relations have always been run according to the politics of each country. Perhaps domestic politics have been more important than unification.
Rather than quibble about “domestic politics,” Jin thinks trust can be built by altering the structure. Instead of fighting a hopeless political battle, he suggests shifting the conversation away from “political trust” and towards “economic trust.” In fact, he reasons that a structural shift from the politics of trust to the economics of trust will bring about a natural improvement in North-South relations:
Is economics itself not based on trust and the fulfillment of commitments? If so, then economics is trust. A characteristic of the North-South political structures is that every time a government changes or new leaders come to power, ‘trust’ fluctuates.
Jin points to the negotiations regarding the restarting of the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC; 개성공단) to support his understanding of structurally “buildable” trust. The negotiations, Jin claims, “are not about building political trust.” Au contraire, the KIC is operated “according to economic logic.” What he means is that through “continuous economic exchange… trust is built.” After all, “Mainland China and Taiwan are [building trust] like that.”
A structural shift is all the more important, Jin implies, because “North Korea is currently focusing on its economy” and making economic changes that “are clear to see.” The answer, therefore, to building North-South trust is found in changing the structure so that the zero-sum situation dissipates, brining about a win-win scenario. “The win-win created out of the economy will build trust and do away with the zero-sum game.”
Source: Jin Jingyi, “The Dilemma of North-South Trust Building” [남북한 신뢰 구축의 딜레마], Hankyoreh, November 3, 2013.
Correction: this post originally rendered 진징이 as “Jin Jing-lee” when, in fact, the accurate rendition is “Jin Jingyi.”