Forget about the “Trustpolitik,” Let’s Talk Won

By | November 07, 2013 | 7 Comments

Trust can come in many forms. According to Jin Jing-lee, the key is to transit away from futile attempts to foster political trust, and onto an "economics-first," or "trusteconomik" if you prefer, policy. | Image: Neal Sanche

Trust can come in many forms. According to Jin Jingyi, in Korea the key is to transit away from futile attempts to foster political trust, and onto an “economics-first,” or “trusteconomik” if you prefer, policy. | Image: Neal Sanche

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.”


  1. First is first – his name is not Jin Jing Lee… His name is Jin Jingyi (金景一) or in Korean Kim Kyong Il (김경일). I know him very well; he is the former head of the Department of Korean Language and Culture at Peking University. He is from Yanbian originally.

    Second, unification politics by both governments have done far more to harm any possibility of unification than help it – and this is on purpose. The ruling powers of both countries have no real interest in (sudden) unification, but use it as a propaganda tool. In the ROK, general political apathy, especially for the North, has left the populist yearning for reunification dry. On the other hand, unification politics are still largely important in the North. If both countries were to move away from unification orthodoxy, begin to accept their differences, and leave unification politics out or at least set them as a long term aspiration, then we could potentially see more trust building in terms of institutional and policy development.

    Third, economic trust is clearly important, but within the current structure of N-S as well as N-anyone relations, without institutions and policy changes, win-win economic trust only lasts as as long as the political climate allows it to last – and domestic politics in both the DPRK and ROK can foil this “trust” at anytime. Risk therefore remains high and guarantees are all but impossible. Economic logic and political logic are not always aligned, and this is especially true in Northeast Asia’s Great Game political arena.

  2. Matthew, thanks for pointing out the inaccurate rendition of the professor’s name (notice the correction). And double thanks for your insightful comments. Hope to see you comment on future posts.

  3. No worries! Also, any idea why Hankyoreh is using revised sinofied names in Korean? 베이징대학교 for Peking University (normally 북경대학 北京大學)and 진징이 for Jin Jingyi’s name (should be 김경일 金景一)? The DPRK started doing this about three years ago or so and I still find it really strange. Pressure from Beijing perhaps on the Koreas to use Chinese sounds as opposed to character meaning conversions?

  4. That’s an interesting observation. It could be that Jin Jingyi is more often used in English. But that would only explain one case. A little additional searching revealed to me that Jing Jingyi was at an Asan Institute event (the China Forum). They used Jing Jingyi in the program, rather than Kim Kyong-il.

  5. He would definitely use Jin Jingyi in English, as he is Chinese, not Korean, so the name on his passport and any official document will read Jin Jingyi. All Chinese professors follow this standard, including the Chosonjok profs up in Yanbian. Still strange that in Korean they are using Chinese sounds as opposed to what his name is in Korean… Sounds very strange this way.

  6. Right you are (I should give up the name thing–Jin is simply “professor” to me from now on). I can remember taking Korean classes at Seoul National reading/hearing 베이징대 with 북경 in parentheses or as an aside. Or maybe it’s because 북경 is rendered often as Beijing–also more popular in English than Peking–which, somehow, by some process/feedback loop, lead to the current revised sinofied usage. But then there are still the names…

    More interesting, to us both I think, is that the “professor’s” columns are some of the more objective/well-reasoned opinions you’ll read at Hani. He has a soft spot for Korea, for many reasons probably, but he doesn’t fall victim to the progressive lament made by so many other op-ed writers and the editorial staff at Korea’s premier progressive daily.

  7. I’m nearly certain the “sinofication” is due to pressure from Beijing to use Chinese sounds – I have no idea why, as they are meaningless in Korean. Maybe they just want Korea to return the favour after China switched the Chinese name for Seoul from 漢城 to 首爾.

    I’ve known Prof Jin personally since 2009 or so. He and his brother – Jin Qiangyi – are powerhouses of Korean studies in China. He (and his brother as well) both have fascinating (and different) backgrounds when it comes to their work and experience in the DPRK – both were quite active there in the 1980s and 1990s… (I am not at liberty to discuss what happened next on an open forum)

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