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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Korean unification has to be achieved, says South Korea official

The two countries are expected to meet during a summit at the end of April

Byoung-sam Koo, Director of the Policy Planning Division for the Ministry of Unification, at his office in the Government Complex in Seoul. Antonie Robertson / The National
Byoung-sam Koo, Director of the Policy Planning Division for the Ministry of Unification, at his office in the Government Complex in Seoul. Antonie Robertson / The National

When the two countries meet next month, it will be the third time North and South Korea hold diplomatic talks since the end of the war 65 years ago.

This week, high-level talks will be held between the Koreas to prepare for the April summit between the countries' respective leaders Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

The summit will aim to improve relations and resolve the standoff over the North's nuclear programme.

Icy relations between the two countries appeared to have thawed since the Koreas entered the Winter Games opening ceremony in PyeonChang under a unified flag in February.

Dialogue between North and South Korea had been completely suspended since the Kaesong Industrial Complex was closed in February 2016 up until the end of last year.

“There was no dialogue between both Koreas, no exchange or communication channels opened,” said Byoung-sam Koo, the director of policy planning at the Ministry of Unification in Seoul.

“For instance, when a North Korean fisherman’s boat drifted towards the South, we had to send it back to the North with no communication.

“We are a divided nation and we are living under escalated tension with no proper way of communication and this can escalate into more severe tensions on the Korean peninsula,” Mr Koo told The National as we visited Seoul.

But there is now a sense that the tides may soon change, spurred on by the North Korean Leader, Kim Jong Un, who — after months of fierce nuclear rhetoric and missile tests — expressed a willingness to send local athletes and a delegation to the country’s first Olympics in the South and resume talks.

“We televised our willingness to accept their offer so that’s how talks happened,” Mr Koo said.

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“After North Korea’s military provocations last year, the international community imposed sanctions against it but it criticised them and kept provoking. This in turn escalated tensions across the international community, to the point where military options were actually discussed.”

South Korea and the international community are now working together to address the issue. “We are taking a dual policy of imposing pressure on North Korea about the nuclear test and missile launch and we pursue dialogue and a peaceful manner of resolving this issue,” he said.

The participation of North Korea in the Games changed the perception of the South Korean public.

“As the worsening relations between the two Koreas and the provocations prolonged, this led to the Korean general public to think poorly of North Korea,” Mr Koo said.

“But as the female ice hockey team formed one united team playing against others, this led to a change in the Korean public’s perception towards North Korea in a positive way.”

He said the key pillar of the policy towards North Korea is to engage the public as much as possible in the development of policies towards the country and by building national consensus.

“By doing that, we will make every effort to build and [ensure] that the policy resonates with the general public,” he said. “The national unification contract is still ongoing.”

The inter-Korean summit next month is due to be followed by a face-to-face meeting between US President Donald Trump and Mr Kim by the end of May.

But Washington has cautioned that nothing has yet been achieved and reiterated that it would continue to maintain pressure and sanctions until North Korea takes tangible steps towards denuclearisation.

China’s approach is similar to that of the US, Mr Koo said.

“While they’re in favour of peaceful negotiations between the US and North Korea for peace on the peninsula, they are also in support of a denuclearisation dialogue while demanding for the suspension of North Korea’s provocations and the joint military drill between South Korea and the US.”

But Mr Koo said such talks were crucial for the stability and security of the Korean peninsula.

“Our government will make various efforts to make this possible,” he said. “Unification is nothing to wish for, it’s something we have to achieve. In Korea’s constitution, the south and the north are one territory and one sovereign nation so it’s our mission and obligation to work towards their unification.”