South Korea's unification politics

Starting in the late 1990s, successive liberal governments in South Korea have followed what's known as a sunshine policy of engagement with North Korea. South Korea's Unification Ministry has taken the lead in that effort. The aim has been to smooth the way towards an eventual reunification, one that might look like East and West Germany reuniting in 1990. But the former businessman who won last month's presidential election in South Korea says it won't be business as usual with North Korea. Lee Myung-bak says he wants to do away with the separate Unification Ministry by folding it into the Foreign Ministry. At a news conference today, Lee said the top priority for his government with North Korea is nuclear disarmament. Lee said, �Our cardinal effort will be placed on the complete resolution of the North Korean nuclear problem, and that will bring peace to the Korean peninsula.� What Lee did today was specifically link North Korean denuclearization with economic aid from South Korea. Lee ran for President on a platform of getting tougher with North Korea. His supporters say previous South Korean administrations repeatedly awarded North Korea and got nothing in return. But very few want to uproot the Sunshine policy altogether. So today Lee repeated a campaign promise to continue providing North Korea with economic assistance. Lee said his government will try to persuade North Korea that giving up its nuclear programs will benefit its regime and its people. He said the goal is to increase North Korea's per capita income to $3,000 US dollars over the next ten years. North Korea's current per capita income is estimated to be about a thousand dollars. Dissolving the Unification Ministry is not a done deal, it would have to be approved by South Korea's Parliament. And the ruling party is not going to take kindly to the idea of doing away with a government body that it has worked hard to build over the last decade. This Korea expert from the University of Georgia says closing the ministry would be a mistake, �Issues involving inter-Korean relations and unification are basically uniquely different from South Korean foreign policy. Foreign policy serves national interests whereas unification and national interests are entirely different.� He says issues of unification should be limited to North and South Korea and not mixed up with South Korea's broader foreign policy issues like relations with the US or progress in the six party denuclearization talks. But one of the Bush administration's former top policy advisors for North Korea says President-elect Lee's proposal will be applauded with Washington, �It's no secret that at times, the Unification Ministry, at times in its engagement with North Korea, was sometimes a bit too far ahead in the whole six party talks process and the denuclearization process. So I think it's something that will be welcomed more widely, not just by the United States.� If the plan does come to pass and South Korea's Unification Ministry ceases to control the flow of aid to the north, the former advisor says that's going to frustrate the leadership in Pyongyang, �A lot of the budget for Korean relations when through the Unification Ministry and the Foreign Ministry wanted to make certain that that was tied to progress in the six party talks. So I think the North Koreans are going to face more of an uphill battle in terms of inter-Korean assistance. And how they'll react to that is difficult to say at this point, but they won't like it, that's for sure.� So far, North Korea's state controlled media has refrained from going after President-elect Lee Myung-bak. It has pointed out, however, that Lee's appointment will please the hardliners in Washington.

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