Photo credit: Kyodo News
“Promises are made to be kept”; an aphorism suggesting that promises between sovereign states are more binding than those between individuals and should be enforced by international law. The Republic of Korea (henceforth, South Korea) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (henceforth, North Korea) are recognized as sovereign states by the international community, but inter-Korean relations are known as special relations, and different from relations between sovereign states. The history of inter-Korean relations in tumultuous, and the weight of accumulated ideas are not to be taken lightly.
The purpose of the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Reunification of the Korean Peninsula, which was agreed upon on April 27, 2018, was not to stress unification, (considered the final destination of inter-Korean relations,) but rather to address the risks and tensions at hand and to prevent war. In inter-Korean relations, stability is of paramount importance to South Korea. The following are important points regarding the Panmunjom Declaration:
First, the document’s appellation reflects its purpose. In the Panmunjom Declaration, South Korea uses the term "Korean Peninsula," and the North Korean academics use the "Joseon Peninsula." The use of different names in South and North Korea, who share a language and have no need for interpretation, reveal differences in conceptualization. During the Korean Empire, before the division of the Korean Peninsula, Korea was described as "the Korean Peninsula.” However, after the Korea-Japan Treaty, (specifically the Korea-Japan Annexation Treaty, 1910) the Korean Peninsula, which lost its status as a sovereign states, was given its regional name "Chosun" by Japan. North Korea, which denies the history of the Korean Empire and the provisional government of the Republic of Korea, did not use "Korea" or the "Korean Peninsula." In addition, North Korea's “Joseon Peninsula” refers to the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897), so it does not follow the name given by Japan.
Second, it is a matter of the minjok. Can one ethnicity encompass the two Koreas, even though there are differences in the concept of the ‘language of the Korean Peninsula’ and the Korean Peninsula? Before the Russo-Japanese War, the words ‘race’ and ‘people’ coexisted as a concept of political membership in the Korean Empire. At that time, ‘race’ was a concept that distinguishes the East from the West. Japan, which praised the Asian races in the early 20th century, promoted East Asian as the head of the world order. Thus, the concept of minjok was strengthened in the Korean Empire. The concept of ‘ethnicity’ was established in the context of the Russo-Japanese War and the annexation of Korea in 1910, and spread and settled in the wake of the March 1st Independence Movement. Due to these historical circumstances, ethnicity became an acceptable political term not only for South Korea but also for North Korea. Especially in the case of North Korea, there was a strong nationalistic tendency in the self-reliance ideology that Kim Il-sung implemented as leader. The terms that the North used to characterize political independence, economic independence and self-defence embody its citizens and its standards for all Korean people. The term “minjok hyulmaek," mentioned in the Panmunjom Declaration, also shows traces of traditional ethnicity recognized by North Korea. In the end, the Korean people in both South and North Korea embrace the political term "woori minjok" used in the Panmunjom Declaration, making them not only important concepts but also important phrases.
Third, the declaration intends to help "the two leaders boldly open a new era of national reconciliation and peaceful prosperity, ending the long-standing division and confrontation of the Cold War as soon as possible." The "Cold War" has ended, but there is still a need to reconcile the division of the peninsula that is a result of the Cold War. In 1945, the term Cold War spread from the West, referring to the non-violent but confrontational state of the major powers. As a side note, the Cold War can be traced back to the Bolsheviks Revolution in 1917. The ideological confrontation between liberalism and communism began then. Communism was acceptable on the Korean Peninsula because it provided resources that could assist in resisting Japan, alongside the global spread of communism.
Fourth, the violent Korean War broke out on the Korean Peninsula as opposed to the non-violent Cold War. Division began at the start of the Korean War, which established itself when North Korea invaded the South. Historically, many wars have been formally concluded through a peace treaty. A peace treaty defines the restoration of peace, the victory or defeat of each nation, and the consequent reparations. As the Korean War Armistice was declared 65 years after the fact, it is difficult for the two Koreas to assign responsibility for war. Therefore, they will move toward reconciliation, without mediating the specifics of a traditional peace treaty and other peacekeeping responsibilities. It is also a national privilege to be able to make history out of an oblivion of the past, rather than a forever lost memory.
Fifth, among the contents of the Panmunjom Declaration, there is a phrase that states “the need for reuniting separated families from the 8.15” and the phrase, "We decided to proceed with the reunions of relatives." 8.15 is not a reference to the start of the Republic of Korea in 1948, but rather the day of liberation from Japanese rule in 1945. August 15th is known as "End of War Day," rather than the defeat of the Asian-Pacific War. On the Korean Peninsula, it is also a day that the two Koreas celebrate together. In other words, the Panmunjom Declaration contains historical implications of Korea’s history with Japan.
When communism appeared on the Korean Peninsula, there were those who unconditionally embraced the ideology, and others who accepted communism and advocated anti-imperialism simultaneously. The anti-Japanese struggle also played a crucial role in the legitimization of communism spread by Kim Il-sung. Hence, Japan cannot be left out in discussions regarding inter-Korean relations for historical and security-related reasons.
The North Korea-Japan Pyongyang Declaration of 2002 was different from the 1965 treaty on Korea-Japan equity in that it specified "colonial rule of the past." Fuji has recently renewed the issue of its past history in addressing compensation for forced labor. On the other hand, the relationship between North Korea and Japan in 2002 includes a different issue than those of South Korea and Japan, due to North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens. This reduced the scope of Koizumi's diplomatic options at the time, and instead raised the Abe creed, a hard-liner Cabinet Minister on the abduction issue. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was elected Prime Minister in 2006 and again in 2012, had high approval due to his reaction to the North Korean missile issue during the 2017 election, however his approval ratings dropped due to involvement in a school scandal. In a statement in October 2018 of his continued conviction, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe vowed to "go beyond the framework of mutual distrust" with North Korea and normalize diplomatic relations with the North by resolving issues regarding abduction, nuclear missiles, and righting their unhappy past." It is difficult to predict how the two countries will move forward, but the past will surely be raised as a problem. It should be remembered that the two countries' dealings with the past still leads to conflicts between Korea and Japan. Though they should not be bound to the past, the weight of the past should not be taken lightly in North Korea-Japan relations, and consequently in Korea-Japan relations as well.
***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.