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The Peninsula

Cross-Strait Détente: A Case Study for Inter-Korea Relations?

Published February 28, 2012
Author: Sarah Yun
Category: Inter-Korean

By Sarah K. Yun

At the recent talks between North Korea and the United States in Beijing, U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy, Glyn Davies, once again stressed the importance of restored inter-Korea relations in order to resume the Six-Party Talks to Kim Gye Gwan, North Korea’s First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs.  Although the two Koreas are the parties most directly impacted by the security issues surrounding the Korean Peninsula, inter-Korea relations have been tense over the years, although some landmark accomplishments remain as symbols of inter-Korean cooperation.  On the other hand, the Cross-Strait relations have improved dramatically since 2008.  What caused such different outcomes?  What lessons from the Cross-Strait relations can be applied to inter-Korea relations?

Inter-Korea relations and Cross-Strait relations are inherently different in nature, history, and scope.  However, the two cases have interesting parallels from their Cold War split, largely driven by the ideological divide between capitalist democracy and communism.  They are also similar in that domestic politics plays an important role within the relations.  Additionally, the U.S. has played a key and complementary role in both relations through its support for Taipei’s engagement with Beijing and President Lee’s efforts to deter provocations by North Korea.

Despite these similarities, the two Koreas and the two China’s have taken divergent approaches to resolving their long standing separations. Experts have characterized Cross-Strait relations as “No Talks, Many Actions.”  There have been few official talks between the two sides but, a recent influx of trade, visits, investments, and exchanges.  However, these have been recent changes. Historically, communication between China and Taiwan ceased during the Cold War.  In 1979, after gaining confidence within the international community, China proposed the “Three Links” (trade, postal service, and transportation) and “Four Exchanges” (academic, culture, sports, and science and technology) to Taiwan.  Taiwan was not prepared to accept China’s offer at the time, therefore responded with the “Three Nos” policy of no contact, no negotiation, and no compromise.  In 1987 that changed. Taiwan began to allow visits to China and established two trade zones for Taiwanese companies in Fujian province in 1989.  During this period, Taiwan also renounced intentions to militarily recapture China.  In 1991, Taiwan officially declared end to hostilities and recognized the legitimacy of the Chinese Community Party.  Just when relations were on the road to improvement, then President Lee Teng-hui and his successor Chen Shui-bian argued for a Taiwan national identity separate from mainland China.

All of this was reversed dramatically by the election of president Ma Ying-jeou who argued for the improvement of Cross-Strait relations in six stages: 1) charter and direct flights, 2) economic and financial cooperation, 3) investment and trade, 4) Taiwan’s participation in international organizations and non-governmental organizations, 5) promotion of a Cross-Strait common market and Taiwan’s participation in the East Asian economic integration, and 6) a peace accord and confidence-building measure.  He also implemented his own “Three Nos” policy to include no unification, no independence, and no use of force.  The current challenge, however, is that the Cross-Strait relations are successful at cooperation and exchange, but unsuccessful at creating a linkage between economic relations and political transformation.  In other words, this framework is effective in maintaining status quo, but ineffective in creating political spillovers.  The ultimate goal is not reunification, but a comparative advantage that China and Taiwan are able to gain economically and diplomatically from improved Cross-Strait relations.  The Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) was the epitome of improved Cross-Strait relations based on the economy-first paradigm.

On the other hand, inter-Korea relations have been described as “No Actions, Talks Only.”  Although many official-level talks took place and declarations were announced between the two Koreas, it has had limited political spillover due to the fact that the Kim regime habitually exploited the cooperation projects.  Inter-Korea relations have for the most part been sustained by large-scale projects such as the Kaesong Industrial Complex, Mount Kumgang tourism, reunion of  separated families, and a few others.  A complete replication of the Cross-Strait framework would be difficult for the Korean Peninsula since North and South Korea have too much asymmetry of economic and political power as a result of North Korea’s military-first policy.  In essence, the current inter-Korea relations are focused on a framework of politics-first.

What if the inter-Korean model also focused on economic integration first by stabilizing economic and trade relations?  This could create a platform for North Korea’s economy to be integrated into the region and provide an opportunity for North Korea to rethink its position in the world economic order.  In return, South Korea could play the role of Taiwan in supplying needed capital to a reforming command economy and would be able to benefit from  lower labor costs, access to raw materials, and decrease future reunification cost by reducing the economic gap between the two Koreas.  This would require a framework change in a way that the two Koreas view the inter-Korea relations from a perspective of ideology to one of practical economic interest.  Focusing on the economic aspects would bring political spillover effects, as in the case of Kaesong Industrial Complex where more than 50,000 North Koreans are employed by the South Korea-run companies.  These North Korean laborers are empowered financially and economically compared to others across the country.  Overall, a comprehensive strategy like the Ma Ying-jeou’s six-step plan may be needed in Korea, but it would require two willing partners.

Whereas inter-Korea relations have undergone many challenges in the recent years, Cross-Strait relations have faced a dramatic détente.  The key point is that China reached out to Taiwan only after it gained status and confidence in the international community.  In other words, it did not feel threatened by Taiwan nor the international system, which was a product of China having a better economic foothold in the world.  From this, one can gather that unless North Korea’s economy is developing and industries being diversified, reconciliation and reunification may face more challenges.  Although  inter-Korean and Cross-Strait relations are not the same, a lesson learned from China and Taiwan’s experience is that economic cooperation is a key to closing the gap and improving inter-Korean relations.

Sarah K. Yun is the Director of Public Affairs and Regional Issues for the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

Photo from  Beautiful Taiwan’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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