Untangling the Spirit of Han on the Korean Peninsula & the Future of Trustpolitik

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by Hugh Segal and Tina J. Park
September 2015

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Untangling the Spirit of Han on the Korean Peninsula & the Future of Trustpolitik

There is something especially noteworthy in how the two Koreas climbed down from conflict to cooperation in the past week. After some forty-three hours of marathon negotiations, the Korean peninsula went from a “semi-war” state declared by the North to an unprecedented inter-Korean Joint Agreement, which not only dissolved military tensions but also paved the road for further dialogue and partnership. It also marked an important occasion when the deeply-rooted spirit of “Han” and politics of distrust were modestly set aside by the prospects of hope and trustpolitik.

"Han" is not only a Korean language short form for "Korea" itself, but also an ominous term reflecting a sense of oppression, resentment and hopelessness experienced by the Korean people. Stemming from a history of frequent invasions, the feeling of unresolved resentment is an important one in the Korean collective psyche, with a strong desire for meaningful apologies. The spirit of Han could be found on the face of a mother who lost her son in the sunken Sewol ferry, just as it could be found in an 85-year old South Korean man who has not seen his younger brother in the North in six decades.

It is easy for extreme politics, military drills, and the spirit of Han to take over the Korean peninsula very quickly. After all, the demilitarized zone remains the most heavily-armed area in the world, with soldiers armed to the teeth with latest weapons on both sides. A few shootings across the demilitarized zone, resumption of loudspeakers by the South for “truth messaging,” dispatch by the North of submarines and rocket placements, troop movements on both sides, plus the inevitable rhetoric of hostilities on both sides quickly began a new cycle of fear and paranoia. The confluence of all of this with annual training exercises by the U.S.-R.O.K. forces, on the land, in the air and at sea added a further element of unwitting threat from the North's perspective.

There is nothing new about provocations and ultimatums from the North Korean regime, which has been negotiating on the edge for most of its survival. This sort of ramp up has happened at least a dozen times in the last four decades. There have been rhetorical excesses that raised the nuclear trigger finger and testing pulse of the North, which reduced the chances for real progress in people-to-people relations between the families on both sides of the DMZ, and generally made things worse.

The outcome from the days of tension and remarkable pragmatic negotiations are, in contrast, quite hopeful . Recognition and regret by the North expressed relative to the South Korean wounded soldiers, a stand down by the South on the loudspeaker broadcasts, resumption of plans for family reunions by early fall and an agreement for further civilian exchanges on both sides represent a positive off ramp from an expressway to conflict than we have seen for decades.

This Joint Agreement broke the vicious cycle of provocation-negotiation-concession often found in inter-Korean crises, with North Korea expressing its regret for the first time in thirteen years for its provocations, with a clear sense of by whom and for whom. More importantly, Pyongyang showed willingness to remain at the negotiating table, to find Korean solutions for Korean problems without resorting to their powerful allies, and to trust their South Korean counterparts as reasonable partners.

The outcome from the days of tension and remarkable pragmatic negotiations are, in contrast, quite hopeful . Recognition and regret by the North expressed relative to the South Korean wounded soldiers, a stand down by the South on the loudspeaker broadcasts, resumption of plans for family reunions by early fall and an agreement for further civilian exchanges on both sides represent a positive off ramp from an expressway to conflict than we have seen for decades.

This Joint Agreement broke the vicious cycle of provocation-negotiation-concession often found in inter-Korean crises, with North Korea expressing its regret for the first time in thirteen years for its provocations, with a clear sense of by whom and for whom. More importantly, Pyongyang showed willingness to remain at the negotiating table, to find Korean solutions for Korean problems without resorting to their powerful allies, and to trust their South Korean counterparts as reasonable partners. battlefields of the Korean War and have much to gain from a closer cooperation in the realm of defence and peace-building.

The gap between the economic and social quality of life between the two Koreas remains vast with freedom from fear and from want only being a reality in the South. In the end, finding ways to dilute want and fear in the North is a challenge that will need to be faced. The Joint Agreement recently negotiated between the two Koreas, however tentative, is a step in the right direction.

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About the Authors

Hugh Segal is Master of Massey College, a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, Chair of the NATO Association of Canada and a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Tina J. Park is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Toronto specializing in Canadian-Korean relations and executive director of the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

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