Korea Now by Senior Researcher Geir Helgesen, NIAS


Now ten years of active engagement between South and North Korea can be evaluated. Was it worth it? Is the relationship improving? Will North Korea dismantle its nuclear facilities and even give up any nuclear weapons it might possibly have in stock? Will the deals agreed upon by the outgoing South Korean administration and the North hold, or will the new, apparently more conservative, incoming president cancel the deals and take a fresh look at the situation? (This happened when Bush took over after Clinton; years of slowly built and fragile goodwill between North Korea and the US were lost.) As always there are many more questions than solid answers, and as always observers are ready to engage in what we like to call “educated guesswork”.

So here you have my speculations:

  • North Korea has not fulfilled the deal which was to disable its nuclear facilities and declare all of its nuclear programs by the end of 2007. This may well be due to technical difficulties, it is even more likely that it is due to differences of opinion between civil and military leaders, and most likely it is due to the fact that North Korea has been asked to give up its main card, and it does that only with great caution. The agreement is set up as a balanced process whereby the parties involved act in turn. There is a very delicate balance involved in this, and a lot of interpretation concerning how others move or fail to move. At the moment North Korea feels it have gone a long way, and expects the others to speed up their moves. In the end, which will be sooner rather than later, North Korea will deliver.
  • The next administration in Seoul, headed by Lee Myung-bak, a former top executive of Hyundai and mayor of Seoul, is expected to evaluate the projects that the former administration agreed upon with the North Koreans. This he clearly expressed during his election campaign, and he must be expected to act accordingly. However, it would be a mistake to equate Lee and Bush. A well informed South Korean businessman-cum-politician can hardly be expected to destroy the groundwork for improved relations with North Korea, and thus miss out on new business opportunities, undermine the basis of peaceful relations and risk destroying the positive relations built up during the last two administrations. A more realistic expectation will be that Lee Myung-bak, with his business background and practical political experience as mayor of the capital, will engage with North Korea in an even larger scale, and with a team of insightful advisors on North Korean affairs he will be able to maneuver the relations towards further integration.
  • A word of caution. The present situation on the Korean peninsula is delicate and as always influenced by positions taken by neighboring countries and the USA. The key ward is ‘balance’. Whatever China decides to do in relations with North Korea, it has to be cleared with the South and the USA. Japan has had its own agenda for a while, and thus been rather isolated in the six-party talks. A more proactive Japanese policy towards the North must be balanced with South Korea first and foremost, and also with USA and China. Russia is to some extent an outsider, but regarding energy (North Koreas number one problem) it may soon come to play a greater role to the development on the peninsula. And last but absolutely not least: the outcome of the presidential election in the USA may make every other action towards North Korea ineffective if the next president decides to go back to square one and look at North Korea through axis-of-evil lenses. But that, we guess, will not happen.
  • No matter the costs, the slow pace, the backlashes and disappointments, the Sunshine policy created by President Kim Dae-jung and now practiced for a decade has been worth it. The Korean peninsula no longer poses one of the most fragile security situations on earth, and the quality of life is thus improved both north and south of the demarcation line. In the South, a more relaxed and gentle political culture may develop. (Currently it is discussed whether to invite an official from the North to the inauguration ceremony. This would be a strong symbolic signal in that direction.) In the North, a continued and expanding open- door policy should secure better basic living conditions, sufficient food, heating, light, health provisions, education, work and transportation. Thereafter, having reached a level of normal living conditions, the North Korean society will have to meet the challenges of globalization, and also, hopefully in close cooperation with its neighbors, find its way to respond creatively to this.

Geir Helgesen, Ph.D.

Cultural sociologist


Read the report North Korea 2007 : assisting development and change / Geir Helgesen and Nis Høyrup Christensen

Korea Now by Senior Researcher Geir Helgesen, NIAS
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