South Korea’s Unification Ministry has never lacked efforts to reach out to North Korea even if its gestures are always rejected. Every day without fail, the Unification Ministry send officials to the border village of Panmunjom to call North Korea at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. But for a year and a half running, the North hasn’t picked up.
The Unification Ministry has the goal of improving relations with the North to possibly work for eventual peaceful reunification. However, it is meeting serious challenges and even facing a crisis in light of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and continuous nuclear tests and threats.
The ministry also used to be until not too long ago, one of Seoul’s most powerful departments. It played a crucial role in engineering two historic summits between the leaders of the two Koreas and also launching joint economic projects in the 2000s. But all such previous efforts have been negated by the North’s nuclear ambitions and aggression.
It didn’t help that the nuclear problem is not just contained between the two Koreas. Other countries in the region, and U.S. allies have also been involved. The world has also stepped up pressure against the North.
Now the Unification Ministry is not as powerful, influential or even important anymore. The most important decisions South Korea undertakes related to the North come from the president’s office and the defense and foreign ministries. The Unification Ministry has been practically reduced to issuing “boilerplate denouncements of Pyongyang’s weapons tests and propaganda outbursts.”
Still, the ministry isn’t about to give up or losing hope that relations will get better again between the two sides. The election of a liberal president in May, after years of being under conservative leadership, briefly raised hopes. But North Korea is back to rejecting the Unification Ministry’s efforts including a proposal in July to hold inter-Korean military and Red Cross talks.
The unification ministry gained more prominence and influence under President Roh Tae-woo’s term starting in 1987. Roh made an effort to improve relations with Pyongyang following the fall of Berlin. He even elevated the unification board to the level of a vice prime ministerial department. The Koreas achieved a milestone by conducting the first ever prime ministers talks in 1990. Both countries even joined the United Nations at the same time in 1991.
Two succeeding liberal presidents even allowed South Korea to meet with the North’s leader in 2000 and 2007, Kim Jong-Il, the current leader’s father. Relations have deteriorated under the son’s regime as he conducted the country’s four of six nuclear tests. Kim also does not seem to see any value at all in dealing with Seoul, making the work of the unification ministry very difficult, and its goals almost impossible now.
South Korea has always expressed its opposition to the nuclear ambition of the North. Yet it remains critical now for the Unification Ministry to keep knocking on the North’s door. A former unification minister who served during the terms of liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun says Seoul just has to keep trying. He shares: “The ministry has to keep pestering Pyongyang over the military and the Red Cross talks. It has to keep placing calls on the Panmunjom telephone. The situation can quickly change and North Korea could feel the need for dialogue. When they do return, they will likely want to deal with the United States first, but let them try to accomplish anything in talks with Washington without the involvement of Seoul-it won’t work.”’
As far as the Unification Ministry is concerned, it is to the interest of both Koreas that they try still try to talk, so the calls will continue to be made, and the other line will continue to ring even if the other side does not want to pick up for now.