The Topchubashov Center has interviewed Rovshan Ibrahimov, Associated Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies on the reasons and consequences of the stunning events that unfold on the divided Korean peninsula.

Interviewer: Murad Muradov

 

Muradov: You have been living in South Korea for quite a longtime. Has there been a wide social consensus on the need to build peace with the unruly neighbour? 

Ibrahimov: Actually, the majority of the South Korean society is really interested in having peace established on the Peninsula, even though there is a sufficient number of people who are still skeptical about any progress in relations between the two states. But the long-term tendency favours the pacifist-minded Koreans whose number has been on a steady increase, especially among the young generation. A recent survey also shows how quickly the perceptions and expectations of the neighbour have changed within the South Korean society. Thus, before the summit between the leaders of the two states, trust to the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had equaled just 10 %, while after meeting it skyrocketed up to 78 %. A spectacular change indeed!

 

Muradov: What factor do you consider to have been the immediate trigger of the historic rapprochement? Is it the Western pressure, internal dynamics within North Korea or a gesture of good will from Seoul? 

Ibrahimov: I would stipulate four major factors that rather worked simultaneously: 

1) North Korea started to change: a new generation even within the nomenklatura is looking for higher standards, better opportunities and freedom of choice. There is an assumption that some pressure from within the establishment hadalready existed and this group had been actively lobbying for changes. Mr. Un himself is young, he is just 34 years old and was educated in Switzerland. So, he has personal experience of the Western life and can make sound comparisons. 

2) There is a factor of South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. After many years of conservative right-wing governments, he represents a central-leftist view, and he has always been supportive of a rapprochement and collaboration with the neighbours. He openly announced these views even when he was a candidate for presidency. 

3) International arena is not the same, it`s increasingly becoming more interrelated, interdependent, while economic and trade connections in the Asia-Pacific region are booming. So, the strategy of almost full isolation from the outside world can hardly be argued for any more. 

4) The anti-Pyongyang have made a significant contribution to the process. North Korea is now much more sensitive to them than in the 1990s, since living standards and expectations had long started to change. Middle class and elites are looking for sustainable minimum standards.

 

Muradov: What is the predominant feeling right now in the Southern establishment and wider society? Is it enthusiasm or rather caution and certain skepticism as regards further progress? 

Ibrahimov: There is serious skepticism about unification, even though both states have a respective program and policies to be taken. 82% of South Koreans, according to another survey, are against unification. The major reason is economic: the young generation looks for higher living standards, while today`s Korea already experiences certain problems regarding decent employment that could secure the expected well-being levels. These people rightly believe that the state would have to put an enormous amount of resources in the development of the North if unification happens, and this would aggravate socioeconomic problems. 

 

Muradov: What scope and pace of the rapprochement are now predicted? Is the prospect for robust economic cooperation, movement of peoples and even reunification real?

Ibrahimov: It is already confirmed that the activity within the Kaesong economic zone (an industrial region in North Korea formed in 2002) shall be re-launched. The idea is that labour force will be supplied by the North, but making investment and operating factories are the South’s responsibilities. This project considered to be an opportunity for a move forward, was frozen several years ago after Pyongyang was heavily sanctioned for its nuclear program and the tensions with the U.S. reached a peak. Among the other projects that can bring the two Koreas closer, the most widely discussed ones stipulate the construction of communication channels, including railroads and highways. This will be a revolutionary decision, if only possible, since it could enable many further collaboration opportunities. Pyongyang has already synchronized its time zone with Seoul in a highly esteemed symbolic gesture of friendship. But one should not hurry too much when it comes to the relationship between the two Koreas poisoned by 65 years of a frozen conflict. There are a lot of dangerous pitfalls, so each step of goodwill should be very careful.