The Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation



This past week I had the opportunity to participate in the first international public symposium of the Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation. Established in July 2014, the PCUP is part of what appears to be a genuinely held policy goal of President Park Geun-hye to hasten Korean unification. The PCUP has three main tasks: to set out a blueprint and roadmap for unification; to build a national consensus; and to establish a system of cooperation among government agencies and NGOs.

Some might regard the first two goals as potentially contradictory, and indeed the Committee has been a politically sensitive issue within South Korea. Park’s appointees come from all of the previous democratically elected governments, and pretty much cover the South Korean political spectrum. Given the degree of internal political polarization, not surprisingly the PCUP has taken some criticism from the left, but there seems to be some kind of implicit acceptance of the initiative which could signal its potential viability beyond the Park government.

President Park serves as chair of the PCUP. There are two vice-chairs, one for the government and one for the private sector. Under them are four subcommittees: diplomacy and security, economy, society and culture, and politics and legal institutions. (Human rights issues are implicit in the agenda of the politics and legal institutions subcommittee but were not highlighted in the presentation I received.) Under these subcommittees are numerous task forces to carry out individual projects and initiatives. According to the materials I was provided at the symposium, the PCUP has had six quarterly general meetings, and more than 170 subcommittee and task force meetings thus far, and has numerous public meetings with targeted audiences such as university students, businessmen, and civil society groups. It is a comprehensive and highly articulated organization.

So, for example, a task force of the diplomacy and security subcommittee has developed a proposal for a DMZ World Eco-Peace Park, aiming to promote inter-Korean tourism. Other initiatives address such issues as health treatment for North Koreans at the Kaesong Industrial Park; vaccination of North Korean children; building new facilities for raising tree saplings; and exchange of forest seeds. The economics subcommittee has produced reports on agricultural development, economic integration, and assisting North Korean refugees in the economic sphere. A 142-page report on marketization in North Korea came out in August. The implicit message of the work program of the economics group is that South Korea should engage with North Korea and promote economic development there as a precursor to closer political integration. Of course, promoting economic development could also be interpreted as a hedge in the event of North Korea’s collapse.

The North Korean reaction, at least publicly, has not been supportive. Its attitude matters because the PCUP envisions unification coming through a protracted consensual process (as the PCUP materials describe it a “sustainable relationship based on trust” promoted through “small yet continuous efforts at cooperation"). Consequently, much of the PCUP work program requires the acquiescence, if not active cooperation, of the North Korean government.

And then there is the inherent tension created by the fact that unification could occur more abruptly than the PCUP envisions. So honest planning necessitates consideration of a range of scenarios. But diplomacy constrains the PCUP to focus on what amounts to a best case scenario. Other parts of the South Korean government are planning for less benign processes, as I described last year.

The international symposium held last Friday was well attended. I was asked to comment on a presentation by Professor Kim Byung-yeon on issues related to economic integration. It was a very sensible presentation focusing on what were the binding constraints on North Korean economic development and what were politically realistic measures that could be undertaken to address them, explicitly recognizing that at present some badly needed reforms appear beyond the pale politically. As a consequence, despite the explicit focus on cooperative scenarios, it was not all just happy talk. Kim presented some stunning evidence on differences in cognitive abilities between South Koreans and North Korean refugees. He would be the first to admit that the results are preliminary and there could be a range of possible explanations (sample selection bias with regard to the refugee population, prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues in the refugee community, the quality of North Korean education, etc.) some of which could carry significant implications for the economic revival of North Korea.

The PCUP will be hitting the road, visiting UCSD later this month, and I expect that Steph will report on activities there. Whatever the specific outcome, it is an organization well-worth following.

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