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(News Focus) Koreas urged to raise exchanges for path to unification: analysts

2015/06/22 11:54

SEOUL, June 22 (Yonhap) -- South and North Korea should revive cross-border exchanges and cooperation to prevent their strained ties from worsening and prepare for unification, experts said Monday.

Even as people on the Korean Peninsula share the same history, language and culture, the two Koreas have been divided following the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce, not in a peace treaty.

The conflict broke out on June 25, 1950 when the communist North Korea above the 38th parallel -- a line drawn after World War II to divide Korea between the U.S. and Soviet influence -- invaded South Korea.

The war ended on July 27, 1953, with the signing of an armistice that left the two countries separated.

Since then, inter-Korean tension has never ceased as the North conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 and test-fired ballistic missiles in defiance of relevant U.N. resolutions.

During South Korea's previous two liberal administrations from 1998 and 2008, reconciliation and exchanges bloomed on the divided peninsula, resulting in historic inter-Korean summits in 2000 and 2007.

But conservative successors have pursued a get-tough policy toward the North. The Seoul-Pyongyang ties have been further stained in recent years following the North's torpedoing of a South Korean warship and its shelling of a border island in 2010. Seoul imposed economic sanctions on Pyongyang to punish it over the deadly incidents.

Experts said that this year can be a critical time for inter-Korean relations, calling for the Seoul government to seek exchanges and cooperation with the North to prepare for an eventual unification.

This year also marks the 70th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule.

"It is necessary to increase exchanges and cooperation if (the two countries) are to improve the frayed relations and bring lasting peace to the peninsula," said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "Seoul's inter-Korean policy should not be swayed by changes of the governments or political spectrum."

   Since taking office in February 2013, President Park Geun-hye has pursued a signature policy of the so-called Korean Peninsula Trust-Building Process, which calls for expanding cross-border exchanges via trust-building steps, an idea rejected by the North.

Park has stressed that South Korea is seeking to lay the groundwork for peaceful unification with North Korea. She unveiled her unification initiative in Dresden, the former East German city she traveled to in March last year.

In the landmark year of 2015, albeit fragile, signs of improvement in the Seoul-Pyongyang ties appeared to arise.

In May, South Korea said it will encourage civilian groups to boost inter-Korean exchanges in such areas as culture, sports and history if they could help restore national unity and open channels for cooperation.

The North had rejected Seoul's proposal for talks, calling for the South to scrap its punitive actions against Pyongyang.

But last week, Pyongyang issued a rare statement reading that it is ready to hold dialogue with Seoul if certain conditions are met, including the suspension of the South's joint military drills with the United States.

"The (South Korean) government calls on North Korea not to attach preconditions for the talks. Pyongyang should actively respond to civilian inter-Korean exchanges," Unification Ministry spokesman Lim Byeong-cheol said at a press briefing on Monday.

"Seoul plans to make efforts for better inter-Korean ties while closely watching the positive aspects of the North's statement," he added.

Speaking to a forum held in Seoul last month, renowned U.S. professor Francis Fukuyama stressed the importance of more "grassroot" contacts between the two Koreas to promote trust-building as there is no hope for eliciting exchanges at the government level.

Some analysts said that South Korea needs to show "flexibility" in dealing with the North by considering softening its sanctions against Pyongyang or making attempts to have contact behind closed doors.

"South Korea could not lift the sanctions, but it can show sincerity by curbing Seoul activists' launch of anti-Pyongyang leaflets or approving civilian exchanges further," said Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies under Seoul National University.

sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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