The South Korean government hopes to improve relations with North Korea through a “peace park” project that peacefully uses the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). In spite of significant obstacles to doing so, now may represent a good juncture to at least initiate discussions with Pyongyang.

With hundreds of thousands of troops ranged against each other along its 250-kilometer length, the DMZ between North and South Korea, which roughly follows the 38th parallel, along with its maritime extension, the Northern Limit Line, has been the most visible site of hostility between the two Koreas for over six decades.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, emphasizing the importance of trust-building efforts to enhance inter-Korean relations and promote the elusive hope of unification, aims to transform the 4-kilometer wide, heavily mined buffer separating North and South Korea – or at least a part of it – into an interface of cooperation rather than antagonism.

On the occasion of Korea’s Liberation Day on August 15 last year, President Park proposed to North Korea that the two countries combine efforts to build a “peace park” – entailing jointly utilizing the DMZ in a peaceful way.

Backing up such a vision with money, on January 2, 2014, South Korea’s National Assembly earmarked 30.2 billion won (US$28.7 million) for the project – in spite of this being 10 billion won less than requested by the Ministry of Unification – and last week the government further affirmed that it would push for a deal with North Korea.

While this signals increased importance attached to the issue by the South Korean government, ideas for the peaceful utilization of the DMZ have in fact been mooted for a number of years. Then South Korean president Roh Moo-hyun proposed cooperation over the DMZ to his counterpart Kim Jong-il during the second inter-Korean Summit in 2007.

In the latest plans, three South Korean border areas adjoining the DMZ – Paju, Cheorwon, and Goseong – are being considered as potential candidates for the creation of peace parks, which are envisaged to encompass a number of joint activities together with adjoining areas in North Korea across the DMZ.

… there may be an auspicious opening for President Park to approach the North on opening discussions over using the DMZ as a tool of positive engagement, rather than as the death strip, buffer, and no man’s land it has constituted for over half a century.

The idea of a utilizing the DMZ for peaceful purposes may not be as improbable as it first appears. Conservationists have pointed to the fact that the DMZ, in the absence of human interference, has inadvertently become a wildlife haven harboring many rare species. They argue for the establishment of a trans-boundary protected nature park subject to joint management between the two Koreas. Environmental cooperation can bring dividends for peace, or so the argument goes.

Others see the potential for greater cooperation and a culture of peace between the two Koreas through the symbolic establishment in the DMZ of a “world peace culture” town, museums, peace monuments, a peace industrial complex, as well as “passageways” including railroads and meeting-points physically linking the two Koreas, thus bridging the division.

Specifically, the proposals being considered are the creation of a world peace culture town at Paju, a peace industrial complex at Cheorwon focused on eco-friendly industries with workers being exchanged across the DMZ, and the third a World Peace and Ecology Lake Park at Goseong – all of which are intended to be linked with neighboring areas in North Korea, with the DMZ being at their center.

The DMZ is therefore seen as having a number of characteristics ranging from the political and economic to cultural and environmental that can be harnessed for non-violent purposes, and in so doing, the South Korean government hopes that one or a number of such “peace parks” can contribute to more peaceable relations with the North.

While sounding attractive on paper, ongoing tensions and other key obstacles may hamstring any projects involving the DMZ.

Not least is the fact that North Korea has shown no indication of being seriously interested in such proposals. While the Kaesong Industrial Complex and Mount Gumgang tourist project are viewed by Pyongyang as valuable sources of hard currency, the economic benefits to it of the creation of any peace park are not so readily apparent, with the exception perhaps of a peace industrial complex.

More fundamentally, any perceived “downgrading” of the status of the DMZ or its opening up is not part of Pyongyang’s calculus. In the absence of a formal peace treaty, the North Korean regime argues that a so-called peace park cannot be created in conditions of war. What is more, the North is more preoccupied with sealing its borders rather than opening them; worryingly for the regime, it is estimated that up to 100,000 defectors have crossed the border between China and North Korea since a devastating famine hit the North in the 1990s.

In sum, in the absence of a peace treaty, fears over defectors, and no clear-cut economic benefits for itself, North Korea may remain reluctant to join in cooperation on any peace park project with South Korea. Notwithstanding initial steps that could be taken, moreover, it is clear that establishing a full-fledged peace park in the DMZ can ultimately only be pursued as part of a broader peace process that addresses hard security concerns.

The above also reveals a more fundamental contradiction in how to pursue peace on the Korean Peninsula: while North Korea believes first and foremost in pursuing security guarantees before more substantive cooperation, South Korea views trust-building steps as essential to an improvement in relations.

This does not mean then that President Park’s park is doomed to failure.

Reducing tensions through cooperation over the DMZ can serve to have a positive impact on inter-Korean relations as well as the regional security environment more generally. A gradual or even partial de-securitization of part of the DMZ would represent an important milestone in this regard. However, North Korea will have to be persuaded of the benefits – not least economic ones – of participating in such a project. Further, it is important that plans evolve mutually and do not just represent the vision or agenda of one party, with the process and planning stage being just as important as any end result.

US-South Korea military drills aside, tensions have eased somewhat on the Korean Peninsula after North Korean leader Kim Jong-eun, in his New Year’s address, indicated a willingness to create a more conducive atmosphere improve relations between the two Koreas. Recently, for instance, North Korea has accepted South Korea’s proposal to hold family reunions which, if not cancelled, are planned to take place later this month.

This is a possible sign that North Korea wants to see a quick improvement in ties and also the resumption of lucrative cooperative projects, such as that at Mount Gumgang. If this is the case, there may be an auspicious opening for President Park to approach the North on opening discussions over using the DMZ as a tool of positive engagement, rather than as the death strip, buffer, and no man’s land it has constituted for over half a century.

Read the rest of the article on Asia Times

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons, Christopher John SSF

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