Korean unification panel sparks controversy

A presidential panel for Korean unification came under fire on Wednesday over a remark by its vice chairman that the Seoul government has been preparing for reunification by absorbing the North as one of many possibilities.

According to local reports, Chung Chong-wook, one of the two vice chairmen, said Tuesday that the panel had been devising ways to achieve unification with various scenarios in mind, including unification that proceeds without an inter-Korean agreement and a merger of the two political systems.

At a forum held in Seoul, the former ambassador to China also noted that unification by "absorbing" the North could happen despite fierce resistance from Pyongyang and that it had been studied not only by the panel but also by other organisations within the Seoul government.

Chung's remark sparked a heated debate as it contradicts President Park Geun-hye's unification road map aimed at building trust and expanding dialogue and co-operation with the North. Park is the chairwoman of the panel.

It is also feared to further agitate North Korea as the regime has been escalating its criticism of Park's unification policy. Pyongyang has viewed Seoul's mantra of unification with great suspicion, arguing that Seoul is pursuing the goal of unification through forcible absorption.

In an apparent move to defuse the controversy, the presidential office and the panel hurriedly refuted reports on Chung's remark, claiming it was misinterpreted and that he was just trying to stress that unification achieved through inter-Korean consensus would cost much less.

"It is true that the unification panel has been preparing for unification but the claim that it has set up a team to (study achieving unification through absorbing the North) is different from the truth," presidential spokesman Min Kyung-wook said. The panel also said in a separate statement that the Seoul government was pursuing peaceful unification through reaching an inter-Korean agreement and that the committee had been maintaining that stance.

Despite the government's efforts to rectify the situation, Chung's remarks are expected to fuel suspicions over the Park government's North Korean policies and potentially give Pyongyang another reason to continue harshly condemning Seoul.

Park has been seeking support from the international community with her initiatives that aim at laying the groundwork for reunification, including extending aid to mothers and their babies, building infrastructure in the North in return for the right to develop underground resources and increasing bilateral exchanges in various sectors. The South Korean leader believes that reunification will provide great economic opportunities for the Korean Peninsula and neighbouring countries.

As part of her unification policy, Park launched the presidential committee for unification preparation in July. The 50-member committee is assigned to draw up a reunification blueprint and build public consensus. It includes 30 civilian members in order to take into account a wide range of public opinion and ensure transparency.

The role of the panel, however, has constantly been the subject of criticism, namely for its limited capacity and its overlapping role with the Unification Ministry.

"Research on unification is part of our mission but we are distracted by administrative work, including making contacts with more than 50 civilian experts and advisers," said an official at the panel on condition of anonymity. Creating a separate team, in fact, to study unification by absorbing the North would be impossible considering the panel's current capacity, the official said.

Following the latest controversy, a civil advocate group said it would withdraw from the panel, charging that it ignored various calls from society and that it is dominated by figures with close ties to the Park government.

"So far the panel has been holding exclusive discussions with a few figures who get along well with the government's policy," claimed the Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice in a statement. CCEJ is one of 122 civil groups named by the panel to represent various voices on unification.

"It has also degenerated into being a state-run organisation that plans to host events to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese rule this year," it added.