1972 Declaration

Korea Times
Andrei Lankov

At 10:00 in the morning of July 4, 1974, Lee Hu-rak, the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA), convened a special press conference. It was just the place to drop a bombshell. He told the journalists that in May and June, secret high-level exchanges had been conducted between the North and South Korean governments.

Lee himself went to Pyongyang, while Seoul was secretly visited by Kim Yong-ju, the younger brother of then North Korean President Kim Il-sung. In those days Kim Yong-ju was considered as a likely heir to the North Korean dictator (Kim Jong-il was still too young).

The visits themselves were a sensation since for the two decades following the end of the 1950-53 Korean War there were virtually no government-level contacts between the two Koreas. These secret talks produced a document which is known as the “July 4 Declaration” to the Koreans, but in English language publications it is usually referred to as the “1972 Declaration.”

The declaration stated that both Korean governments were committed to eventual unification, and that this unification should be reached independently (without the involvement of foreign forces), peacefully and with respect to their political and ideological differences.

Frankly, it was not very precise wording. However, in one regard the document was important indeed: for the first time in decades it stated that both Korean states, at least theoretically, were ready to coexist and negotiate.

The declaration produced much hype in the international media, and was welcomed as a “great breakthrough.” Of course, this was not the case, and all long-time Korea watchers knew only too well that from time to time some events would be presented by the world media as a “great turning point” _ only to be forgotten or made irrelevant in few years.

Still, the 1972 Declaration was surely a sign of new times: grudgingly, each Korea began to accept existence of the other side. Not its right to exist, God forbid, but merely its physical existence as a rather unpleasant but unchangeable fact.

This turn took place just after the worst period of confrontation, when the two Koreas seemed to be on the eve of a second Korean War. In 1968 North Korean commandos stormed (unsuccessfully) the presidential office of Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul, and they waged campaigns in the mountain ranges along the eastern coast of South Korea.

Seemingly influenced by the success of the Vietnamese Communist guerrillas, the North Korean strategists believed that a Communist revolution could be started in the South as well.

However, by 1970 Kim Il-sung and his coterie finally realized that their hopes for a Vietnam-style uprising in the South were unfounded. Perhaps, the news from Germany where the Eastern and the Western states finally recognized each other, also had some impact: Koreans always paid attention to events in Germany, another divided country.

South Korea changed its strategy as well. Since 1948, the South Korean state had not made a secret of its willingness to use all means, including military ones, to achieve unification and the “liberation” of the North from “Communist slavery.” (The North Korean leaders, in their turn, vowed to save Southerners from “Capitalist hell”).

However, on August 15, 1970, President Park Chung-hee said that unification should be achieved peacefully. He addressed the North Korean leaders (the same people who tried to kill him two years earlier) and urged them to engage in peaceful economic competition.

This statement reflected a new confidence in Seoul: throughout the first decade of the dictatorial but efficient rule of Park, South Korea’s economy was booming. The South Korean leaders thought they would win the economic competition. We know now that they were correct in this assumption.

Hence, negotiations made sense, at least as a way to win time. Indeed, for a short period after the 1972 Declaration there were a number of exchanges and contacts. The Red Cross societies of both Koreas were engaged in the negotiations of a painful question: the arrangement of meetings between members of separated families.

For all practical purposes, in those years the Red Cross societies acted as major channels of dialogues, hence both sides staffed these NGO-type bodies with high-level officials. The first rounds of talks led to nothing, but even the fact that both Koreas were willing to talk was seen as a great novelty after 25 years of division, war, and propaganda.

In 1973, the ROK government made it clear that it would tolerate the participation of North Korea in international organizations. Shortly before that, the principle of mutually exclusive international recognition had also been dropped: a foreign country could henceforth have ambassadors stationed both in Seoul and in Pyongyang.

However, the declaration did not change as much as newspaper readers worldwide were led to believe in those July days. Neither side was going to compromise too much. Domestically, both sides continued with their propaganda war, an enterprise, which was quite hysterical in the South and much worse in the North.

The generals planned future military operations, and secret services were conducting their silent war with the same zeal. Nobody was willing to give in, and talks were interrupted in 1973. They resumed only a decade later, and by that time the situation in and around Korea had changed dramatically.

Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul.


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