(ATTN: ADDS experts' views from para 8)
By Koh Byung-joon and Yi Won-ju
SEOUL, Oct. 22 (Yonhap) -- Vice Unification Minister Suh Ho said Tuesday that deeper economic cooperation with North Korea would lower the chances of the two sides returning to the era of confrontation as he made a pitch for Seoul's push to build a "peace economy" through cooperation with Pyongyang.
"The deeper inter-Korean economic cooperation becomes, the harder it would be for us to return to the old rules of confrontation," Suh told a forum held in Seoul to discuss ways to establish a peace-based economy on the Korean Peninsula.
"If peace takes root, people start to visit each other freely and things go as far as they form a common economic community, could we say that is an actual reunification of the Korean Peninsula?" he added.
Suh noted that co-prosperity could be achieved if South and North Korea expand their cooperation significantly, adding the Demilitarized Zone that separates the two Koreas could be the starting point of such efforts.
Mentioning President Moon Jae-in's proposal during the U.N. General Assembly meeting last month to turn the DMZ into a peace zone free of land mines, he said that such a drive could create a "virtuous circle" by reducing the possibility of tensions between the two Koreas and guaranteeing security.
South Korea has been pushing for active economic cooperation with North Korea as a way to ease cross-border tensions and generate a peace mood that could be conducive to progress in denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington.
Little progress, however, has been made as sanctions remain in place, blocking major economic cooperation with North Korea. The prospects for sanctions relief or lifting anytime soon remain bleak as denuclearization talks between Pyongyang and Washington remain in limbo.
Experts who attended the forum voiced concerns about the challenges standing in the way of achieving a peace economy, citing sanctions, which they expected would not be lifted until there is marked progress in the North's denuclearization.
"We must realize that unless U.N. sanctions are lifted, we cannot move even a step forward," Kim Young-han, professor of Economics at Sungkyunkwan University, said. "The focus should be placed on how to create concrete momentum for lifting sanctions."
Prof. Robert Kelly of Pusan National University expressed skepticism over Seoul's push to build a peace economy, citing North Korea's track record of "gangster-like" behavior. He suggested the two Koreas take a small step from which they can dream big later.
"Given North's Korea's history of gangster-like behavior, the best way would be to start with small projects first," he said. "My recommendation would be to start small first, do minor achievable things, see if North Koreans actually stick to the rules in the agreement, and then build bigger from there."
He also raised the issue of the ambiguity of the term "peace economy," calling for an agreement among experts and government officials on what it means.