Korean Unification: A Fleeting Opportunity

Korean Unification: A Fleeting Opportunity

The governments of North and South Korea continue to repeat the mantra that they are committed to the idea of unifying their divided people. But as years go by, the tension between Seoul and Pyongyang continues, and there is no progress toward achieving that objective. According to public opinion polls, most South Koreans under the age of 40 are not interested in the unification of the peninsula. Although there is no public discussion, this critically important sector of the South Korean society is against any such plans. 

Decades have passed since the country was partitioned. The number of families separated by the demilitarized zone (DMZ) has dwindled and emotions have cooled. Many young people in the South increasingly see North Korea as a foreign country. 

Pragmatic calculations now enter the equation: «How much would we South Koreans have to pay for unification? How much would it decrease our standards of living? What if it led to war?»

The once-glowing example of Germany’s unification long ago dimmed in our memory. Experts were aghast after calculating what that merger ended up costing its citizens – it came with a high price tag, even for an economic powerhouse such as Germany. 

After analyzing the German experience, a program aimed at building bridges with the North emerged in Seoul during the administrations of South Korean presidents Kim Dae-jung (1998 – 2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003–2008). The premise was simple enough: we don’t need a war with North Korea, we don’t need that country’s collapse, and we don’t need immediate unification. So what do they need?! Reconciliation, gradual rapprochement, and economic cooperation, paving the way for a future union. These were the years of the «Sunshine Policy» and «reconciliation and cooperation». Two very significant summits between the Korean leaders were held in 2000 and 2007, and bilateral cooperation between the two countries finally blossomed. 

But South Korea is a democracy, and after the 2008 elections, right-wing conservatives took office who believed the North to be on the verge of collapse. In an attempt to hasten that outcome, they expanded economic sanctions and increased military and political pressure, among other measures. They felt this would surely spell the end for Pyongyang. Naturally this forced meaningful negotiations, including the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, onto the back burner.

At some point, those who held sway over the decision-making process in Seoul convinced themselves that they were on the right track and began to try to bring the rest of the world on board. 

The international community now joined the efforts to increase the pressure and further isolate the DPRK. North Korea’s social and economic strides and its gradual but persistent market reforms were ignored. Instead, attempts were once again made to reintroduce former president Lee Myung-bak’s «unification tax», creating new state agencies in the South that would expedite the unification process along the path favored by Seoul. 

This was the situation in 2014 when both Seoul and Pyongyang came forward with new unification proposals. 

North Korea repeatedly put forth peaceful initiatives at the beginning of the year, but Seoul interpreted them as a «propaganda offensive» and they were ignored. Moreover, South Korean President Park Geun-hye ordered her Defense Ministry and other law-enforcement agencies to beef up the country’s security, fearing potential military provocation from North Korea. At a meeting with the president of Switzerland in Bern, she called on the international community to join South Korea, raising pressure on its northern neighbor, in order to increase its isolation and force the country to change its policies.

In March 2014 Park Geun-hye made a keynote address in Dresden offering proposals that were ostensibly attractive for the Pyongyang but indirectly promoting the idea of a German-style unification, meaning that the South would take over the North. The president of South Korea claimed, «The Republic of Korea will carry more weight in the world after unification. The northern half of the Korean Peninsula will also see rapid development». («An Initiative for Peaceful Unification on the Korean Peninsula. Dresden - Beyond Division, Toward Integration». Speech by ROK President Park Geun-hye on Korean unification, delivered in Dresden, Germany on March 28, 2014).

Observers immediately noted that Dresden, located in the former East Germany, was not an accidental choice of setting for the keynote speech by Park Geun-hye. 

Naturally the proposal was rejected by Pyongyang. In September 2014, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong personally took to the floor of the United Nations General Assembly in New York after a long absence. He gave a detailed response to South Korea’s «peaceful» initiatives and reminded everyone of the principles for unification established by Kim Il-sung, which envisioned a union based on the creation of the Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo.

The 10-point program for national reunification («10-Point Programme of the Great Unity of the Whole Nation for the Reunification of the Country») is a plan to reunite North and South Korea designed by Kim Il-sung in 1993 and further expanded in the North Korean Memorandum of August 11, 1994 on the establishment of the Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo. Essentially, the plan calls for the creation of a confederal republic with two social systems and two governments, existing within the framework of a single nation and state. The idea makes perfect sense. During the first phase of the joint government of the two halves of Korea, existing systems would be left intact, because, as the Memorandum emphasizes, «neither party wishes to surrender its social system.» This is evidence of a valuable desire to seek out a common denominator underlying the sense of ethnic solidarity among Koreans, which will make it possible to overcome their ideological differences and political disagreements. It is important to remember that the Korean people «have been living on the same peninsula for over 5,000 years and share the blood of their common ancestors.

This concept involves a gradual, incremental rapprochement between the two Koreas and requires recognition of the two existing, yet conflicting, socioeconomic and political systems on the peninsula. The first phase assumes the creation of national state agencies responsible for the new government’s foreign policy and so on, but that would not interfere in the internal political lives of the two constituent entities as they continue to develop autonomously. 

This phase of gradual rapprochement would then lead to further and closer integration. 

The plan of the former South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung (a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and the author behind the concept of the «Sunshine Policy» described in the book The Korean Problem: Nuclear Crisis, Democracy, and Reunification [Seoul, 1994]), is still quite relevant and agrees with much found in these ideas. 

The unification plan that Kim Dae-jung devised over twenty years ago includes three principles (peaceful coexistence, peaceful exchanges, and peaceful unification) and three phases (the confederation of two independent Korean states, the federation of two autonomous regional governments of the North and the South, and unification in accordance with the principle of «one country, one nation, one government»). 

It is notable that the first phase, which was envisioned by the former president of South Korea as being quite lengthy, is very close to the North Korean idea of the Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo. Of course there are differences, but it is more important to understand that both programs provide a broad basis for bridging the gaps between positions, ironing out details, and reaching compromises. Both approaches largely mirror their authors’ similar view of Korea’s internal problems. 

The importance of the philosophical tenets behind the idea of unification should not be exaggerated. The crucial idea is to incrementally integrate the economies of the two states. But by reaching a mutually acceptable compromise of ideas and merging conceptual approaches, the unification of the Korean nation can be facilitated.

Unfortunately, different approaches prevail in the South today. 

North Korea’s stance on South Korea’s plans for instantaneous unification – by simply taking over the North – is clear. Deep differences in all realms of life divide the two Korean states, against a backdrop of heightened political and military tensions on the peninsula, and any attempt to bring such plans to fruition (which can only be done through force) would lead to a second Korean War or - in other words - to a complete national disaster.