Korean reunification

Korean reunification

Sharif M. Shuja

THE question of Korean unification is perhaps the one that has been discussed most in Korean politics in the last few decades without a plausible answer. Since the search for solutions and answers on various issues and questions involved in the unification problem has not been successful, one wonders whether the possibility of Korean unification is a reality or merely an unobtainable fantasy. Granting that Korean unification is indeed an enigmatical problem, why should scholars be so concerned with the problem of Korean unification? What is the meaning of Korean unification in terms of? global politics? The answers to these questions can only be ascertained by placing the problem of Korean unification in multiple perspectives.

First, Korean unification is deeply related to political stability in the international arena, being a key to the stability of Northeast Asia. A perusal of twentieth century history shows that the politics of the Korean Peninsula have caused or contributed to three major wars in recent history: viz., the Sino-Japanese, Russo-Japanese, and Korean conflicts. More than twenty countries have been involved in these three wars.

Second, the Korean Peninsula has always been a key, or at least a critical variable, to the stability of the Far East region. Particularly, Korea is of critical concern to Japan. Japan, therefore, desires a stable political situation in order to ensure her investments in the Republic of Korea (ROK–South Korea). Also, Japan has had historically an enduring fear that Korea is ‘a dagger pointing at the heart of Japan’. This theory, of course, has been a polemical subject among military strategists and students of international politics. Whether or not one agrees to ‘the dagger’ theory, many Japanese believe it, and certainly many Japanese leaders express concern over the political situation on the Korean Peninsula.

Third, Korean unification is certainly related to the progress of the economic systems of ‘concerned countries’. It is quite clear, that any country which spends more than five per cent of its GNP on defence is going to do so at the expense of badly needed social services which should have a higher priority. As is already well-known, South Korea’s defence budget totals about six per cent of its GNP, and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK–North Korea) is expected to spend more for military purposes. When compared to the level of economic and social development of these two political systems, the expenditures for both military establishments are indeed excessive in terms of domestic needs and national resources. Excessive military spending is a major factor adversely affecting the healthy progress of both Korean societies. Discounting direct military and non-military aid given to South Korea in the last few decades, the U.S. still maintains more than thirty-eight thousand troops in South Korea. Furthermore, the U.S. will also continue to bear some of the burden of South Korean defence in the foreseeable future.

Fourth, the division of Korea is, in fact, a product of rivalry in the international political arena. It is a division, which occurred and continues against the wishes of millions of Korean citizens. A study of Korean history would demonstrate that it has been a cultural/historical unity for centuries in spite of Japanese occupation; and that the division of Korea is a political and historical aberration. Once the country was divided into two parts, Korean citizens on both sides were practically forced to accept for themselves an alien political system; i.e. a capitalistic system in the South and a communist system in the North. Under these totally different conditions, the people in each political system have been disparately socialized in varying ways to such a great degree that eventually Koreans in the two systems have acquired different personality and value premises. Various studies, furthermore, indicate that intensive efforts have been made by the leaders of each political system to compel ordinary Koreans to accept and integrate a disjointed personality system, mainly for the purpose of furthering political values and goals. If this situation continues to exist for a very long period, the possibility of reunifying and reintegrating Korean society could cease. Clearly, the longer the division exists, the more difficult it becomes to integrate the two Koreas.

Fifth, unification will perhaps provide a new and expanded role for Korea in international politics. The international role of Korea in the past has been severely restrained because the division has discouraged both Koreas from pursuing a more meaningful role in the world. Both Koreas have constantly diminished their influence in international affairs by bickering. Furthermore, each side has attempted to disgrace the other. The attacks of both Koreas have been so intensive that the competitive arena encompasses the world, ranging from the United Nations and Africa to Latin America. Moreover, the division of Korea has greatly reduced the political autonomy for both South and North. The end of intra-Korean rivalry will make the beginning of a newly established political autonomy, and Korea’s participation in the affairs of the international community will be more meaningful and constructive.

For northeast Asia, perhaps the most dramatic implications of a successful Korean reunification would be military. At the moment, nearly two million Korean troops confront each other. Unification would release personnel from the military for productive purposes.

Unification would also change the tenor of relations in northeast Asia. With a single democratic government on the Korean Peninsula, many regional sources of tension would vanish. While a united Korea’s chosen alliances and alignments might matter greatly to the powers of the Pacific, they would probably not constitute a casus belli. With open and accountable governance, civilian rule and enthusiasm for commercial progress, a united Korea’s foreign policy would likely be moderate and pragmatic–as the ROK’s foreign policy beyond the peninsula is today. A united Korea’s domestic arrangements could also affect international politics; the example of a solid civil society in Korea would support neighbouring Russia’s quest for stable civil institutions and encourage their development in China.

The spillover economic benefits of reunification also have a political payoff, integrating the countries of the region in a set of cooperative commercial relationships. The striking point about a successful Korean reunification is that it would benefit all the populations of northeast Asia. Those dividends are by no means assured, but careful and concerted effort can bring them within each. The foregoing implications are reason enough to venture into a speculation about a possibility of Korean reunification.

While externally, or internationally, it has become an acute political problem, the reunification of Korea is something that every Korean in both South and North dreams of. Because Korea was a unified nation-state for a millennium, many Koreans strongly feel that the division is intolerably against Korea’s spiritual nature. Thus the issue of reunification is able to generate an extraordinary degree of support as a political symbol. Many Koreans realize that it is presently unrealistic and a remote possibility to envision a unified Korea. Nonetheless, they do dream of it and naturally speculate about such a possibility. Frequently, frustration drives Koreans to demand from their politicians the creation of conditions conducive to such a possibility. Naturally, politicians find reunification a useful issue to be exploited for their own political causes. It is also an issue which has often forced government leaders to take a position. Thus various incidents around the DMZ (Demilitarized Zones) or some policy statements in South and North are partly a result of both Koreas’ tactics on how to achieve the unification. Both Koreas’ diplomatic offences against other countries are also invariably related to their overall strategy toward ultimate unification. In this respect, both governments have taken various policy positions on the unification.

Thus, the understanding of unification politics is essential, and we need to focus on the issue of reunification itself and the part played by the Great Powers. In the process of seeking new solutions to old problems, we need to explore alternative paradigms and new ideas.

The Example of Germany

Everyone is aware that the two countries will be reunited at some stage, with Germany providing an obvious model, but everyone is fearful about the circumstances under which unification might take place. Until the two countries are joined, there will be, at best, considerable uncertainty, at worst the possibility of military conflict. When they are united, there will be a long period of integration, which will be painful in different ways for both sides. Fortunately for South Korea, it has the example of Germany which shows some of the dangers of over-rapid integration.

Germany is an imperfect parallel, for there are several reasons to expect that the path to Korean unity will be easier, and several that it will be harder.

Reasons why it might be easier include:

* Korea has seen what went wrong in Germany and will learn from its experience.

* North Korea has not created the dependency culture of East Germany.

* The relative economic success of South Korea is even more striking than that of West Germany.

Reasons why it might be harder include:

* The timing of the merger will not be set by a grand external event, such as the crumbling of the Soviet empire, but will be provoked by unrest within North Korea.

* North Korea has considerable military forces, including, probably, some form of nuclear weapons.

* The North Korean people have been less exposed to ideas from the West than East Germans, who were able to watch Western TV.

* South Korea does not have the resources to bring northern living standards up to southern levels in the space of five years, as is being attempted in Germany (its population is only twice as large as the north, whereas in Germany the ratio is more than three to one).

The process of unification will therefore have to be very different. It will have to be a willing act of cooperation between the two sides, rather than a take-over of one by the other, and that act of union will have to be triggered by some political upheaval in the North, which itself could gravely damage the stability of both countries. The South, by virtue of its economic success and larger population, will be the dominant partner, but it will have to teach the market system, rather than impose it. Integration will be both a slower process and a less complete one: it will take at least a generation from the moment of practical reunion for the two countries to operate as one economic entity, and the political attitudes of the North will have a considerable influence on the South in a way which has not really happened in Germany. One of the lessons the South has learnt from Germany is that unity would in the short-term work to its disadvantage, and that therefore full union should not be offered until the North has made some progress towards establishing a market economy.

Under the new dynamics of the politics of unification, in the context of the global transformation with the end of the Cold War the two Koreas had to develop new modalities and rules to govern the relationship between them. Because of the difference in the nature of the systems of the two Koreans, the two sides have different perceptions of the requirements inherent in the new situation. Each side had to develop its own strategies and tactics to deal with the other side and, at the same time, to make a successful adjustment to and utilisation of new possibilities created by the end of the Cold War. This seems to suggest that reconciliation, rather than hasty unification, is an issue to be taken into account in the future Korean unification agenda.

The achievement of a unified and independent Korea involves two separate issues. The first concerns the approach to and strategy for reunification. The second requires an appropriate model for the future reunified state and the means for translating it into reality. While the first concerns the process and/or strategy of integrating North and South, the second relates to the shape a reunified state and government should take.

Up until now discussions on the reunification of the Korean Peninsula have been devoted primarily to the process leading to unification. The main points of interest regarding the unification process in such discussions have been:

* creation of conditions favourable to unification by improving relations with neighbouring powers of the two Koreas, such as cross recognition and regional cooperative arrangements;

* various approaches to unification (federalism, functionalism and neofunctionalism);

* ways of reducing tension in the Korean Peninsula (for example, reconciliation and/or coexistence between North and South); inter-Korean exchange and cooperation; and

* change and reforms, political and economic, in the North and South.

Needless to say, these studies of, and strategies for, the unification process have obtained some results of their efforts. But studies of the process in the absence of a goal are, to use a metaphor, like a navigator without a compass. The example of Germany shows that reunification can come at a time and in a way that defies prediction. Thus it appears that Korean unification may also come soon, and the test of formulating a model of a reunited Korean nation should not be postponed any longer. In this context, this section identifies the need to prompt a more extensive and meaningful debate among scholars and experts of Korean studies by projecting a model of the united republic which could emerge upon the reunification of North and South Korea.

As used in this study, the two concepts of unification and integration, while in part overlapping, connote two basically distinct processes. Political unification is a process that unites divided political systems into a single body politic. Social integration is a process that resolves the active or latent conflicts stemming from cultural differences or cleavage. The former relates to state-building while the latter relates to nation-building. It is therefore possible for a previously divided state to be politically unified while remaining socially unintegrated. For instance, Lebanon and Nigeria have achieved a fair degree of state-building, but their low level of national integration leaves them subject to intense internal conflicts, including civil war. A valuable lesson may be gleaned from the civil war in Yemen caused by hasty political union. Political unification without social reintegration is likely to cause severe conflicts. German reunification in 1989-90 has shown us how difficult the merger of two polities and political cultures is, and one can conclude that in Germany national unity has been achieved only in political terms and that real unity was still way down the road. Previous experiences of the process of reunification in other nations thus highlight the crucial distinction between these two processes.

However, we noted that during the early 1990s, the two Koreas were moving toward a new stage of reconciliation. The new relationship between North and South in the 1990s represents a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations; it reflects the determination of the two Korean regimes to stay in touch with the changing environments of world politics. This new relationship thus seems to be in line with the search for a new world order and the two Koreas’ determination to remain relevant in world affairs.

The new detente of 1991-1992 was the recognition by both Koreas that co-existence is the necessary condition for maintaining peace and stability in the post-Cold War era. It recognizes the self-evident truth that reunification of Korea is not likely, unless force and violence are used, without first establishing the framework for peaceful coexistence and also promoting cooperation and exchanges between the two sides.

The efforts to overcome hostility in inter-Korean relations resulted in the December 1991 signing of two historical documents by the two sides: an Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchanges and Cooperation (hereinafter referred to as the ‘Basic Agreement’) and a Joint Declaration for Denuclearization of the Koran Peninsula. As a result of these agreements, the possibilities and prospect for peace and reunification of Korea have improved measurably, although North Korea’s suspected nuclear weapons programme–now placed under an IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) safeguards inspection–has raised insecurity in the Korean Peninsula. Only last month South Korea’s director of intelligence claimed that Pyongyang had carried out ‘high-explosive’ tests at its nuclear complex at Yongbyon. He said that the North would soon have enough weapons grade plutonium to manufacture six nuclear bombs.

The challenge in the post-Cold War era is to transform inter-Korean relations from confrontation to coexistence in an orderly and peaceful manner. This task of institutionalizing the peace process on the Peninsula will take time. The controversy over nuclear issues shows how difficult it is to overcome the suspicion and enmity between the old foes.

However, by opening the channel of communication at the prime-ministerial level, the two Koreas initiated the process of relying on diplomacy and dialogue rather than coercion and threats of war. To the extent that the two Koreas have decided to play the game of diplomacy and negotiation rather than war and conflict, the prospect of institutionalizing the peace process on the Korean Peninsula has improved immeasurably.

Seoul has contended that the reunification of Korea can only be achieved gradually in a step-by-step way. Since there are substantial ideological and economic differences, South Korea argues that it would take some time to bridge and accommodate them. Thus, the first task is to engender a sense of security in both Seoul and Pyongyang and to convince Washington, Beijing and Tokyo of the stability of the peninsula. The legacy of distrust left by the Korean War (1950-53) makes it imperative that a ‘non-aggression pact’ between North and South be effected before any serious negotiations for peaceful unification can be contemplated. Thus for Seoul, peaceful co-existence must be recognized as a necessary first stage. By contrast, North Korea takes a ‘once-and-for-all’ approach to unification, contending that the longer the division exists, the harder it becomes to unify the country. It argues that the so-called ‘cross recognition’ of each Korea’s present separate identity will perpetuate a permanent division of the Peninsula. Thus, Pyongyang demands U.S. troop withdrawal and immediate political negotiations to hasten reunification.

Even the scheme for a Democratic Confederal Republic calls for an establishment of a ‘combined national army’ and a common foreign policy posture prior to the political integration of the two Koreas. By and large, the North regards reunification as an end, which would be enshrined in the so-called ‘Democratic Confederal Republic of Korea’, whereas the South sees it as a process with unification to proceed gradually following the establishment of a ‘Korean National Community’. The North’s ideas regarding unification are consistent with its long-term thrust towards socialist revolution.

With regard to the domestic dimension of Korean unification, it is clear that each of the two Koreas is not basically interested in unification in any abstract sense, especially in terms of compromise, but in using the dialogue over unification as a form of political cold war to push its own aims with regard to the other.

Not only is there a basic difference between the two Koreas in their approach to ultimate unification, but North and South also take very different positions on the strategy and tactics of forming a unified government. South Korea desires a free, all-Korean general election under the management and supervision of the United Nations or other organization to realize this end. It argues that representation by population thus gives the South more members than the North. In contrast, North Korea wants a loosely structured confederation. The general election, it argues, should be supervised not by the UN, but by ‘neutral countries’, or other acceptable parties. Because North Korea fought against UN forces in the Korean War, it argues that the United Nations cannot be presumed to be unbiased. An acceptable alternative would be an all-Korean election managed by ‘Koreans themselves’ with foreign supervision. Representation should be based not just on population, but also on geographic size. North Korea also proposes a ‘joint conference of the representatives’ of political parties and social organizations from both Koreas. Its proposal thus constitutes a form of functional representation rather than representation based solely on population. The confederation envisaged by Pyongyang would be formed on a provisional basis and would require that both governments remain fully autonomous.

Despite the considerable changes in the approach of both Koreas to unification, North Korea still generally opposes the presence of any foreign troops in Korea, particularly those of the U.S. Indeed, it sees the presence of U.S. troops in South Korea as a major obstacle to reunification. Furthermore, it fears that a continuing arms race between North and South Korea will jeopardize any hopes of reunification and proposes a mutual reduction of armed forces to 100,000 men per side. At the same time South Korea continues to feel that the presence of the U.S. forces is essential for the peace and stability of the East Asian region generally and, particularly, for a stable and gradual transition of the Korean political systems. The South thinks that until favourable conditions for peaceful unification can be achieved, a military balance between South and North should be maintained.

The big problem, for North Korea, is lack of transparency. Because of this lack of transparency foreign governments have less opportunity to influence the policy-making process in the way they do elsewhere. On many issues foreign governments do not even know the real decision-makers. The North Korean leaders may feel comforted by this, but it actually feeds the perception that the DPRK stands apart and the suspicion that its goals may be concealed and therefore suspect. It also denies North Korea important benefits of international interaction–the opportunity for the ‘inside’ policy-makers to understand what other countries think, to influence as well as to be influenced, to persuade, to build confidence, to prevent misunderstandings and miscalculations.

Lack of transparency also means that on many issues we do not know if the North Koreans are sincere. This gives rise to the more speculative interpretations of the DPRK’s domestic, foreign and military policies. It may not be appreciated in Pyongyang, but it is a major problem for North Korea.

No serious observer of North Korea questions the fact that it is in very serious economic difficulties. Estimates vary about the severity of the economic crisis, and statistics are almost certainly unreliable, but the trends are less so. North Korea’s increasingly serious problem of feeding its population, famines, as well as its nuclear and missile programmes, have all led to a renewed interest in the country.

Because North Korea faced an aggravated economic plight, policy-makers have realised the limitations and weaknesses of their self-reliant, isolationist, economic policies that have been stifling initiative at home and estranging potential overseas partners. Concluding that they needed a change in their economic development strategy, North Korean officials enacted a series of laws and regulations on joint ventures, foreign investment and free economic and trade zones to attempt to reshape their economic development strategy. Since 1991, the North Korean government has tried to cooperate with Western countries and has begun to adopt relatively bold economic opening measures. On 28 December 1991, the DPRK Administration Council created a Free Economic and Trade Zone (FETZ) around the cities of Rajin and Sonbong. The Rajin, Sonbong and Chongjin ports were designated free ports in 1991. This action can be interpreted as a sign of new thinking in Pyongyang on economic issues.

Some major changes now have occurred in Pyongyang’s economic policies. The new constitution adopted in September 1998 included for the first time articles on cost, prices, profits, the laying of a legal basis to build more economic zones, and moves toward rights of ownership. Pyongyang is not as impervious to Chinese-style reform as its rhetoric indicates. As one Korea observer comments ‘Chinese-style agricultural experiments are taking place in rural cooperatives. Whilst not called reforms, they have regime endorsement’. Though the beginning of reforming economic policies has been seen, the country will need to make much greater efforts if it is to be rescued by inputs of foreign technology and capital.

New multilateral initiatives should be taken to bring North Korea into the international community and make Pyongyang an integral part of the Western-oriented economic system. This is consistent with a common Asian perspective that to change a society one must engage it and influence it through a wide spectrum of multilateral initiatives. The United States, Japan and South Korea should also be considering ways and means to involve North Korea in regional cooperation. Regional economic cooperation could help relax political tension in the region and the world as a whole, and accelerate the Asia-Pacific region’s integration with the world economy.

However, for North Korea to be productively involved in any regional economic and environmental initiative would require a change in its attitude and openness, as well as a massive training and development effort to bring its capacity up to requirements. And to build confidence and experience in the norms of behaviour in international society, efforts to engage North Korea should begin now in such fields as environmental protection and economic development.

Cooperation in environmental awareness and protection may include issues such as acid rain; the transportation and dumping of toxic waste; the prevention of marine pollution by harmonising national policies, laws and regulations; and ecosystem and fisheries conservation. North Korea certainly has shipping and fisheries interests in the region and is a member of the International Maritime Organisation and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. By calling attention to relatively politically benign but mutually threatening environmental issues, such as those mentioned above, states sometimes can achieve broader objectives.

In the economic sector, the United States could support the Northeast Asia Economic Forum and the Tumen River Area Development Project where North Korea shows great interest. These regional initiatives, mainly economic and environmental, could promote confidence-enhancing measures and thus reduce tensions, including the tension on the Korean Peninsula. It is thus vital for regional stability that every effort be made to bring North Korea into the international community.

The Road Ahead

It seems that the North cannot move towards reform unless the huge military-industrial establishment can be attracted to market economies and that, in any such process, the South Korean chaebols (giant conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai) will play a leading role. They have worked with a military industrialising regime in the South. The challenge for the South will be for them to find ways to work with the regime in Pyongyang, which could be a key for the North’s survival in the next decade.

It is reasonably fair to say that the rise of the Korean economy is significantly due to government protectionism and conglomerate expansion. In particular, the argument of chaebol-government duality is held as the key to the economic development and growth of the country. Chaebols have become the most powerful group of domestic capitalists in South Korea. They dominate the society and market in several ways. As a significant positive contribution, they employ a large number of workers. Under the chaebol system’s guiding hand, South Korea built its infrastructure, raised an educated but inexpensive work force and developed science and technology. Koreans became the world’s steel makers, ship builders and semi-conductor technicians.

The South Korean Chaebols now have taken the lead in exploring business opportunities in North Korea. Hyundai and Daewoo were the first in the North. A number of the other chaebols, including Samsung, LG (Lucky-Goldstar), Sunkyoung, Kolon, Hanhwa, made modest investment plans. In the past few months, Hyundai, acting as a tour operator, has taken tens of thousands of South Korean tourists to Mount Keumkang, a beauty spot in the North. Hyundai Group founder, Chung Ju-yung, also on a business trip to North Korea, had met Kim Jong-il. Over the life of Hyundai’s six-year agreement with North Korea, this tourism will raise almost $1 billion in foreign currency earnings for Kim Jong-il’s regime. The company is also negotiating to create a series of joint ventures to export billions of dollars-worth of products from North Korea. The number of South Koreans visiting the North, businessmen among them, has increased sharply. The North’s regime has formally recognised the farmers’ markets, and now accepts the concepts of ‘profit’ and ‘cost’.

The Chung-Kim meeting may show the North Korean leader’s willingness to get himself directly involved in the country’s major economic projects, while indicating his attempt to open its economy partially and pull the North out of economic hardship with help from South Korean business leaders. The projects Hyundai wants to undertake in the North are Mt. Kumgang tour projects, including the construction of a hotel, an airport in and around the scenic mountain, and oil exploration in the West Sea. The other projects include an auto assembly plant, a car radio assembly factory, construction of a thermal power plant, development of an industrial complex, use of North Korean workers at Hyundai’s overseas construction markets, mineral water development, and scrapping of aged ships. Better yet, Hyundai is also to build a vast export zone in, and run tour buses to, Kaesong, an ancient capital just over the border that will become to Seoul what Shenzhen is to Hong Kong.

The Samsung, LG, Daewoo and Tongil groups are also taking steps to initiate joint ventures with the North. Samsung is trying to obtain permission from Pyongyang to set up and operate a telecommunications centre in the Rajin-Sonbong Free Trade Zone. LG, which already assembles colour TVs in the North, is planning to set up a colour TV plant and scallop farm there. Daewoo is also considering setting up a home appliance assembly plant in the Nampo industrial estate, and is negotiating with its northern partner to set up hotels in the Rajin-Sonbong zone.

These developments support a view that is gaining strength in the South, which indicates that North Korea, following the Chinese example, is flirting with joining the South on the capitalist road. Pyongyang has now revised its constitution to create more business opportunities for foreign investors. This trend is indeed encouraging. North Korea must attract foreign investment. It would bring them not only capital but also superior management skills and access to overseas markets, and it would help raise the creditworthiness of a country badly in need of it. A successful Korean unity can only come by starting economic reforms in the North.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group