Independence from Japanese colonial rule was short lived in August, 1945 when a month later the 38th Parallel was drawn between the two Koreas. In the subsequent years, the two Koreas formed two very different social structures, shifting from a time of war to a shaky period of truce. Seventy years have passed since the division of Korea and the Northern regime has now reached its third successor, Kim Jong-Un. Many believed that the young leader Kim Jong-Un would not be able to hold together the isolated, poverty stricken, and economically stagnated North Korea. Until last year, talks about an imminent reunification were prevalent in South Korea, attested by South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s emphasis on reunification in her 2014 New Year’s press conference. She was not alone in her anticipation. A number of analysts inside and outside the nation also asserted that Kim Jong-Un would lead the brittle regime to its end. Bruce Bennet, a senior defense analyst at RAND, argued that “there is a reasonable probability that North Korean totalitarianism will end in the foreseeable future.” Despite all the buzz of an imminent fall, North Korea stands to this day, ironically to the relief of many countries in the region. However, it is for the benefit of all Koreans and the international community that the two Koreas be unified. The end goal for North Korea, like any other state, is the preservation of the current regime. It threatens countries about war and devastation yet chooses concession if its needs—usually aid requests—are met. The truth is, unless North Korea poses a real threat, no one—the United States, China, Japan or even South Korea—actually wants North Korea to crumble. In her op-ed to the New York Times, Sue Mi Terry, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asia Institute, states that its neighbors respond to North Korea under “a policy of soft containment,” triggered by the “fear that its demise would be too destabilizing” for the region. China does not want a surge of refugees on its border, nor does it want increased US military presence in the area to secure the region on behalf of South Korea. ROK to this day has still referred its Wartime Operational Control (OPCON) to the United States military and hosts over 28,000 American troops. Japan and the United States, which perhaps hold the smallest stake in Korean Reunification, have no reason to want an additional drastic change in the already volatile politics in the region triggered by China’s rise; the nations choose to live with DPRK rather than induce regime change. Most recently, in 2012 the Obama administration agreed to give DPRK 240,000 metric tons of food supplies in exchange for DPRK allowing its nuclear facilities to be examined by international inspectors. United States policy towards North Korea has been forged based on immediate reactions to North Korea with no long-term initiative or plan to change the status quo towards reunification. This tendency is evident when examining how the Obama administration responded to North Korea’s recent Sony hack. This was not the first time North Korea has launched an attack on the United States or its allies; nonetheless, the administration decided to place heavy sanctions on North Korea after the Sony attack. The hacking violated the freedom of expression, a right held dearly in the United States, but the attack was more about the international reputation of the United States. These sanctions were a one-time punitive measure, and were not part of any long-term vision for Korean reunification.
Most importantly, both the South Korean government and the public do not want to be reunified, at least not now. Despite President Park Geun-hye’s hopeful 2014 speech detailing how Korea will hit a “jackpot” with reunification, both the government and the public know that reunification will not be beneficial to South Korea in the short-run. Currently the GDP of the South is said to be 80 times that of the North. The cost of developing and aiding North Korea would become a heavy burden for South Korean taxpayers and could stifle the economy. The case of Korean reunification based on familial sentiments is becoming increasingly diffused as the older generation dissipates and memories fade. A vague outlook of unguaranteed future prosperity will not be enough to motivate the population, especially the younger generation, towards actively supporting reunification. According to a 2013 poll by the think tank Youido Institute, sponsored by Korea’s conservative and current majority party, the Saenuri Party, a little over a half of Korea’s college students believe that reunification is necessary. People on either side of the debate increasingly quote economic rather than historical or sentimental reasons for their opinions.
So why did Park Geun-hye talk so much about reunification in her speech? The government has not had a consistent plan for reunification, and such plans have not emerged until recently. In fact, in a special interview by Hankyoreh, a leading news outlet in Korea, critics called Park Geun-hye out as rash and sensationalist. She could have wanted to divert national attention from internal issues or to appease her main constituents, the older generation who support the cause of reunification. Most importantly, though, she may have thought that reunification might not be something that South Korea could choose but rather something that was forced as the North Korean government loses its grip. Whatever her thoughts were, there is reason for South Korea and the nearby regional powers to start thinking seriously and planning for the repercussions of Korean reunification. Without a social, economic and international safety net for South Korea in the case of a sudden fall of North Korea, the country might never be able to recover from ensuing social unrest and economic crises.
Even though Kim Jong-Un seems to have solidified his rule, it is difficult to know what is going on inside the opaque workings of the country. North Korea has been marred with severe poverty, famine, natural disasters and plagues. People who have escaped have testified to a change in how the public views the ruling party and an increase in vocalized dissidence and dissatisfaction inside the nation. According to a NK news’ refugee insight interview series, most of the 11 defectors believe that the regime will fall sometime in the next decade. There is some evidence of information flow into North Korea through popular South Korean dramas which have been smuggled into the country and convey images of economic prosperity and democratic values.
North Korea is more isolated than ever with the imposition of heavy sanctions and China’s conscious distancing from the Kim regime as its own international reputation and economic ties with South Korea grow. Ever since North Korea has pursued its nuclear development program the United States and the United Nations have been imposing strict sanctions on the country, including UN sanctions that penalize North Korean banking, travel and trade. Moreover, in the 2013 UN Security Council vote to implement these sanctions, China helped the United States draft the sanctions resolution and agreed to it, showing that China is starting to distance itself from DPRK. South Korea has also been imposing its toughest round of restrictions against North Korean aid, banning any type of trade, travel or investments into North Korea following the May 2010 Cheonan sinking, when a South Korea Navy ship was allegedly attacked by the North. Kim Jong-Un’s execution of his uncle Jang Sung-Taek—who was Kim Jong-Il’s main envoy to China and was interested in economic reform—and Kim Jong-Un’s decision to visit Russia before China this year indicates the growing rift between China and the North.
For South Korea, reunification can be a breakthrough for its economy since there is a limit to how much the country can expand with such a small home market and lack of resources, while it is constrained by security issues and military spending and blocked to the north. According to Sue Mi Terry, Seoul currently allocates $30 billion dollars to military spending every year, and reunification could end South Korea’s universal conscription and shrink its military personnel from 680,000 to 500,000. Through reunification, South Korea will gain a larger market, natural resources, and a larger population, contributing to its national strength. It will also gain direct access to Eurasia and the opportunity to participate in land-based trade. In a 2009 report, Goldman Sachs states that a unified Korea could trump the GDP of France, Germany and Japan within 30 to 40 years. Without proper preparation however, the Korean economy might just evaporate before it even has a chance to explore its possibilities.
Another equally important and often neglected reason to support reunification is the massive human rights problems of the North. Although the secrecy of the nation prevents the international community from seeing much of the situation in North Korea, it is no secret that the North Korean regime is the perpetrator of numerous human rights violations, and that many inside the nation live in terrible conditions. According to Human Rights Watch, between 80,000 and 120,000 people are imprisoned in North Korea’s forced labor camps. The 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry’s report on North Korea revealed the devastating conditions of the country. 84 percent of North Korean households had “borderline” or “poor” levels of food consumption in 2013 even as Kim Jong-Un spent $645,800,000 on luxury goods in 2012. Members of North Korea’s political establishment could likely be sent to the International Court of Justice if the regime ends, thus gradual reunification is not a viable option for the South Korean public.
South Korea must start to prepare for reunification. With the right precautions, the possibilities that reunification will open are immeasurable. First, South Korea needs a long-term, bipartisan and consistent plan for reunification that provides social safety nets for possible social unrest and ensuing value conflicts after reunification. It also requires economic precautions, plans and funds to provide for the massive cost of reunification. Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specified some of the safety nets that ROK must start to build in his article for The National Interest. Some administrative works might be to “consider such questions as property ownerships, status of foreign contracts, treatment of human rights criminals, amnesty provision and more.” Most of all, the plans should not be subject to the tendency of South Korean policies to be undone and newly forged every time the president changes. South Korea must be willing to play an active and leading role in the process of reunification and juggle the interests of its neighbors. Unlike Germany, who had its long term allies in the Western European nations when it was unified, South Korea has no true friends in the region. It might have United States as its ally, but the extent to which the United States can intervene in the Korean peninsula without threatening China is limited. The South Korean public still remembers Japan’s brutal colonial rule less than a century ago, and communist China and Russia have never been its allies. In the possible case of reunification, and in the subsequent process of maintaining security, securing borders and requesting help, there is an ample opportunity for miscommunication and disagreement. A weakened Korea might be dominated politically or economically by another country. South Korea and other relevant nations should have a mutual agreement on what procedures they would follow in the possible case of reunification, and what limits should be set on intervention. Most importantly though, Korea must lead this process of agreement, and in the case of the collapse of DPRK it must be prepared to lead the process of stabilization and reunification.
Time is limited in Korea to prepare for reunification. The North Korean regime may fall unexpectedly and the cost of reunification will only grow as the two Koreas remain separated. Regional politics in East Asia are changing drastically, and it is questionable if Korea could afford such a major setback at a time when its strongest neighbor, China, seems to be accelerating towards regional hegemony. The growing distance between North Korea and China signals that today might be ripe for China’s help in the reunification process, while if the North Korean regime does not fall or reunification does not happen in the next few decades, the concept of a single Korea might just fade into history. It is questionable whether the younger Koreans just a few generations into the future, who no longer have ties to the North or any surviving memories of a unified Korea, would even consider reunification as a national agenda. If the two Koreas remain split for another fifty or a hundred years, they may permanently view themselves as two separate nations.•