Korean Reunification

korean reunification

Korean reunification refers to the hypothetical future reunification of North Korea and South Korea under a single government. The process towards this was started by the ‘June 15th North–South Joint Declaration’ in 2000, where the two countries agreed to work towards a peaceful reunification in the future. However, there are a number of difficulties in this process due to the large political and economic differences between the two countries and other state actors such as China, Russia, Japan, and the United States.

Short-term problems, such as potentially large numbers of refugees migrating from North Korea and initial economic and political instability, and long-term problems, such as cultural differences and possible discrimination, would need to be resolved. North Korea’s policy is to seek reunification without what it sees as outside interference, through a federal structure retaining each side’s leadership and systems.

Japan annexed Korea in 1910 and ruled over it until 1945. After Japan’s defeat in WWII, the UN developed plans for trusteeship administration of Korea. The division of the peninsula into military occupation zones at the 38th parallel — a northern zone administered by the Soviet Union and a southern zone administered by the United States — was agreed by the two superpowers in 1945. This was not originally intended to result in a long-lasting partition, but Cold War politics resulted in the establishment of two separate governments in the two zones in 1948 and rising tensions prevented cooperation. The desire of many Koreans for a peaceful unification was ended in June of 1950, when North Korea under the Soviet Union invaded South Korea, beginning the Korean War. After three years of fighting that involved China, the Soviet Union, and the United Nations led by the U.S., the war ended with an Armistice Agreement at approximately the same boundary, with both Koreas making slight territorial gains. The two countries never signed a peace treaty.

Despite now being politically separate entities, the governments of North and South Korea have proclaimed the eventual restoration of Korea as a single state as a goal. After the ‘Nixon shock’ (Nixon took the US off the gold standard in 1971, essentially ending the existing Bretton Woods system of international financial exchange) led to détente between the United States and China, the North and South Korean governments made the surprising joint announcement in 1972 that a representative of each government had secretly visited the capital city of the other side and that both sides had agreed to a ‘North-South Joint Communiqué,’ outlining the steps to be taken towards achieving a peaceful reunification of the country. The agreement outlined the steps to be taken towards achieving a peaceful reunification of the country. However, the North-South Coordination Committee was disbanded the following year after no progress had been made towards implementing the agreement.

In 1989, the founder of Hyundai, Chong Chu-yong, toured North Korea and promoted tourism in Mount Kumgang. After a twelve-year hiatus, the prime ministers of the two Koreas met in Seoul in 1990 to engage in the Inter-Korean Summits or High-Level Talks. In December, the two countries reached an agreement on issues of reconciliation, nonaggression, cooperation, and exchange between North and South in ‘The Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Cooperation, and Exchange Between North and South,’ but these talks collapsed over inspection of nuclear facilities. In 1994, after former-US President Jimmy Carter’s visit to Pyongyang, the leaders of the two Koreas agreed to meet with each other, but the meeting was prevented by the death of Kim Il-sung that July.

A unified Korean team marched in the opening ceremonies of the 2000, 2004, and 2006 Olympics, but the North and South Korean national teams competed separately. There were plans for a truly unified team at the 2008 Summer Olympics, but the two countries were unable to agree on the details of its implementation. In the 1991 table tennis world championships in Japan, the two countries formed a unified team.

Eventual political integration of the Koreas under a democratic government from the South is generally viewed as inevitable by U.S. and South Korea. However, the nature of unification, i.e. through North Korean collapse or gradual integration of the North and South, is still a topic of intense political debate and even conflict among interested parties, who include both Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States. Some political analysts even say the process of reunification has already begun, albeit at a very gradual pace, through the current process of reconciliation and economic cooperation between the two Koreas.

Introduced by the Millennium Democratic Party under President Kim Dae-jung, as part of a campaign pledge to ‘actively pursue reconciliation and cooperation’ with North Korea, the Sunshine Policy was intended to create conditions of economic assistance and cooperation for reunification, rather than sanctions and military threats. The plan was divided into three parts: increased cooperation through inter-Korean organizations (while maintaining separate systems in the North and South), national unification with two autonomous regional governments, and finally the creation of a central national government. In 1998, Kim approved large shipments of food aid to the North Korean government, lifted limits on business deals between North Korean and South Korean firms, and even called for a stop to the American economic embargo against the North. In 2000, the leaders of North and South Korea met in Pyongyang and shook hands for the first time since the division of Korea. Despite the continuation of the Sunshine Policy under the Roh administration, it was eventually declared a failure by South Korean Unification Ministry in 2010 over issues of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which stymied further negotiations.

Opponents of the Sunshine Policy argue that dialogue and trade with North Korea did nothing to improve prospects for peaceful reunification, despite the transfer of large funds to the North Korean government by President Kim Dae-jung, and only allowed the North Korean government to retain its hold on power. Others, such as the Grand National Party, believe South Korea should remain prepared for the event of a North Korean attack. Hardline policy supporters also argue that the help given to North Korea only continues the regime there and that leaving it alone will eventually bring its collapse.

With the Bush administration labeling North Korea as part of the ‘axis of evil,’ North Korea renounced the nonproliferation treaty, kicked out UN inspectors, and restarted their nuclear program. The current war in Iraq heightened fears for the North Korean leaders, who charge that it proves that even if a country disarms under UN inspection, it can still be invaded by the US. Therefore in early 2005, North Korea finally conceded that they did have nuclear weapons. American foreign policy became preoccupied with Iraq, and North Korea returned to its tried and true strategy of the Cold War: stubborn intransigence.

While the situation of South and North Korea might seem comparable to East and West Germany, another country divided by Cold War politics, there are some notable differences. Germany did not have a civil war that resulted in millions of casualties, meaning ‘it is very hard to believe that People’s Army commanders who fought the South in such a bloody fratricidal war would allow the ROK to overwhelm the DPRK, by whatever means.’ Both sides of Germany maintained a working relationship after the war, but the two Koreas’ relationship has been more acrimonious. The East Germans also had 360,000 Soviet troops on their soil in 1989; however, North Korea has not had any Soviet troops on its soil since 1948. ‘East Germany collapsed because Gorbachev chose to do what none of his predecessors would ever have done, namely, keep those troops in their barracks rather than mobilize them to save the Honecker regime.’ The East Germans looked favorably at the fact that West Germans had good retirement benefits, public order, and strong civil society; whereas the North Korean citizens do not see such immediate benefits from uniting with South Korea.

The cultures of the two halves have separated following partition, even though traditional Korean culture and history are shared. In addition, many families were split by the division of Korea. In the German reunification, the 41-year-long separation left significant impacts on German culture and society, even after two decades. Given the extreme differences of North and South Korean culture and lifestyle, the effects might last even longer. Many Germans believe that the difference between ‘Westerners’ and ‘Easterners’ will remain ‘as long as anyone lives who can remember the separation,’ though these cultural differences are almost non-existent between young people born after or shortly before the reunification. Therefore, it is highly likely that the Korean youth will play a major role in the cultural integration after a hypothetical Korean reunification. The North Korean population is far more culturally distinct and isolated than the East German population was in the late 1980s. Unlike in East Germany, North Koreans generally cannot receive foreign broadcasting or read foreign publications. Germany was divided for 44 years and did not have border clashes between the two sides. By comparison, the Koreas have been divided for over 60, and hostilities have flared over the years.

Economic differences between North and South Korea also are a cause of concern. Korean reunification would differ from the German reunification precedent. In relative terms, North Korea’s economy is currently worse than that of East Germany was in 1990. The consequence of the economic differences is that many South Koreans, while desiring reunification in theory, want to delay the process of reunification until the northern economy can be developed separately, having seen the results of the sudden reunification of West Germany and East Germany, and knowing the differences between the two Koreas. In 2011, a group of twelve lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties introduced a bill into the National Assembly to allow for the establishment of a ‘unification tax.’ The proposal was not warmly welcomed at the time. Practical measures to prepare for unification are becoming an increasingly frequent aspect of political debate, as concern regarding imminent and abrupt unification increases.

China officially supports reunification under peaceful means. The 2010 United States diplomatic cables leak mentions two unnamed Chinese officials claiming that the younger generation of Chinese leaders is willing to accept the unification of Korea under South Korean rule, on condition that a unified Korea not be hostile to China. The report claimed that senior Chinese officials were becoming increasingly frustrated with the North acting like a ‘spoiled child’ following its repeated missile and nuclear tests which were seen as a gesture of defiance to not just the West, but also to China. A senior Chinese diplomat said that Chinese public opinion was running out of patience with the North’s behavior, which influenced the leadership. According to leading Chinese business magazine ‘Caixin,’ North Korea accounts for 40% of China’s foreign aid budget and 50,000 tons of oil exports per month to maintain a buffer state against Japan, South Korea, and the United States, but that the three nations were no longer China’s enemies, and that trade and investment with them was worth billions of dollars, while its support of North Korea was expensive and internationally embarrassing to support due to its ‘unruly’ behavior and defiance towards China.

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