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.
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 had 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 polemic subject among military strategists and students of international politics. Whether or not one agrees with “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”. Of course questions about how and to what extent defence industries influence the economic growth of any nation are difficult to resolve.
It is quite clear, however, that any country which spends more than five percent 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 percent of its GNP, and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK-North Korea) is expected to spend more for military purposes.
When compared with 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 US still maintains more than thirty-eight thousand troops in South Korea.
Furthermore, the US 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 Cold War 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. It can claim to be a sovereign nation state in the 21st Century 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 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 treated so differently that Koreans have acquired different personalities and values.
If this situation continues to exist for a very long period, the possibility of reunifying and reintegrating Korean society could cease to exist. Clearly, the longer the division exists, the more difficult it becomes to integrate the two Koreas.
Fifth, reunification 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 and active role in the international arena.
Both Koreas have constantly diminished their influence in international affairs by bickering with each other. Furthermore, each side has attempted to discredit 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 of both South Korea and North Korea. Reunification will eliminate the unnecessary and unseemly efforts of each to discredit the other.
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.
The role of Korea will become more active and more positive in the international political community.
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 in that divided land. 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 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 South Korea’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 reach. The foregoing implications are reason enough to venture in to speculate 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 Korean spiritual nature. Thus the issue of reunification is able to generate an extraordinary degree of support as a political symbol.
Many Koreans realise that it is presently unrealistic and a remote possibility to envisage a unified Korea. Nonetheless, they do dream of it and naturally speculate about such a possibility.
Frequently, frustration drives Koreans to strongly 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 not only a useful issue to be exploited, but it is also an issue which often forces government leaders to take a position.
Thus various incidents reported in the news media around the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) or some policy statements in South and North are partly a result of both Koreas’ tactics on how to achieve unification.
Both Koreas’ diplomatic offensives towards other countries are also invariably related with an overall strategy toward ultimate unification of Korea. In this respect, both North and South Korean governments have taken various policy positions on the unification.
Thus, 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, such as the age-old “Korean question” that forms part of the legacy of Cold War politics, we will need to explore alternative paradigms and new ideas.
In the Korean Peninsula, tensions persist over the path of union of the two Koreas. 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, 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.
The South has learnt from Germany 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.
- Dr Sharif Shuja teaches at the University of Melbourne