Evolution of unification study
While I was researching this summer to write a paper on Korean unification, I found there was an abundant, accumulative repository of good discussions and writings, from which we could get useful insight and good advice. However, all these studies fail to contribute to realizing unification.
The studies so far have dealt with a series of pertinent topics ― including the legitimacy of unification, the costs and benefits, the evolution of unification policy on both sides, and comparisons with German reunification and other countries.
Some have analyzed different approaches and scenarios, the domestic and international factors for unification from a security perspective affecting conflicting interests over the peninsula among its surrounding nations, and preparations for a contingency plan for a possible collapse of the North.
Some observers stress the importance of resolving the North Korean nuclear issue and the establishment of a peace regime as a necessary condition for unification. For similar reasons, studies include reviews of the security policies of the United States and China.
Recently, there has been a noticeable shift in the trends of unification studies from the premise of a peaceful process, supported by liberals and progressives, to that of a North Korean collapse, preferred by conservatives and hardliners. An increasing number of specialists have focused on a variety of collapse theories and contingency measures to deal with the aftermath.
The rise of interest in collapse theories that would result in unification on South Korean terms ― by way of absorption, as was the case in Germany ― should be attributed to the ineffectiveness, if not the failure, of U.S. and South Korean policy and the intransigency of the North’s position on denuclearization and its gratuitous provocative behavior.
As fewer people believe that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons and more people believe it will not last long without reform and opening up to improve its ailing economy to sustain its political survival, the assumption of a likely collapse may sound plausible.
The proponents of the collapse scenarios discuss the issues of humanitarian needs for a displaced population, social and political pacification, border security for refugees, and mopping up of the remnants of the Korean People’s Army ― who may refuse to surrender. They also research how to disarm the North Korean military, secure and protect the North Korean nuclear arsenal, and how to seek China’s cooperation for management of the disintegration of the North Korean system.
Some studies deal with the post or pre-unification tasks of social, economic and legal integration. For most that stress the importance of preparing for unification, there is an underlying assumption that North Korea should and will collapse due to its outdated political and economic system at some point.
If it collapses as believed or wished for by these pundits, it will be futile to explore and design a new peaceful unification process by way of dialogue and cooperation with the North. If we were certain that the country would fall, it would make sense that we focus on how the South and the United States plan for the aftermath of such an event and possible Chinese intervention.
Conversely, if we believe or if we can establish a credible hypothesis that the North will not collapse in the near future, we should explore other avenues to approach the study of unification, including a reexamination of what went wrong in past efforts.
While no particular study has contributed to achieving a successful conclusion to the peninsula’s problem, time has proved some of the earlier arguments favoring a particular approach, formula or assumption were wrong, as the policies of the authorities as well as the reality of history have changed.
Obviously, any end state of Korean unification would affect the strategic interests of China, Japan, Russia and the United States, all of which prefer the status quo against any uncertain reconfiguration of the power relationships in the region.
It is not surprising that China, like the United States, gives only lip service to peaceful unification. Beijing’s strategy has been to maintain the status quo so that it can continue its economic growth amid stability. The United States and Japan would not like a unified Korea ending South Korea’s alliance with the United States. China would oppose a unified Korea with a continuing alliance with America. Russia would feel uncomfortable with a unified Korea allied or inclined either to China or to the United States.
While it is prudent to prepare for the aftermath of a possible North Korean collapse, it is also important to study and design a gradual, long-term peaceful process to achieve a unified Korea that would be acceptable to, and supportable by, the neighboring powers. Permanent neutrality may be an idea worthy of exploring down the road.
From day one after Korea was liberated from Japanese colonial rule in 1945, Korean people sought an independent unified Korea, unaware that the division of their land at the 38th parallel had been fixed by the Allied Forces. A democratic unified Korea is still a national aspiration. What’s your take?
The writer is a research professor of the Ilmin Institute of International Relations at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an ICAS fellow. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.