More than 60 years have passed since Korea’s division along the 38th parallel in 1945. Three generations, closely related by ties of family and culture, speaking the same language, with a shared his-tory that goes back nearly 2,000 years have grown up on either side of this line. They have been changed by their different experiences perhaps more than they realize.
They live almost in different realities. They have sharply different pictures of themselves and their broth-ers and sisters on the other side of the line. There is misinformation on both sides. However, in the view of most outsiders it is the North Koreans, told that their repressive, impoverished country is the won-der of the world, who have the most learning to do.
In 1989 the former German chancellor Willy Brandt visited Korea’s DMZ and said that the North Koreans were going to have to do a lot of adjusting when their country was finally reunited—more than East Germans would when the Berlin Wall finally came down. Asked when German reunification would occur, Brandt replied “not in my lifetime.”
It was only 60 days later that the Berlin Wall fell (Young 2001, xvii). Perhaps a surprise like that awaits the two Koreas, still officially in a state of war, still confronting each other along a border that U.S. presi-dent Bill Clinton called “the most dangerous place on earth.” Right now the prospect of reunification is only a little nearer than it was in 1989 and maybe even a little less likely than it was in 2000.
That year saw an exciting highlight of the Sunshine Policy. On August 15, the 55th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan, 100 Koreans who had been separated by the 1950–53 war met in Seoul and then flew to Pyongyang in a tearful, dramatic reunion documented by journalists and photographers. “We will do our best to make the exchange of visiting groups become a wonderful opportunity to achieve national unity and reunification,” read a statement issued jointly by the North Korean and South Korean delegations. “
The frozen barrier of confrontation and division has just begun to tear apart” (Bnet Business Network 2000). The next month the two governments convened a historic summit meeting in Pyongyang. South Korean businesses, led by the giant Hyundai chaebol, announced plans to invest in a series of ambitious joint ventures with North Korea.
It was understood, as a background to these events, that things had changed in both countries. South Korea had its first center-left govern-ment; the leader who had been jailed and targeted for execution by the country’s dictators was now the head of state. South Korea could claim more legitimately than ever before to have a government that expressed the will of its people. As for North Korea, it obviously stood in need of rescue.
It was shattered economically, a country on the point of collapse. Its people were starving and dependent on massive doses of foreign aid for their survival. The circumstances of each country had changed dras-tically since the end of the cold war. Why shouldn’t their relationship change? Why shouldn’t North Korea do what other communist coun-tries had done and come in from the cold, with the reward of economic growth and diplomatic reengagement with the rest of the world?
For a while it looked as if this were going to happen. In 2000 Kim Dae Jung was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on behalf of improved relations between the two Koreas. Sadly, the 2000 initiatives look much less encouraging in retrospect. In 2003 a South Korean gov-ernment investigation revealed that through the Hyundai corporation, Kim Dae Jung’s administration had arranged for hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps as much as half a billion, to be paid to North Korea apparently in exchange for agreeing to the summit.
The various joint ventures that Kim Jong Il has permitted in North Korea seem to have the purpose of raising money for projects no out-side aid agency would ever support. In the eyes of South Korea, they are seeds of transformation, but it is all too possible that in the eyes of North Korea, they are just a source of ready cash. Hard currency is also needed for the luxuries that Kim Jong Il and other favored people in North Korea enjoy, luxuries that cannot be manufactured in North Korea—even the suits of top DPRK officials come from outside the country.
In 1998 Kim Jong Il said, “The market economy is one of the fishing rods of temptation. Hanging from the fishhook are two specious baits called ‘economic cooperation’ and ‘aid’ ” (French 2005, 157). He was essentially right. South Korea, with its Sunshine Policy, hopes to tempt North Korea to change itself. North Korea, for its part, seems intent on eating the bait without being hooked.
In early 2009 South Korea’s conservative president Lee Myung Bak said that further progress between the two states depended on North Korea’s abandoning its nuclear program. Kim Jong Il apparently found this condition outrageous. It was essentially a demand that North Korea live up to the international commitments it had agreed to in the Six-Party talks. The extreme nature of the DPRK’s response to this request calls into question both North Korea’s willingness to abandon its nuclear program and its desire for reunification.
The governments of both Koreas insist that reunification is their ulti-mate goal. The world’s great Asian powers, which include China, Japan, and Russia, also say whenever the subject comes up they are in favor of Korean reunification, yet as the years go by and so little progress is made it is difficult not to wonder if these statements are sincere.
Does North Korea want reunification? It claims to. For decades it was a staple of North Korean propaganda that the division of Korea was a crime perpetrated by the United States and its puppet regime to the south, yet although Korean reunification might ultimately benefit the North Korean people, it would not benefit the North Korean leadership, who are aware that South Korea is not about to embrace communism and the rule of Kim Jong Il or any of his successors.
Now and for the foreseeable future serious moves toward reunification would mean admitting that the ideology and leadership of North Korea are discred-ited. It would probably result in the loss of power and privilege for North Korea’s bureaucrats and generals. For North Korea to sincerely work for reunification would require wisdom and a capacity for self-sacrifice that the country’s leadership has not shown so far.
What about the outsiders, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States? They, too, have reasons to prefer a mild alteration of the status quo—a stabilized, nonnuclear North Korea not on the brink of starvation—rather than a unified Korea. In the coming decades China’s interests are expected to collide with those of the United States as the two nations compete for world resources. If Korea were unified as East and West Germany were unified—unified, as seems likely, on the terms of the U.S.-friendly half of the country—this would put a close U.S. ally on China’s border.
Though still a small nation, it would be an economic powerhouse and have one of the world’s largest armed forces, and it would have its own grounds for dispute with China. For example, it might have claims on the many eth-nic Koreans who are Chinese citizens. It is even possible that China does not really mind if every now and then North Korea does something wor-risome in connection with its nuclear program and distracts the United States from other concerns, such as the rising power of China.
Japan has to regard North Korea’s missile and weapons programs as a threat. It would very much like to see a Korea that has no nuclear weapons, but it would not necessarily get that with Korean reunifica-tion. A unified Korea might decide to keep and build on the North’s nuclear program. U.S. forces, no longer needed to prevent a second Korean War, might leave the peninsula; they might have to at the new Korea’s request.
These forces have contributed to the stabilization of East Asia. When they are gone Japan might have to consider rearming. There might even be a three-way nuclear arms race with Japan, China, and Korea. These outcomes are not certain, but they are genuine risks. For Japan a united Korea could be worse than a divided Korea, even if one of the Koreas is an unpredictable rogue state.
For Russia, as for China, North Korea is a buffer state. Russia since the early 2000s has been increasingly at odds with the United States and would probably not like to have a U.S.-friendly regime (possibly with the U.S. bases still in place) on its border. While North Korea remains an international hot spot, Russia gains prestige as a mediator in the international crises that the DPRK periodically generates.
The United States has more of a genuine interest in reunification than China, Japan, or Russia, but even for the United States change poses risks. The new Korea might decide to stay nuclear and start an arms race in East Asia.
That leaves South Korea as the country most seriously committed to reunification: Reunification would mean that a historic wound would be on the way to healing, Korean families would be reunited, and the South Korean politicians who would accomplish the feat would win the gratitude of their people and a great place in history, but even for South Korea the challenges are daunting.
North Korea’s economic collapse has turned reunification into a humanitarian goal. Its people need saving, and who better to save them than their own relations to the south? However, it has further difficulties. Even were the DPRK’s government and its bureaucrats and military forces to admit their failure, give up their privileges, and ask for reunification on the Republic of Korea’s terms, the challenges would be enormous. South Korea, a country of 48 million people, would have to absorb 23 million more.
South Korean workers, with their decent wages and their real labor unions, would face a vast influx of millions of workers who are used to living on next to nothing, who have skills that are at best half a century out of date, whose education has been diluted by hours each day devoted to indoc-trination into the cult of juche and Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, and who have never known what it is like to make their own decisions.
The nearest thing to a precedent for Korean reunification is obvi-ously the German reunification of the 1990s. In broad outline the situations are similar. East Germany, too, was a repressive state shaped by the cold war with a planned economy lagging behind its neighbor, which had benefited from an economic miracle.
Germany was success-fully and gradually reunited, but the case of North and South Korea is by every measure more extreme. The problems, though similar in shape, are much larger in scale.
If these challenges can be overcome, a unified Korea, a healed Korea, would be a stronger country. With its vibrant economy linked to the whole world, the north would certainly be a hermit kingdom no longer. While it would still be small relative to the great neighboring powers of China, Russia, and Japan, it would have the strength to conduct its own diplomacy.
It would have less need to rely on the protection of a single patron than at any time in its previous history. This happy ending may be decades away, but the rewards are great enough to assure that some Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel will keep dreaming of it and planning for it.