Expiration Date on Unity?

Almost sixty five years have elapsed since the Demilitarized Zone was established at the 38 degree line across the Korean peninsula. Today, there is nothing de-militarized about it, as it is the most heavily militarized border in the world.[1] The Armistice which was agreed upon by the two armies is a kludge, a temporary fix, a band aid to a bullet hole; the longest standing armistice to date holds the two Koreas in limbo- effectively, the countries are still at war.[2] And if anyone were to look at current events on the Korean peninsula, war would not seem too far off. Military exercises in the South have intensified in response to Kim Jung Un’s repeated missile tests – the count is now up to sixteen in the past ten months.[3] The Security Council of the United Nations scrambles to find a better solution after the imposition of sanctions has failed yet again. Nikki Hailey’s speech at the Security Council reveals an escalation of the situation, (which you can read more about here), and the drills taking place in South Korea seem to suggest unification is further off than ever.

Time has not been kind to the reunification process in the Korean Peninsula. In her book South Korea’s New Nationalism: The End of “One Korea”? Emma Campbell analyses the change in national identity in the two Koreas. Specifically, Campbell traces a pattern which has been taking hold of South Korea’s youth. A notion of identity seems to be emerging, contrary to the typical Korean identity of minjok. Campbell describes minjok as “a form of ethnic nationalism that is grounded in ‘blood’ and history, has been sanctified above all other forms of nationalism and has provided the absolute rationale for reunification, regardless of the decades-long political division.”[4] Younger Koreans see their identity reflected much more in a global context than in a Korean one, Campbell argues. Her argument is supported by a study conducted by the University of Seoul, which found that only 64% of South Koreans in 2007 considered unification necessary, in contrast with 92% support measured in 1994. That number is even bleaker among the young, who only considered it necessary at a 449% margin.[5] Prospects of Korean unity are clearly growing thin, as support for unity is diminishing. Given the cost that South Koreans would have to invest in unity, declining support suggests a difficult path to One Korea.

Another obstacle in the quest for unity is the political and economic conditions of the two Koreas. Clearly, the dichotomy between South Korea – an evolving pluralist democracy with an increasingly sophisticated postindustrial economy and an exploding consumer and popular culture – and North Korea – an authoritarian, quasi-communist, militaristic state, which scholar Michael Robinson describes as “locked in a dance of death with its own failing economic fortunes” – is stunning.[6]  Even worse, the course charted by North Korea is counterproductive to a path of unity towards South Korea. Correspondent for the Asia Society, Charles Armstrong writes that “North Korea developed into perhaps the most isolated and controlled of all communist states, and even 10 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, [shows] little sign of political and economic liberalization despite severe economic hardship.”[7] This is a gap which will need to be filled before reunification, in order to avoid a social structure that alienates North Koreas and reclassifies them as second class citizens. Michael Breen writes in his book The New Koreans that the two nations must at all costs equalize before reunification. If they don’t, Breen fears the fate of the new Korea would be one in which

Day One will be all fireworks and live coverage on CNN. Day Two, the poor North Koreans go to the bottom of the hierarchical ladder. That is why whoever is in charge in the North owes it to its people to build up the country, reconcile slowly, and join together only when they know they will be received with civility.[8]

Social and cultural obstacles aside, the economic cost itself poses a serious obstacle for reunification. Studies over several decades have shown that reunification would mean a considerable financial burden on the south, and have also shown that terms of reunification would have considerable impact on the cost. The Korea Development Institute (KDI) estimated in 2010 that reunification costs would amount to US$322 billion for 2011-2040 “under the assumption of a gradual unification, which rises to US$2 trillion 140 billion for 30 years after unification should North Korea collapse suddenly.” [9] Costs themselves are a deterrent for pursuing unity, and researcher Cheong has found that by “drawing from the experience of the German unification process,10-12% of South Korea’s GDP would be required for 10 years after unification to raise the income level of North Korean people to 80-90% of that of South Koreans.”[10]

These numbers are sobering at best. Coupled with a shifted identity alignment among young South Koreans who no longer identify with their Northern counterparts, the chances of reunification continue to decline. The cultural glue that was precariously holding the two Koreas together is brittle and breaking. It must be up to the new generation of Koreans to determine whether they are willing to make the economic sacrifice to preserve the culture of a unified Korea. It is the responsibility of the current heads of government – both regionally and internationally, to ensure they get there. Nuclear war, and further estrangement, cannot be an option if we hope to preserve the possibility of Korean unity.

[1] Noah Berlatsky, North and South Korea: Opposing Viewpoints (Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press (Gale, Cengage Learning), 2014), 18.

[2] Barry Gills, Korea versus Korea: A Case of Contested Legitimacy (Florence: Taylor and Francis, 2005), xv.

[3] Joshua Berlinger, “North Korea’s Missile Tests: What You Need to Know,” CNN, December 03, 2017, accessed December 06, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/29/asia/north-korea-missile-tests/index.html.

[4] Emma Campbell, South Korea’s New Nationalism: The End of “One Korea”? (Boulder, CO: FirstForumPress, a division of Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2016).

[5] Tania Branigan, “Korean Unification: Dreams of Unity Fade into Past for Young South Koreans,” The Guardian, May 27, 2013, accessed December 05, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/may/27/south-north-korea-unification.

[6] Robinson, Michael E.. Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey: A Short History, University of Hawaii Press, 2007. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/hope/detail.action?docID=3413270., 184.

[7] Charles K. Armstrong, “Korean History and Political Geography,” Asia Society, accessed December 06, 2017, https://asiasociety.org/education/korean-history-and-political-geography.

[8] Michael Breen, The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2017), 394.

[9] Inkyo Cheong, “Estimation of Benefits and Costs of Korea’s Unification: A Critical Review,” Journal of International Logistics and Trade, 13 (2010), 31-33; 35-47.

[10] Ibid.