Is Korea’s Peaceful Reunification Really Coming Soon?

The division of Korea, which has brought its people great suffering, has lasted for more than six decades. Since the division, the two Koreas have rapidly become alien states due to the looming cloud of war floating around the Korean Peninsula. To heal the rift at the 38th parallel, reunification through peaceful integration seems to be the most natural and logical course of action. However, before we can discuss the possibilities of Korea’s peaceful integration in the near future, we must first be acquainted with the history of Korea’s division and reasons for reunification.

 Surrounded by China, Japan, and Russia, the Korean Peninsula has long served as a crucial crossroad of Northeast Asia. Because of the peninsula’s unique geopolitical location, Korea’s fate has often been shaped by the competition and conflict among her neighbors. A recent example of this is the birth of two independent states within the Korean Peninsula: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea (Kim 16).

The origin of Korea’s division stems from Japan’s downfall in World War II, which ended the 35-year Japanese colonial rule of Korea and allowed the Soviet Union and the United States to enter the Korean Peninsula. Both superpowers agreed to temporarily divide Korea along the 38th parallel line­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­—­­­­­the Soviet Union occupying the northern half of the peninsula while the United States occupying the southern half—in order to help establish a unified and independent Korean government. However, the two occupation zones hardened into distinct spheres of influence due to the clashing views between the Soviet Union and the United States regarding Korea’s reestablishment. By 1948, the disagreement of the two superpowers reached its peak, resulting to the breakup of Korea into two independent nations, with the Soviet establishing a communist government in the north and America establishing a capital democratic government in the south (Kim 33, 64-65). Also, the subsequent Korean War, in which both sides failed to achieve reunification by force due to external interventions, only deepened the 38th parallel line existing between the two nations (Coghlan 1).

Since then, the two Koreas have yearned and strived to bring the Korean Peninsula under one banner through the means of peaceful integration. Although the nationalistic, cultural and humanitarian reasons play central roles, many believe that the most important factors behind North and South Korea’s zeal for reunification are in the following benefits.

One would be the economic benefits of a single Korea. A reunited Korea could tap into the rich and rare underground resources of the North, which combined with the advanced technology of the South, could bring forth a large economic expansion. In addition to this, a reunited Korea will see a considerable increase in its population with the joining of the two countries. Even if problems regarding job security will exist during the initial period of reunification, there is no doubt that an increase in population will further enhance the economy by granting access to a greater labor force. Another economic benefit that arises from Korea’s reunification is cost saving. Both North and South Korea have spent tremendously in their national defense. As of 2010, North and South Korea’s military expenditure amounted to US$5.9 billion and US$29.5 billion respectively, with the latter ranking 11th in the world’s defense budget. But with reunification, the defense spending will be significantly cut to less than half of the present scale. Not only this, but other division-related expenses will be cut, such as the extra shipping charges in South Korea’s trade with her neighbors since shorter trade routes would be available through the North (Yoon).

The other would be the peace that could be gained from reunification. Because of the dangerous cease-fire state between the two nations, South Koreans have been constantly exposed to threats by the North, varying from espionage to deadly military assaults. The latest cases being the sinking of ROKS Cheonan, a South Korean navy ship, and the artillery bombardment on Yeonpyeong Island. Due to these skirmishes, South Koreans have always felt uneasy and anxious ever since the splitting of the peninsula. However, in a reunified Korea, they will no longer have to live a life shadowed by the dark possibilities of a second civil war (Yoon).

Now that we have explored the history of Korea’s division and the reasons for reunification, we can proceed to the possibilities of whether a peaceful integration of Korea will happen in the near future. My position regarding this type of reunification between the North and South Korea is that it will remain elusive. My reason behind this stand is due to the three obstacles that block Korea’s road to reunification in the immediate future.

First is the clash of ideas in the reunification policies of North and South Korea. Though both nations share a similar goal of peaceful reunification and changing the status quo of the peninsula, their ideas greatly differ in their purposes and methods. The most notable difference between the two is in their opinions about the form of government that the reunified Korea should have. The North wants the Korean Peninsula to be under communist rule, while the South has pushed for the reunification under democracy through a North-South general election. Another differing factor is the contrasting methods in dealing reunification. North Korea follows the logic of “unification first and integration of functions later,” but South Korea’s method is based on the logic of “peace first and reunification later.” In short, North Korea wants a quick reunification under communism, unlike the South who wants to follow a step by step approach which respects democracy (Choue 93).

Second are the external influences present in Korean reunification. Since the end of the Cold War, the bipolarity division of power surrounding the peninsula has evolved into a four major power paradigm which consists of the United States, China, Japan, and Russia; and each of these nations has maneuvered themselves to influence the direction of the Korean reunification for their respective dominance and benefits in the strategic Northeast Asian region (Tovar 2). The United States seeks a Korea that is “reunified, stable, and democratic; maintains a free market economy; effectively integrates the North and South; forsakes Weapons of Mass Destruction; and is permanently aligned to Washington” (Coghlan 10). If this were to occur, the United States would prosper from retaining its influence on the peninsula due to the economic assistance and partnership formed between the United States and South Korea (Tovar 95). China, on the other hand, has little interest in reunification and is satisfied with the status quo of the Korean Peninsula. This is because China sees North Korea as a strategic buffer zone against the United States-South Korea alliance. Not only that, through a two-Korea policy, China seeks to remove the influences of United States and Japan from South Korea so that China could gain prominent influence within the Korean region (Coghlan 8-9). Japan, like the United States, seeks a reunified Korea but one “that is friendly to Tokyo and Washington, that is economically viable and politically open, and that will allow token U.S. presence to remain” (Coghlan 12). Such an outcome would allow Japan to continue its strong trading relationship with Korea. Also, by facilitating the American forces to remain in the peninsula, Japan could hit two birds with one stone. The first bird would be Japan securing Korea from unwanted influences of China and Russia, while the second being Japan’s economic benefits through a cut in its defense spending in the Korean Peninsula (Tovar 24-25). In the case of Russia, a reunified Korea that keeps the United States in and China out of the peninsula is favored. Since this would grant Russia with two economic projects – “a transnational oil and gas pipeline through North Korea to supply Japan and the South, and a Trans-Korean railroad connected to the Trans-Siberian rail system that offers the tantalizing prospect of a rail connection between a reunified Korea and lucrative European markets” (Coghlan 14).

Third is the enormous cost of Korean reunification. According to South Korea’s Finance Ministry, the reunification may cost 70 percent of the South’s annual gross domestic product. As of 2012, the seven percent of South Korea’s gross domestic product has been estimated to be around US$80.62 billion (Kim). The reason behind this ridiculous big number is in the economic difference existing between the two Koreas. Since their division, the North’s economy has become one of the world’s poorest and least developed due to its isolation from international trade. However, the South—contrary to its northern counterpart—has become Asia’s fourth and the world’s 15th largest economy through its export-oriented economic strategy (“Report for Selected Countries and Subject”). Now, the economic gap separating these two nations has become so great that the income per capita ratio between the North and South Korea stands close to 1:18 (“CIA-The World Factbook”). Therefore, reunification will inevitably require an awful amount of monetary investment to equalize the two extreme polar lifestyles in the Korean Peninsula.

In sum, I have attempted to analyze and prove that the possibility of a peaceful Korean integration in the near future is almost inconceivable. As mentioned earlier, the differing views of North and South Korea regarding reunification will continue to separate the two states, unless one of them accepts defeat and bends to the other’s ideology. But even if the internal issue can be solved, it alone cannot present a clear solution to Korea’s reunification problem. This is because Korea’s fate has been shaped much more by the outside forces than that of the domestic factors. With each of the four major powers also having contradicting attitudes toward reunification, it seems almost impossible for reunification to occur in a short period of time unless there is an exit of these international powers. However, the enormous economic cost completely smothers the little fire of hope remaining in the possibility of a peaceful reunification in the immediate future. Regardless of the estimates, there is no doubt that the huge cost of reunification will be too much of a burden for the South to handle it alone. And this will lead Korea’s reunification problem back to the international scale since whoever provides the money will have a dominant influence within the Northeast Asian region. Thus, my stand concerning the possibility of Korea’s peaceful integration in the near future is that it will not happen. Nevertheless, this does not mean that I agree with the impossibility of a single Korea. As a Korean, I myself strongly believe that reunification under the South Korean government will eventually occur in the distant future, but only through a gradual and peaceful means or through an economic collapse of North Korea.

Works Cited

Kim, Hak-Joon. The Unification Policy of South and North Korea. Seoul: Kwangmyong Publishing Company, 1977. Print.

Coghlan, David. Prospects from Korean Reunification. Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2008. Web. 18 Jan. 2013.

Yoon, Duk-ryong. “Benefits of Unification in Estimation” The Seoul Shinmun. 18 February. 2011. Web. 19 Jan. 2013.

Choue, Chung-Won. The Integration of Korea. Seoul: Koreaone Press, 1978. Print.

Tovar, Suzanne M. How Will External Powers Affect Korean Reunification? Diss. U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, 1999. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2005. Web. 18 Jan. 2013.

Kim, Christine. “Korean unification may cost South 7 percent of GDP: ministry.” Reuters. 1 January. 2013. Web. 19 Jan. 2013.

Report for Selected Countries and Subjects. International Monetary Fund, 2010. Web. 19 Jan. 2013.

CIA-The World Factbook. Central Intelligence Agency, 2012. Web. 19 Jan. 2013.

Yoon, Hyung Tong 2012-12209


One thought on “Is Korea’s Peaceful Reunification Really Coming Soon?

  1. A very informative post. I never knew beforehand the history of how Korea was actually split into two. And although it is very optimistic to think that the two should be merged into one big korea, the two primary reasons why they are split(Government and the cost of merging) still hampers that very thought. However I do believe that cost is too great in the short run, It would all be growth in the long run and I actually believe that one day they will merge into one, set aside the history caused by outside countries and become Korea, a Korea that can even beat China’s economy and still maintain such a high level of culture.

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