[OUTLOOK]Unification begins on Wednesday

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[OUTLOOK]Unification begins on Wednesday

Listening to Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun regaling the flower of Asian and European journalism with the recent progress on relations with North Korea, I had a sudden realization -- reunification is no longer a future dream. Reunification has begun.

Work begins next week on the rail connections that will link Busan and Paris by way of Siberia. And before the year's end, work is to start on an industrial complex in Gaeseong, North Korea.

Forget for the moment that North Korea has a history of agreeing to cooperation projects and then finding ways to back out. It may be different this time. The Hermit Kingdom has sent many signals that it wants to emerge from its shell.

In that case, reunification now is a principle agreed on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone. The rest, the multi-billion industrial complex in Gaeseong, the rail link to Siberia, is just getting on with the job. And the work starts Wednesday.

The projects can't be done without the two countries growing together. Gaeseong, a historic commercial center, is just over the border northwest of Seoul, not much farther away than Incheon. The three cities would be the tripod on which would rest that future "hub of Northeast Asia" Seoul officials are always raving about.

One thing will lead to another. North Korea's electricity grid will have to be rebuilt and integrated with the South's. A road network will be needed. The JoongAng Ilbo earlier this year suggested spending 1 percent of South Korea's budget annually -- about 4 trillion won ($3.3 billion) -- to provide the North with a modern industrial infrastructure. This is not fond altruism; it addresses the fear that reunification may come too soon and saddle South Korea with a sudden and ruinously expensive relief program in the North. One of the presidential candidates, Chung Mong-joon, appeared to endorse the 1 percent idea this week.

Another candidate, Roh Moo-hyun, limned an even more expansive vision of the two Koreas leading Northeast Asia into a "golden age" of prosperity. Within 1,200 kilometers of the Shilla Hotel, where Mr. Roh was speaking, is a market of 700 million Chinese, Japanese, Russians and Koreans -- a population greater than those of the United States and the European Union combined. Korea will be the crossroads for all this potential commerce.

It all makes sense -- the Hub of Northeast Asia. And it means that, except in the formal political sense, reunification is not a dream for 35 years from now, as a former unification minister said in 2000; nor even for 10 or 20 years from now, as President Kim Dae-jung has said. Reunification begins Thursday, when work begins on reconnecting the railroads.

The venue for both Minister Jeong's remarks and those of Mr. Roh was the Asia-Europe Press Forum, and pretty soon the journalists started asking rude questions.

How many South Korean companies, asked Robert Elegant, a Briton, have put money into the Gaeseong complex? Well, none yet, but some 500 have expressed interest.

Josef Joffe, editor and publisher of the German Weekly Die Zeit, was even blunter. Why, he asked Mr. Roh, did his vision overlook the obvious -- that North Korea's is an irrational and dangerous regime?

Mr. Roh blinked and then confessed, "Yes, it is irrational and dangerous, that is a fact. But it may not always be so." His expectation was that many years of undemanding cooperation with the irrational and dangerous regime would reassure it that no one wanted to destabilize it. "It is undeniable," he said, "that the world is moving toward market economies and democracy."

But exactly that is denied by Pyeongyang. Even worse, if Kim Jong-il does harbor a sickening hunch that Mr. Roh may be right, that democracy is inevitable even in North Korea, then no amount of "trust-building" (Mr. Roh's word) will reassure him that his regime has nothing to fear from engagement.

So it looks as though the digging may start Wednesday in the DMZ and New Year's Eve in Gaeseong, but reunification on the ground is going to take another 10 or 20 or 35 years, after all -- assuming, as all South Koreans apparently do, that the process can be phased and controlled and won't arrive chaotically, the way German and Vietnamese reunification did.

It probably means that Korea will miss out on becoming the hub of Northeast Asia. Asian integration will leapfrog a still-split Korea. The sad thing is that in a better world, the visions of Minister Jeong and Mr. Roh really might come true.


The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by Hal Piper

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