[Korea’s 60th Anniversary Special Contributions]The elusive dream of unification

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[Korea’s 60th Anniversary Special Contributions]The elusive dream of unification

In 1948 two rival Korean states were born.

From the very beginning, neither side was willing to accept the division as permanent. Neither side made a secret of its willingness to unify the country, by force if necessary, and each side was ready to accept unification strictly on its own terms.

The Korean War led to widespread destruction and great loss of life, but the country remained divided. After the war, both Seoul and Pyongyang remained committed to unification, but this commitment became largely theoretical. In a world driven by superpower politics, few people hoped that unification would be possible any time soon, so the rival governments concentrated on economic development instead.

In 1972 secret talks between Seoul and Pyongyang produced the “July 4 Joint Declaration,” which stated that both sides were committed to three principles of unification: that it should be reached independently, peacefully and on the basis of national solidarity.

The July 4 Declaration was a sign of change. From that time onwards, the two Korean regimes began to gradually move away from their old unconditional hostility and toward a measure of cooperation.

Unification in fact remained elusive. But the new paradigm permitted a defusing of tension on the peninsula and also facilitated some limited exchanges between the two sides of the divided nation.

Meanwhile, the economic gap between the two halves of Korea has been growing. By 2007, the Bank of Korea estimated that per capita GNP in the North was 17 times below the South Korean level; many experts believe that the actual gap is 1:35, if not higher. This economic disparity creates huge inequalities between the two Koreas, and this inequality in turn greatly influences their relations.

The late 1980s saw a short-lived revival of the unification dream as communist Eastern Europe broke up. Contacts between the two governments intensified, and this led to some new high-profile agreements, including the Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression and Exchanges and Cooperation between the South and the North (1991) and the Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (1992).

However, the hopes for German-style unification did not last long.

Unification as the supreme national goal still remains accepted universally, even though from the late 1990s one can easily see a decline in commitment to this stated goal among the younger generation of South Koreans. Under the new circumstances Seoul was not in a great hurry to reach this goal. A prolonged period of peaceful coexistence and collaboration came to be seen as a necessary first step on the way to complete unification.

Such was the background that led to a switch to the Sunshine Policy, launched by Kim Dae-jung’s government in 1997 and continued by Roh Moo-hyun. The major goal of this policy was to encourage the gradual evolution of North Korea.

An important part of the underlying assumptions in this policy was a belief that reform would prolong the existence of the North Korean state and make possible a gradual elimination of the huge economic and social gap between the two Koreas.

Was the Sunshine Policy successful and, if so, to what degree? Perhaps this question has no clear-cut answer and will thus be disputed by generations of historians.

Critics of the policy insist that it essentially saved the North Korean dictatorial regime from collapse and prolonged the suffering of the North Korean people. Meanwhile, supporters of the “Sunshine line” point at the considerable improvement in the relations between the two Koreas and to the explosive growth in their economic exchanges and political contacts. They also claim that the Sunshine Policy helped to decrease the risk of war and created conditions which rendered large-scale aid possible (aid which, they continue, has saved many lives).

Indeed, the Sunshine Policy made possible an unprecedented increase in political exchanges between the two sides. The most important of these contacts took place in 2002 when South Korean President Kim Dae-jung met North Korea’s Defense Council Chairman Kim Jong-il. This was the first ever summit between the heads of the two Korean states. The next summit took place in 2007, once again in Pyongyang.

All these events occurred against the backdrop of humanitarian disaster in the North in the late 1990s. In a famine of unprecedented proportions an estimated 600,000 and 900,000 people starved to death. The famine was over by 2000, largely thanks to massive outside aid; however, the underlying problems persist.

In recent years South Korea has become a major food provider, shipping about 400,000 metric tons of food every year (roughly 8 percent of the entire annual demand). Apart from food aid, a number of governmental agencies and NGOs are also involved in providing all kinds of humanitarian aid and development assistance to North Korea.

There was also a dramatic growth in the volume of intra-Korean economic exchange as well. One should not judge these projects from a purely economic point of view, since most of them are likely to have long-term political consequences.

The last 15 years have been times of explosive growth in the scale of intra-Korean trade. Until the mid-1990s, such trade was virtually absent. By 2003 the volume of this trade reached $0.72 billion, while in 2007 the volume of trade and other economic exchanges increased to $1.8 billion. In recent years South Korea has been the second largest trade partner of the North.

Currently, there are three major joint undertakings between the two sides. In the Kumgang mountains, South Korean tourists frequent a resort located in one of the most famed scenic parts of the country. The resort is for the exclusive use of the South Koreans, and their interactions with North Koreans are kept to a bare minimum. Many critics of the project therefore describe it disapprovingly as a “money pump” which keeps the North Korean regime provided with monetary funds. This is partially true, but it is also true that without the trailblazing Kumgang [in operation since 1998; currently suspended since the July shooting of a South Korean tourist] no other projects would be conceivable.

Indeed, two more recent projects are remarkably less restrictive. One of those projects is the Kaesong city tours.

Kaesong, the capital of Korea during the Goryeo dynasty (918-1392) and the site of numerous historical monuments, is located just across the DMZ, some 50 kilometers away from Seoul. Since 2007, 300 South Korean tourists have been allowed to visit the city every day.

The tours are heavily controlled, but still give visitors an unprecedented opportunity to glimpse North Korean life. Meanwhile, the population of this, one of North Korea’s largest cities, also see busloads of well-dressed, well-fed and tall South Koreans whose behavior and image clearly contradict the official propaganda.

Since 2004 South Korean companies have also begun to operate in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, located just across the DMZ. As of February 2008, there were 68 South Korean companies operating in Kaesong. These companies employ 23,529 North Korean workers as well as 884 South Korean managers and technicians.

In Kaesong, a large number of North and South Koreans work together for the first time in 60 years. The North Koreans not only learn modern technical skills, but they also have ample opportunity to observe their Southern compatriots. No doubt they come to conclusions which are very different from what they are told by the official propaganda, and in the long run this will have a great impact on the internal situation in North Korea.

Nevertheless, by 2006-2007 one could see that (South) Korean society was feeling a growing dissatisfaction about the results of the Sunshine Policy. The policy failed to prevent the development of nuclear weapons in North Korea. More importantly, the long-expected Chinese-style reforms did not come about. On the contrary, once the North Korean government began to slowly recover from the severe famine of the late 1990s, it undertook attempts to restore the old system of a centrally planned economy and omnipresent political control.

This means that in the foreseeable future Seoul will face an uneasy dilemma. If substantial and unconditional aid is provided, the North Korean elite will use it largely to increase its own grip over the people. If aid is not provided, many more North Koreans will starve to death, while the regime will still be able to maintain control. In both situations, the yawning gulf between the two Korean economies is likely to get even wider.

Lee Myung-bak’s government, in office since February, decided to test another approach to the North which, it is widely hoped, will help to break away from the vicious cycle described above. While basically willing to provide aid, it also stated that aid should come with certain conditions attached.

As a part of this new approach, President Lee proposed his “3,000 Vision” plan. In essence, this plan envisions large-scale aid being delivered to the North if its government chooses to abandon its nuclear weapons. The South promises to increase the per capita income in the North to $3,000 within a decade.

This proposal does not appear to be realistic, since the North is very unlikely to accept a deal which includes denuclearization as an essential part of the package. However, the underlying conditional approach to aid seems to be the main line of Seoul’s strategy in dealing with the North over the next few years of Lee Myung-bak’s government.

Unification, the long-term stated dream and goal of both Koreas, therefore remains elusive.

In the new situation, the South Korean public seems to be losing interest in the goal, and is definitely not in a special hurry to reach it. All in all, the situation does not sound encouraging.

However, there is reason to hope. It seems that in the long run the fate of Korea will be decided not by negotiations between the two Korean governments, but by social changes and domestic developments within both countries - and in particular, within North Korea itself.

As history had demonstrated a number of times, very often the complicated diplomatic constructions and calculations of power elites are swept away by the force of popular feeling. Despite all the caveats, Koreans of the North and South still see themselves as one nation, and this perception, if it does not materially fade, will eventually decide their fate.

*Andrei Lankov, born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the former Soviet Union, is a historian of Korea. He taught at the Australian National University and since 2004 has been teaching at Kookmin University in Seoul. A prolific author, Lankov has published several books on Korean history, including “North of the DMZ” and “From Stalin to Kim Il Sung: Formation of North Korea” as well as a large number of articles in scholarly journals and the mass media.

by Andrei Lankov
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