[Viewpoint] A go-slow unification policy is best

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[Viewpoint] A go-slow unification policy is best

While the inter-Korean relationship is at its worst deadlock ever, an untimely discussion about unification is in full bloom. It gained momentum when President Lee Myung-bak said that unification is approaching at a meeting with Korean residents in Malaysia on Dec. 9. He added that Korea needs to prepare for it by building up its economic power. The Ministry of Unification designated 2011 as the first year of preparations for unification and promised to achieve national consensus on the issue.

It is a great goal, indeed. Unification has long been the ardent desire of Koreans. However, there is something dubious about the current discussions. It seems to be based on the premise of a sudden change and system collapse in North Korea and unification by absorption. While we all certainly hope for a unified country based on a market economy and liberal democracy, unification by absorption may not be a realistic option.

Even if the existing North Korea regime collapses, North Korea as a sovereign state will continue. A certain political entity, whether it is a group leadership system, a military junta or a democratic regime, will assume power in the North, and unification is only possible when we negotiate and reach an agreement with the new power holder. Just as South Koreans cannot accept the proposal of the Confederal Republic, North Korea would not easily embrace the absorption plan.

That’s why the gradual unification plan was preferred in the past. Lee Hong-koo, former prime minister under the Roh Tae-woo administration, had conceived the National Community Unification Plan. The course of unification in his proposal was to accept coexistence and promote cooperation to ultimately achieve one community of Koreans.

The Inter-Korean Union pursued by the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations can be understood in the same context. Instead of the legalistic unification of integrating two sovereignties into one, it would be more realistic and desirable to create a virtually unified status where people and goods travel freely by seeking cooperation, exchange, trust and peaceful coexistence. Having experienced the history of division, war, confrontation and discord, it is in reality difficult to become a unified nation at once without first going through a process of cooperation and integration.

Strictly speaking, the unification of Germany, which the Korean government is taking as an example, was through consultation and integration, not absorption. Let’s look at the process until the unification of Germany was officially announced on Oct. 3, 1990. In a short period of time, the Christian Democratic Union, the Christian Social Union, the Social Democratic Party, Free Democratic Party and the Greens of West Germany had established tight alliances with political parties and social groups in East Germany. Unification was realized through the acceptance by the People’s Chamber of East Germany of the Unification Treaty.

Moreover, West Germany had promoted exchanges and cooperation with East Germany since the Basic Treaty was signed in 1972. West Germany also provided a total of $32 billion in assistance until unification. In this case, German unification had been meticulously planned.

The cost of unification has to be reviewed thoroughly. The Presidential Council for Future and Vision became the catalyst for the discussion of a unification tax. Its report estimates the cost of sudden unification to be 2,525 trillion won ($2.2 trillion), while gradual unification would cost 380 trillion won. The numbers tell us that the gradual option is much more economically advantageous and that there is no reason for an absorption scenario.

Some conservatives claim that unification cannot be achieved if we are afraid of war. They suggest a possibility of unification by force. However, it is neither plausible nor desirable. During the first nuclear crisis in 1994, the U.S. Department of Defense estimated that a full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula would result in casualties amounting to 5,200 U.S. troops, 490,000 South Korean soldiers and more than one million civilians within 90 days. The war would cost the United States over $100 billion, and Korea and its neighbors over $1 trillion.

The costs of war, reconstruction, absorption and post-unification economic development in the North would reach at least $6 trillion to $7 trillion. Considering the tremendous casualties, a war can never be an option no matter how important unification may be. Moreover, the scars of war would make social integration almost impossible.

We need to follow common sense and logic. Unification cannot be attained through Seoul’s unilateral efforts but should be accomplished through mutual agreement between the two Koreas. With prudence and pragmatism, we need to create a domestic and international environment for Pyongyang to accept unification through agreement, while continuing to pursue exchanges and cooperation, and build trust and a foundation for peaceful coexistence.

*The writer is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.

By Moon Chung-in
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