Gov’t goes slow on unification planning

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Gov’t goes slow on unification planning

Relations between North and South Korea have been icy for months, and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has just finished another trip to Russia and China to get economic support that no longer comes from the South.

But the South Korean government believes unification of the two Koreas is inevitable and could even take place as early as 2020.

The Ministry of Unification is exploring ways of funding unification and how to sell that need to the South Korean public.

The most recent effort was a symposium on preparations for unification on Aug. 11 at the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Seoul.

Analysts traded estimates for how much would be needed for reuinification. They ranged from 55 trillion won ($50.8 billion) to 249 trillion won.

According to Park Jong-cheol of the Korea Institute for National Unification, the estimates are for how much money would be needed during the first year of unification after a single government is formed. The money would be used to unite the two countries and form a single military.

Any funds used before then would be pulled from a North-South joint cooperation fund, which is currently being run by the South Korean government.

“Think of it as sending your kid to university,” said one official at the policy bureau of the Unification Ministry. “You know you’re going to need the money sometime in the future. It’s a matter of whether you’re going to start saving when your child is in the ninth grade or somehow get the money right before you send the kid off to college.”

How the money will be raised is a matter of debate. Ideas are being discussed by the government in closed-door meetings, and they include additional taxes on cigarettes and or alcohol. The Unification Ministry said it has confirmed any firm outline for taxes for unification.

President Lee Myung-bak mentioned a “unification tax” in his speech last year on the anniversary of South Korea’s independence on August 15. But the Blue House says plans for a unification tax are still being mulled over.

There are some indications that the public isn’t really ready for unification or for a unification tax.

According to a survey conducted by Seoul National University’s research center for unification last year, out of 1,200 men and women polled in South Korea over the age of 19, 59 percent said they believed unification was necessary. In a similar poll in 2007, 64 percent said unification was necessary. Analysts believe that the percentage will shrink further this year, as last year’s poll was done before the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island by North Korea in November 2010.

Similar results were seen in a survey conducted last February by Yonsei University and Research & Research of 1,000 people. Seventy percent said unification was necessary, but the minority who didn’t believe so said they were worried about its cost.

Another problem the Unification Ministry faces is getting backing from other government ministries. As of mid-August, the ministry had not even engaged in official discussions about unification funds with ministries such as the Ministry of Strategy and Finance.

An official at the Unification Ministry’s policy department said it had been difficult to start such talks within the government because of the difficulties the South Korean economy is facing already.

In an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily last year, the Unification minister said the government would have a surefire outline of a unification plan by the end of the first half of this year. Still, the government has not yet made an official announcement regarding the issue even after spending 1.2 billion won in research on unification in the last year.

“We’ll come up with a plan that won’t harm the nation fiscally and that puts the least pressure on the people,” Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said during a National Assembly session.


By Christine Kim [christine.kim@joongang.co.kr]

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