Virtu instead of fortuna
Since the start of the new year, there have been many discussions about unification with the North. After National Intelligence Service Director Nam Jae-joon’s outlook for unification in 2015, a major newspaper started a campaign titled “Unification is the future.” During her New Year’s press conference on Jan. 6, even President Park Geun-hye promoted the idea that unification could be a “jackpot.”
During her opening speech on Jan. 22 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Park once again said that unification could be a jackpot, not only for Korea but for all of its Northeast Asian neighbors.
It is promising that such remarks have reignited the fading discussion of unification, but there is a lot for us to think about.
“Jackpot” means achieving a great success, especially through luck. In other words, the key part of Park’s argument is “luck.” And luck can bring about both jackpots and busts. You cannot just rely on luck, and unification must be carefully achieved through strategies and the will of a leader. Using Machiavelli, the latest discussions on unification overemphasize fortuna, while ignoring the crucial factor of virtu.
First of all, the government is arguing that unification will be a jackpot without defining what kind of unification we are achieving. Unification can come in various forms such as a single nation state, a federal system or a Swiss-style confederation. In those cases, either South Korea or the North will lose its sovereignty. Or unification can come in the form of a national union, like the European Union, in which the two Koreas will each maintain their own sovereignty.
Until now, the South Korean government has promoted a plan to improve reconciliation and cooperation between the two Koreas, establishing a South-North union as the interim step and ultimately becoming a unified country. But the latest discussions omit the process and only highlight a rosy outcome. This is a serious error in specifics.
The method of unification is also an issue. There are various ways to achieve unification. The North could be absorbed, like East Germany was by the West, but we cannot rule out the use of armed forces, like the case of Vietnam. There could also be a peaceful unification through inter-Korean negotiations and agreements. It may be unduly worrying, but because of the prolonged and hostile separation between the two Koreas, the North might end up under the economic trusteeship of China, delaying unification for a long time.
As we can see, the costs and benefits of unification - the basis of the “jackpot” argument - can differ depending on each scenario. If unification comes through armed forces and a war, the two Koreas won’t be able to avoid a catastrophic outcome.
Absorbing the North is also far from a guaranteed jackpot. As we have already seen in the case of Germany, a sudden collapse of the North and its subsequent abandonment would be an enormous economic burden on the South. The way to minimize that damage would be to normalize the North’s economy under China’s influence and then unify the two Koreas later, but that would not be easy to accept. Plus, it could risk the possibility of a permanent separation.
The most desirable way forward would be to achieve unification through an agreement based on exchanges and cooperation in economic issues. But the latest talk indicates the government is not interested in that sort of reunification and instead wants to absorb the North following an emergency there. At least, that is how Pyongyang perceives the South. The North Korean authorities, therefore, immediately rejected the “jackpot” argument, labeling it a delusional plan to absorb the North.
Unification is not something we can decide on alone. It is an issue that involves the North Korean leadership and its citizens. Without their agreement, a constructive unification is impossible.
Pyongyang has recently accepted the South’s proposal to hold more reunions for families separated since the 1950-53 Korean War. This is a precious opportunity. We must start untangling the complex situation. We must not lower our guard, but we must bring about changes in the North, build trust, ease tensions and resolve the nuclear issue to create the stepping stones for unification.
We do not need a groundbreaking, new, creative alternative. It would be a good start if the two Koreas could review their past agreements and find a way to implement them. We should throw out the “jackpot” argument as a one-time show for domestic politics and instead use the virtu of thorough preparation and contemplation. That is the advice given by an Italian philosopher 500 years ago.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of political science at Yonsei University.
by Moon Chung-in