Time is not on unification’s side

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Time is not on unification’s side

Can you believe it? Last month an editorial in The New York Times asked, “Is Korean Unification Possible?”

The short answer - my answer - is no. That ship sailed many years ago.

Fifteen years ago, during Kim Dae-jung’s presidency, South Korea took unification seriously and worked toward making it happen. This newspaper proposed an infrastructure subsidy for North Korea - 1 percent of the South Korean budget dedicated to rebuild railroads, repave highways and rewire the electrical grid in the North.

Why did this not happen? I suppose we could blame the North Koreans, who (no doubt correctly) saw this plan as a pathway to absorb the North into the South. But there was also a lack of nerve in the South.

The unification of Germany after 1989 cost a couple of trillion dollars - almost entirely paid for by the prosperous, capitalist West. How much more costly would unification be in Korea, where the South is not as rich as West Germany, and the North much more impoverished than East Germany?

Thus, unification came to be seen in South Korea not as an opportunity but as an unaffordable burden, and therefore a sentimental dream, like world peace (hah!) or the Biblical communion of the lion and the lamb (double hah!).

So what has changed? In this new year, is unification a topic again?

Perhaps. Both Korean leaderships have danced around the topic in recent days. South Korea’s unification minister, Ryoo Kihl-jae, sent a fax to Pyongyang proposing that cabinet ministers on both sides meet this month. “The South and the North will have to meet each other and discuss ways toward peaceful reunification,” Ryoo later told journalists.

Only a year ago the line out of Pyongyang was that South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye was a “prostitute” fraudulently elected to her position. But in his New Year’s message this month, Kim Jong-un was in a sunnier mood, finding “no reason not to hold the highest-level talks,” though he qualified his remarks: “Depending on the mood and circumstances.”

For whatever reason, the state news agency did not publish those remarks in its official transcript of Kim’s speech.

Political theater, isn’t it?

Kim is ready to talk; Park has already swung into action by appointing a 50-member committee, drawn from those in business, government and academia, to develop a vision of a unified Korea and a process for realizing this vision. Full speed ahead to unification?

Which returns us to the question posed by The New York Times: “Is Korean Unification Possible?”

The “Gray Lady,” as the Times of yore was called, succumbs neither to the cynicism that afflicts so many of us nor the idealism that afflicts the rest. In measured tones, it allows that “the dream is at once quixotic and prudent.”

True enough, but is it realizable? The Times notes that South Korean “young people, in particular, now see unification as irrelevant or too costly.” That certainly jives with my experience working in two divided countries - Germany in the 1980s, and Korea in recent years.

Only five years or so before the Berlin Wall fell and Germany was reunited, young West Germans would tell me that they no longer cared much about Communist East Germany.

“They have their way, and we have ours; we are now two countries.”

Only superficially different were the words of my Korean students when I taught at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies. Of course, they would tell me that every Korean’s dream is unification. But few of them seemed to care much.

It was defeatism - young Germans then, and young Koreans now cannot not believe that unification might happen, and so they pretend not to care.

Does this add urgency to President Park’s initiative? The generation that is most passionate about a unified Korea is rapidly passing. Perhaps this is history’s last chance for a peaceful unification of the Korean Peninsula.

Last year President Park said that unification would be a “jackpot” for Korea. The North, unlike the South, is rich in mineral resources - worth as much as $10 trillion, according to an estimate in 2012 - though North Korea may have the world’s second-largest reserves of rare earth metals. Last year, North Korea sold more than $1.88 million worth of these resources to China.

Which raises the question: a jackpot for whom? China is signing contracts with Pyongyang to mine and develop its mineral resources. Seoul has appointed a 50-member committee to dope out a plausible unification road map.

For Korean unification, it appears time is not on our side.

*The author is the former editor in chief of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

by Hal Piper

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