Deciding to reunifyThis year marks the 70th anniversary of the division of the Korean people. Caught in the ideological battle between the East and West, a divided Korea is the last remaining remnant of the Cold War. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, experts, academics and policy makers the world over continue to anticipate the collapse of the North Korean state.
Senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Jamie Metzel recently proclaimed, “Today, the North Korean madness may well be nearing its endgame… With no logical path forward, the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] government will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.”
The trouble is that the North Korean system survived. In the 1990s, triggered by halting energy imports, factories shut down and the economy and food distribution system came to a grinding halt. Floods and famine, starvation and disease, the mass imprisonment and torture of all dissidents defined the “Arduous March” of the 1990s. Despite systemic failure on a massive scale - 10 percent of its population died of starvation - the leadership of North Korea was able to retain power. Unchanged in their rhetoric and ethos, the North Korean regime perseveres with its long-touted principle of “autonomy and independence” at all costs.
As the regime seems to be unable to change from within - as seen in its strict information control and brutal suppression of dissent - American policy makers and experts are beginning to reexamine the possibilities and implications of a “Unification First” policy, a thought possibly sparked by President Park Geun-hye’s ambitious Dresden Initiative.
Professor David Maxwell, associate director at the Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, stated at a recent conference on Korean unification: “The problem is we think in linear terms when looking at the North Korean dilemma. We first look to resolve the nuclear problem, then the human rights problem, and then finally unification, but that assumes the current regime is willing to give up their nuclear weapons and willing to resolve its human rights issues. I am saying they are not going to do that, I am saying we have to focus on unification.”
Momentum is now slowly shifting to a “unification first” mentality. Goldman Sachs agrees with President Park.
In a 2009 study, they stated, “By 2050, a unified Korea could leap past France, Germany and Japan laying claim to the eighth-largest economy in the world.”
The Korean Peninsula, at the heart of East Asia, would be positioned to become a world leader in trade, finance and culture. Implications of economic integration and gradual political unification don’t just mean material or economic gains.
Sue Mi Terry, a former analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency and a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, recently discussed the implications of a Kim regime dissolution and Korean Unification in an article on Foreign Affairs, stating it would result in “huge humanitarian benefits - freeing 25 million people from the grip of the world’s last remaining Stalinist state and integrating them into a modern democracy. The majority of North Korea’s 80,000 to 120,000 state prisoners could leave the government’s slave labor camps… It would produce massive economic and social benefits for the peninsula and the region.”
Preparation for unification and reconstruction on the peninsula, therefore, requires not only the collaboration, cooperation and support of regional powers, but also requires leadership, which seems to be in short supply. So maybe it is time for the United States to show its support for Korean unification.
Dr. Jai P. Ryu, president of the One Korea Foundation and professor emeritus at Loyola University of Maryland, once lamented, “President Obama has illustrated many times how his administration favors the Dresden Initiative. China is looking favorably on unification, and Japan is in full support of a strong, independent, vibrant free Korea. So it is time. We need someone to step forward. We need public support. The politicians want noise from the people. But that will never come. It will take a leader. We need leadership.”
Leadership comes in many forms. But I believe it starts with the individual. It starts with making a choice, to do what you can with what you have to enact in this world what you believe.
If there is one thing I have learned by living and working on the Korean peninsula, it is that the Korean people all believe unification not only to be just, but inevitable. A recent study by the Asan Institute shows public interest in reunification has increased from 52.6 percent in 2010 to 82.6 percent in 2014, and 81.7 percent of the public now sees a South-North summit as necessary. So it’s time for Korea to stand up and take their destiny in their own hands. If they choose to decide on reunification and leading, the world will be there to follow and support her.
*The author is the Seoul Bureau Chief of the Arirang Institute.
BY Michael Lammbrau