Unification is hard to do
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Former President Lee Myung-bak said unification could arrive like a thief in the night. A scholar likened it to a “thunder strike.” History has given us clues. Divided nations in modern history became one without warning, rather than carefully following a script.
The fall of the Berlin Wall actually was birthed from a mistake. The tipping point came from the mouth of a politburo spokesman for the socialist German Democratic Party in East Germany and a sensational news headline. When asked by a reporter when East Germans could travel to the West, Gunter Schabowski casually answered, “Immediately, without delay.” The foreign media flashed headlines about the lifting of the Berlin Wall. Although they had not meant to say “free travel,” hundreds rushed to cross the gates with guards vainly trying to stop them. The wall came down overnight. The two Germanies became one 11 months later.
Yemeni unification took place in May 1990. Six months earlier, the two Yemen countries had a summit meeting. North Yemen at the time proposed semi-federalism by first integrating defense and foreign affairs whereas South Yemen bargained for a full-scale unification by offering an equal number of seats in major government posts. The North ended up agreeing to the idea. The South had a population of 2.5 million and the North 11 million. Equal shares in governance was an unattainable promise and could not be kept though. But unification was ultimately achieved out of necessity. In the late 1980s, oil reserves were discovered at the border area. The socialist South, short on fuel aid from the Soviet Union, could not turn down the North’s tempting offer of joint oil exploration.
John Everard, a former British ambassador to North Korea and columnist to the JoongAng Ilbo, repeatedly mentioned the possibility of the collapse of the Pyongyang regime. He projected that the Kim dictatorship would be rattled by the spread of the coronavirus or other infectious diseases and that livelihoods would decline in the impoverished nation. He believed a sudden epic change could happen at any moment.
The rapid merger process between Korean Air Lines and Asiana Airlines could also serve as a metaphor to visualize an abrupt unification. The two full-service carriers have been warring over international routes. They competitively ran money-losing routes so as not to lose face against one another. In 2011, the two waged a war of nerves over the historic return of the Royal Archives taken from the royal court of Joseon when France invaded Gwanghwa Island in the West Sea and looted the protocol books in 1866. Even when Asiana Airlines could not send a cargo jet to Paris at the time, it lobbied hard to transport the historic books. The ancient books returned home after 145 years in the freight cabin of a passenger jet. Korean Air Lines strongly protested since it had a regular cargo jet flying to and from France. Asiana raised a hoopla over its feat by holding ceremonies at airports in the two countries.
Every South Korean knows the song “Our Wish is Unification.” But in reality, unification is not that rosy. Germans suffered for a long period after unification. If not for strong economic power, conflicts and ramifications could have lasted until now. Yemen experienced a civil war soon after unification. The southern region became a hotbed for militant Islamic groups. Refugees number over 1 million today. Some of them even came to Jeju Island in South Korea. A failed unification can give way to deeper, more complex dilemmas.
Hanjin Group Chairman Cho Won-tae and other executives from Korean Air Lines held an emergency meeting on Monday after state lender Korea Development Bank announced the merger plan. The executives agreed that Korean Air cannot survive if Asiana turns worse. In that case, the two could fall under state control. It is important that Asiana employees work normally even after the merger, Chairman Cho stressed. West Germany tried hard not to hurt the feelings of East Germany after unification. The merger has arrived unexpectedly, but the air cohabitation must set an example in corporate integration so that the country can have a positive vision for a unified Korea.
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