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Unified Korea: could it work?

Despite the economic, social and cultural obstacles that stand in the way of its manifestation, the reunification of the Korean peninsula is something that is undeniably worth pursuing


Almost since the day Korea was separated into two states back in 1948, there have been discussions and policies put forward for how to reunify the peninsula. However, members of the Korean People’s Army in the North and those of the Republic of Korea’s armed forces in the South have stood guard on either side of a 4km-wide strip of land that stretches for 250km, known as the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), ever since. The DMZ’s name is steeped in irony, as on both sides of the great divide are a scattering of guard towers, missiles, tanks and troops, all solely waiting for a war to ignite.

The weapons of war and the incredible sense of tension that exists on both sides of the divide are juxtaposed by the tranquillity of the area in between: the DMZ is an area where, under the strangest of circumstances, nature has been granted a reprieve from man’s persistent meddling. Several decades of limited human activity has allowed wildlife to claim this patch of land for itself, thereby transforming it into one of Asia’s greatest nature reserves. All this makes the DMZ a place of immense contrast, which helps attract travellers from all over the world.

Sightseers come to gaze at one of the last living relics of the Cold War; a conflict that, for most people, came to an abrupt end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Escorted by guides, tourists venture through a peculiar piece of history, where at the end they find themselves at the obligatory gift shop – something which no doubt adds to the surrealism of the whole experience. For foreigners, venturing to the DMZ is a just another thing to tick off of a bucket list. But for Koreans, it stands as a constant reminder of a nation divided over a war that has long since expired.

North vs South






GDP per capita (PPP)





Infant mortality rate per 1,000





Life expectancy





Geographical area of North and South Korea

120,538sq km


99,720sq km


Mobile phones north and south of the border





World Press Freedom ranking (2015)





Sources: The World Factbook, World Press Freedom Index

Hopes for reconciliation
Because the two countries have been separated from one another for so long, it is hard for most to imagine the dream of reunification becoming a reality. Even so, it has remained a key policy objective of the South Korean Government for many years. In a report released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Korea National Diplomatic Academy, it stated that both countries could be unified as soon as 2050. The report outlines a possible “blueprint for unification”, which involves establishing a joint economic system between the two nations, designed to help raise the national income of North Koreans from around $1,800 to $10,000 per capita. It also notes that, should unification occur, a united Korea would become the seventh-largest economy in the world.

A united Korea would possess a population of over 80 million people, which would help the country benefit from economies of scale, while an end to hostilities would allow for a dramatic reduction in military spending, permitting tax money to be redirected elsewhere. From this viewpoint, reunification seems like such a simple process – but there are always minutiae to consider when talking about the Korean peninsula.

This is precisely why the report has been met with so much scepticism, particularly from the Daily NK; an online newspaper widely regarded as the most accurate source of inside information on North Korea. The publication, while praising the overall plan, was critical of the fact that nowhere in the report did it specifically outline how it would achieve its goal. “The report… claimed that a joint economic community, if achievable, would naturally lead to political unification. While these two outcomes are connected to political conditions in North Korea, regime variables were not taken into account, making the claim sound inane”, explained Oh Gyeong Seob of Sejong Institute in a column for the Daily NK. “With the present Kim Jong-Un regime, many consider both the creation of an economic community and political unification to be impossible. Unification discussions should always involve discussion of the North Korean regime.”

Put simply, the idea that strengthening economic integration between the two Koreas without factoring social and cultural issues into the equation is an extremely short-sighted policy for unification.

History lessons
Park Seong Jo, a professor at the Free University of Berlin, has shown that major cultural and social variances can greatly impede the process of reunification. Using East and West Germany as a case in point, he explained how, when the two German states signed a treaty agreeing to a monetary, economic and social union in 1990, one thing that officials overlooked was the hostility that citizens on both sides would show each other after the Berlin Wall finally came down. One of the consequences of living in isolation from one another for such a prolonged period of time – combined with the fact that East and West were subjected to politically polarised regimes – was that, while the two countries may have signed an agreement of reconciliation, citizens were less capable of acting upon it. It became apparent very early on that the differences between the two states ran deeper than many had imagined, with both sides seeing themselves as completely different people, rather than as one reunified ethnic group.

East Germans were initially very critical of their cousins in the West, labelling them as greedy, rich capitalists. At the same time, West Germans viewed those from the East as poor, work-shy socialists. Similar societal struggles, Park Seong Jo notes, will likely be faced by a unified Korea. However, such cultural challenges are likely to be even more pronounced, as North and South Korea have engaged in open conflict and have endured a much longer period of separation than East and West Germany did.

Broken bonds
It is said that time is a healer. In the Korean peninsula, however, time is responsible for eroding the emotional and cultural ties that the two nations once shared. The Koreans who can remember a time when the country was still unified are now members of the older generation. Once lost to old age, the memories that they harbour will fade with them, leaving it up to an increasingly disillusioned youth to take up the baton of reunification – a responsibility which they may not be willing to take on.

“I think that there is a lack of impetus within Korean society to be reunited”, says Alexey Maslov, Ph.D. professor and Head of the School of Asian Studies at the National Research University – Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “Today, the younger generations in the North and South are not really ready to be reunited because they no longer share the same cultural ties.”

According to research published by Seoul National University, 11 years ago 92 percent of South Koreans saw unification as “necessary”, but by 2007 only 64 percent persisted with that sentiment. In a more recent survey, it found that 22 percent of South Koreans in their 20s were in favour of “maintain[ing] the status quo, higher than any other age cohort, and nearly triple the rate of those in their 40s”. More worrying, however, is that only 14 percent of those 20-somethings surveyed stated that they saw North Korea as “one of us” – exemplifying the lack of connection that younger Koreans feel towards their neighbours in the North.

Cost of reunification
Another reason many South Koreans are reluctant to see unification go ahead is the huge economic strain that it will inevitably put on the country. According to a report by South Korea’s Finance Ministry, “unification will contribute to the expansion of the economy’s potential growth through increased labour, investments, production and economic cooperation”. But before the country can begin to reap the benefits of a unified Korea, the report explained how it would first have to incur the expense of unification – a process that could cost the country close to seven percent of annual GDP for up to a decade.

Because of the heavy economic cost of unification and the massive disparity between both cultures, many experts question whether the two Koreas are capable of solving the issue of unification on their own. “North Korea needs a political and economic supporter”, Maslov tells Business Destinations. “China is keen to be a mediator of the reunification process, but at the same time, North Korea is really afraid of the Chinese Government being involved.

“North Korea does not want to be regarded as just some kind of appendage of Chinese policy, which is why the role of Russia in this situation is intriguing – because while Russia does not support North Korea’s nuclear programme, it does support its independence and right to independent decision.”

Border guards in the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)
Border guards in the Korean Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)

Reunification reality
Because of the economic, social and political differences between the two Koreas, unification would take dozens of years to accomplish. And, if it does eventually transpire, it is likely that it will be precipitated by one of the following scenarios – some good, some bad: the first scenario for unification is a very slow-moving one, where North Korea calls for more open reforms and more openness in general, resembling something similar to the Chinese model of economic reform. This would allow the country’s economy to grow stronger, with the added benefit of providing a more fertile ground for reunification, as it would limit the burden on South Korea’s own economy. Many commentators see this as the most realistic and feasible means of unifying the two nations.

“But, there is another way”, explains Maslov. “I am speaking about a possible coup d’etat.” Maslov contends that, because the North’s new leader, Kim Jong-Un, lacks the charisma and leadership qualities of his father, it could lead to a sudden seizure of power by rivals from within the country. The fear of such a coup might have provided the motive for the 31-year-old’s decision to execute his uncle, who was a government official with strong ties to China. Should rival groups see the young leader as weak and so begin a fight for control, thus splintering the country into several rival factions, it could provide a second platform for reunification – albeit a much less stable one. If a battle for power were to ensue, it would allow the South to step in as the saviour of North Korea. But for this scenario to play out, it would require the complete destabilisation of a country in possession of nuclear weapons, thereby making such a scenario undesirable. Therefore, for reunification to ever feasibly take place, it would require a mediator – but it is unclear at this stage whether that could come in the form of China or Russia.

“I don’t think that South Korea really wants reunification right now, because destabilisation in the North could lead to destabilisation in the South”, concludes Maslov. “I think that for North Korea, from my point of view, what it wants right now is to reinforce its power. The young Kim will want to raise his country’s position through negotiations with Russia and China and both sides should provide support for the future economic reforms, as it is impossible to make the necessary reforms without their backing.”

Noble ambition
The path of reunification is one littered with what appear to be insurmountable obstacles. Even if the economic, social and cultural hurdles can be traversed effectively, the transition to a unified Korea is one that could take many years to accomplish, and will possess its own unique set of complications.

However, unification is a policy that, despite these hurdles, will not, and should not, be forgotten or discarded. If achieved, it would bring peace to the peninsula and an end to an ongoing headache for many other countries. A unified Korea would also bring economic prosperity and provide the international community with a powerful trading partner. But, most importantly of all, unification would free the North Korean people from the grip of an oppressive and brutal regime – and that alone makes it a policy worth pursuing.

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