Impossible dream? Unification less of a priority as Korean leaders prepare to talk

A tourist holding a parasol walks by a barbed-wire fence decorated by South Korean national flags at the Imjingak pavilion near the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas in Paju, South Korea, August 22, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/File Photo


SEOUL – The recent detente between North and South Korea has given new life to talk of unification for the two countries divided since the 1950s.

It’s a term that conjours up visions of the Berlin Wall falling, families reunited and armies disbanded.

Both Koreas have repeatedly called for peaceful unification and marched together under a unity flag at the recent Winter Olympics. And when a group of K-pop stars visited the North recently, they held hands with Northerners and sang, “Our wish is unification.”

But on a peninsula locked in conflict for 70 years, unification is a concept that has become increasingly convoluted and viewed as unrealistic, at least in the South, amid an ever-widening gulf between the two nations, analysts and officials say.

The South has become a major economic power with a hyper-wired society and vibrant democracy; the North is an impoverished, isolated country locked under the Kim family dynasty with few personal freedoms.

Unlike East and West Germany, which were reunited in 1990, the Korean division is based on a fratricidal civil war that remains unresolved. The two Koreas never signed a peace deal to end the conflict and have yet to officially recognize each other.

Those unresolved divisions are why seeking peace and nuclear disarmament are President Moon Jae-in’s top priorities in Friday’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said Moon Chung-in, special national security adviser to the president.

Unification – a key topic at the two previous summits, in 2000 and 2007 – isn’t expected to be discussed at any great length, he said.

“If there is no peace, there is no unification,” Moon Chung-in told Reuters.

In the past, some South Korean leaders have predicated their reunification plans on the assumption the North’s authoritarian regime would collapse and be absorbed by the South.

But under the liberal President Moon, the government has softened its approach, emphasizing reconciliation and peaceful coexistence that might lead to eventual unity, current and former officials say.


Public support for reunification has declined in the South, where 58 percent see it as necessary, down from nearly 70 percent in 2014, according to a survey by the Korea Institute for National Unification. A separate government poll in 1969 showed support for unification at 90 percent.

The economic toll would be too great on South Korea, says Park Jung-ho, a 35-year-old office worker in Seoul.

“I am strongly against unification and don’t think we should unify just for the reason we come from the same homogenous group,” he said. “I just wish we live without the kind of tensions we have today.”

To ease the animosity, “our government should acknowledge North Korea as an equal neighbor like China or Japan,” he said.

Estimates of the cost of reunification have ranged widely, running as high as $5 trillion – a cost that would fall almost entirely on South Korea.

In a speech in Berlin last July, Moon outlined what he called the “Korean Peninsula peace initiative” with three Noes: No desire for the North’s collapse, no pursuit of unification by absorption, and no pursuit of unification through artificial means.

“What we are pursuing is only peace,” he said.


Both Koreas have enshrined reunification in their constitutions, with North Korea describing it as “the nation’s supreme task.”

Like South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, the North has its own Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Country, and state media has mentioned unification more than 2,700 times since 2010, according to a Reuters analysis of articles collected by the KCNA Watch website.

North Korea does not make officials available for comment to media inquiries.

A North Korean statement in January urged “all Koreans at home and abroad” toward a common goal: “Let us promote contact, travel, cooperation and exchange between the north and the south on a wide scale to remove mutual misunderstanding and distrust and make all the fellow countrymen fulfill their responsibility and role as the driving force of national reunification!”

North Koreans on both sides of the border appear to be more supportive of unification, with more than 95 percent of defectors polled in the South in favor.

In 1993, North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il Sung proposed a 10-point program for reunification, which included a proposal for leaving the two systems and governments intact while opening the borders.

Until the 1970s North Korea – officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – constitutionally claimed Seoul as its capital, and to this day the South Korean government appoints symbolic governors of Northern provinces.

“Reunification ultimately complicates a lot of the more immediate, short-term goals, whether it is denuclearization or the human rights issue, or even just developing stable communications between North and South Korea,” said Ben Forney, a research associate at Seoul’s Asan Institute.


The two sides have run into problems on even small-scale cooperation, such as the Kaesong joint industrial park where workers from both sides labored together until it was shut down in 2016 amid a row over the North’s weapons development.

Recently, they failed to agree on a program to allow divided families to communicate with each other.

Mistrust runs deep. Some South Koreans and Americans remain convinced Kim Jong Un has amassed his nuclear arsenal as part of a long-term plan to control the peninsula. And Pyongyang worries the American military presence in South Korea is an invasion force intent on toppling Kim.

When East and West Germany reunited in 1990, some believed it could be a model for the Korean Peninsula.

However, the two Germanies had not fought a civil war and East Germany had a far looser grip on its population than North Korea, former unification ministry official Yang Chang-Seok wrote in a 2016 report.

Chief among the obstacles may be Kim Jong Un himself, who analysts say has little incentive to accept the compromises necessary for peaceful reunification. And South Korea is unlikely to agree to any deal that allows Kim meaningful control.

China also has a vested interest in maintaining North Korea as an independent state and buffer between the U.S.-allied South.

In the long run, abandoning the more strident calls for full unification could allow the two Koreas to mend relations, said Michael Breen, an author of several books on Korea.

“It’s a kind of a contradiction, that unification is seen as a kind of romantic, wholesome, nationalistic dream,” Breen said, “where in fact it’s the source of many of the problems.”