The Korean Political Science Associate and the Korea Institute for National Unification invited professionals and intellectuals from organizations and regional powers to discuss “Korean Unification from an International Perspective.” The forum took place on July 20th with sponsorship from South Korea’s Ministry of Unification.
Kim Chun-sig Vice Minister at the Ministry of Unification set the tone for the event in his keynote address. Kim shared his opinion that the “costs” of maintaining a divided peninsula are a “disadvantage to future generations” and “detrimental to national competitiveness.” He elaborated on this point by saying that a divided Korean peninsula cannot achieve economy of scale, prevents economic cooperation and severs trade routes in Northeast Asia. Kim ended his remarks by sharing his belief that a unified Korean peninsula could play a leading role in a “new beginning” for Northeast Asia.
The first session, moderated by Lee Jung-hoon of Yonsei University, featured two presentations that were followed up by remarks from each discussant. Wang Fei-ling from Georgia Institute of Technology presented first. He began by identifying several byproducts of Korean unification that would benefit “just about everybody”. Those were a final conclusion to the Cold War, erasure of the only hot-clash between the US and the PRC, the removal of a lasting irritant to many nations and the end to a lasting source of tension and conflict in the region. Wang also noted that the creation of an East Asian regional configuration would be more feasible with a unified Korea. He added that unification would unlock the Korean people’s full economic potential, alleviate the concern for global proliferation of WMDs and allow for a rethinking and reconstruction of bilateral and multilateral relations in the Pacific.
However, Wang realized that when talking about unification there are certain “uncertainties” that should be kept in mind. One of the most poignant was “can Korean unification be peaceful?” Others he noted were “will a united Korea continue to be an ally of the U.S.” and “what would it take for Beijing to give up Pyongyang?” Wang also listed several “costs” to China that could be incurred if Korea were to unify. The foremost of which would be the loss of a “long-time ideological comrade” since the DPRK is the only country the PRC maintains a formal alliance with. Wang concluded his remarks rather somberly by saying that the fate of Korean unification is not entirely in the hands of the Korean people since policy is still subject to the “preferences of great powers.”
Zhu Feng of Peking University spoke next regarding possible benefits for China. He explained that North Korea has been a “prolonged stress” and that unification would “unload a bigger burden for China” and would remove “desponding points” between the U.S. and the China. Zhu also shared his opinion that without unification, various economic plans to further develop the Northeastern region of China “can’t bear fruit.” He pointed to Russia’s recent interest in the region and said that if such plans succeed there is the potential for a unified Korea to be part of a new “triangle of energy resources industry.” Zhu’s final point was that a unified Korea would “re-steer regional security costs” saying that it would “very likely … contribute to some sort of regional security structure.”
Zhu continued to provide some examples of why China “hesitates” when it comes to the issue of Korean unification. He said that China sees both “horrible trade-offs” and “perceived benefits from the unification process”. Zhu noted that the future relationship between a unified Korea and China remains “uncertain” saying that relations could be “more friendly and less hostile” or quite possibly “more hostile and less friendly.” He also listed several other costs China considers given their geographic proximity to North Korea. Specifically, a flooding of refugees in the event the DPRK collapses, the fear of nuclear accidents, and the issue of American soldiers moving north of the 38th parallel. Zhu explained that an “integral part of Chinese thinking is what to do with a unified Korea.” He ended his comments by saying that it was he didn’t think China would “stand in the way” of a unified Korea and that a “decisive move to unification would be positive.”
Following the presentations from the two main speakers, discussants were asked to comment on the presentations and share their opinions. Peter Beck from the Asia Foundation was first to comment. He began by asking the forum members “are we any closer to unification now than we were a year ago?” His answer, despite the dramatic changes over the past few months, was “probably not.” Beck described the current situation as one in which there is “much more uncertainty about what is going on in Pyongyang” but would not describe the situation in terms of “instability.” When speaking on the benefits of unification, he said that the Korean peninsula would be able to “realize it’s full potential.” Beck added that the challenge of a unified Korea would be how to make China and Japan more comfortable. Specifically to prevent China from “feeling encircled by the U.S.”
Tatiana Gabroussenko from the University of South Wales shared some of Australia’s interests in a unified Korea. She said that, based on the history of South Korea’s and Australia’s relations, Australia has the chance to become one of the “most active participants in post-unification developments.” Gabroussenko explained that Australia is South Korea’s fourth largest trade partner and that over half of their total exports are related to the sale of mineral resources. She pointed to the fact that North Korea’s infrastructure would “have to be constructed from scratch” and her opinion that the northern part of the country “is destined to become an industrial zone,” as the reasons behind her conclusion that a unified Korea would “make a larger market for Australia.”
Next to comment was Sachio Nakato from Ritsumeikan University. He said that Japan “cannot take a major role in the process of Korean unification.” Nakato followed up on this by explaining that many remain “suspicious of Japan’s intentions” in the unification scenario. He explained that Japan would likely support Korean unification with some conditions. Those being that South Korea takes a leadership role, adoption of a market economy, no nuclear weapons, a unified Korea would not be too close to China nor would it take a hostile position towards Japan.
Sandip Kumar Mishra from the University of Delhi spoke next. He said there is too much emphasis on the “cost of unification” while there isn’t much attention paid to the “cost of division.” Mishra pointed to what he called “peace dividends” for the Korean unification scenario, noting a bigger economy, human resources, and the “opportunity” that lies in tapping into an estimated six trillion dollars worth of natural resources. He believes that the younger generations of South Koreas interpret unification in terms of the cost benefit analysis, which is why many seem to oppose it all together. Mishra said there is a need to educate the future generations that there is more to unification than the cost benefits analysis.
Due to time constraints the last two discussants kept their comments brief. Jeffrey Robertson from the Department of Parliamentary Service, Parliamentary of Australia spoke first. He noted that at the school he teaches at in Seoul, many of the international students receive scholarships and eventually return to their native countries to share the knowledge they gained in South Korea. Robertson expects that in the future there might be more North Korean students doing the same thing and he encouragedthought on this issue and the role these students might play in a unified Korea.
The final commenter was Dinna Winsu from Paramadina University. She encouraged the U.S. and China to “engage other countries in the region in the idea of unification.” Winsu also noted that there is too great an emphasis on the contestation of power between the U.S. and China when discussing Korean unification. She asked that whoever wants to be involved in the “unification idea” to “appreciate the fate of millions of people in North Korea.” Winsu said that most of the discussion was concerned with power and wanted to ensure that people are “aware that whatever we discuss will affect how they [the North Korean people] live as a human being.”