Sixty-five years ago, the Korean war was paused with a ceasefire, bringing about almost seven decades of intense hostility between the North and the South who, technically, have never ended the war dividing the peninsula. As time went on, the South opened itself up for Western influence and American assistance whereas the North closed their borders and instituted a very authoritarian regime keen on suppressing the rights of the people. However, on April 28, 2018, it appears as if these hostilities will finally come to a close as President Kim Jong Un of North Korea became the first North Korean President since before the Korean War to step foot over the border onto South Korean territory. During the summit which followed, North Korean President Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in signed the Panmunjom Declaration for Peace, Prosperity and Unification on the Korean Peninsula and promised a new era of reunification.
However, while this is the most progress the peninsula has seen, there is much to be unpacked regarding the interaction. First, the preliminary handshake itself. While every moment of the interactions between Kim and Moon had been carefully orchestrated, everyone was taken by surprise when, after stepping over the border into South Korea, Kim invited Moon to step back over the border into North Korea. While a very symbolic gesture, this was also a dramatic power move by Kim, signaling to the world that he was in charge of the interactions between the North and the South and that he has the upper hand. Especially notable is the fact that this progress was achieved without the direct influence of either China or the United States, the backers of the North and the South respectively. This also appears to be a power move against the United States by Kim. Effectively he is saying that the West still does not and never will dictate his actions, and he will act according to his own plan. This is especially significant because that means that this potential shift of an authoritarian regime to a more democratic regime will not include the influence of the United States and may even damage the US’s influence in Asia.
Secondly, questions abound as to the nature of this unification process between North and South Korea. Needless to say, at this point, the only real similarity between these two countries are their ethnic roots, other than that, the two countries could not be more different. South Korea is a major economic power with a progressive society and flourishing democracy. On the other hand, North Korea is an impoverished nation with citizens living in fear of the oppressive authoritarian Kim family dynasty. Many wonder how these differences could possibly be reconciled, and even if they should be reconciled.
It can be argued that unification should not be the primary objective, but rather establishing peace and mutual understanding is the objective. Economically, at this point, it seems impractical to suggest a unification of the two countries as estimated costs have been estimated at as high as $5 trillion and would severely diminish South Korea’s standing as an economic world power. The economic fallout of this merger would be reminiscent of the economic hardships endured during the unification of East and West Germany, however many times worse. Alternatively, postponing unification for many decades until the North reaches an economic level comparable with the South, would be more beneficial for the South.
Additionally, politically, these two governments are extremely incompatible. Kim’s main priority is maintaining his regime and as such it is extremely unlikely that he will agree to any arrangement where this is not maintained. On the other hand, South Korea has no interest in regressing to what they regard as an archaic Cold War-esque system of government. In fact, any arrangement where Kim does not maintain total control over his subjects will diminish his authority and control over his people. It is far more likely that he will agree to a mutual understanding of cooperation with the South rather than a combined government.
Due to a combination of factors including the political and economic factors mentioned above, the North and the South have starkly different, incompatible cultures, and merging the two seems improbable if not impossible. Discrimination against underqualified North Koreans and a lack of understanding of South Korea’s intense work-centric culture will lead to resentment between Northerners and Southerners and social unrest.
So, the question becomes, if unification is not the short-term goal, what is the short-term goal that Korea should seek? Currently, the goal should be to gradually shift North Korea away from their previous authoritarian practices and attempt to introduce more liberal social and political practices. Both countries have expressed their desires for cooperation between their countries, but cooperation requires some level of mutual experience and this is an unprecedented opportunity to shift an authoritarian regime back towards a democratic regime.
In an era where more and more countries seem to be shifting from democratic to more authoritarian rule, it is uplifting to see that the opposite is potentially occurring with one of the most hostile authoritarian nations on Earth. However, the actual execution of this shift presents many challenges, many of which seem insurmountable. Perhaps the ideal solution is one where the North and the South collaborate and cooperate as separate countries, not as one unified state. At least in the short-term, this seems like the most feasible solution and the most productive path towards a unified peninsula.