Communist soldiers guard the Demilitarized zone between North and South Korea [fresh888]
c Communist soldiers guard the Demilitarized zone between North and South Korea [fresh888]

Korea: Is reunification in sight?

With new leaders in North and South Korea, is reunification a real possibility?

South Korea elected the first woman as president in December; Geun-Hye Park, whose father had also been president from 1963 to 1979, will take office in February. She will have to deal with the growing concerns over North Korea’s nuclear programme, and try and ease relations with Pyongyang.

When asked about how she would move towards reunification with North Korea, the South Korean President-elect, Geun-Hye Park said that cooperation must revolve around trust and security. She stressed that, whilst a diplomatic approach is vital in establishing a warmer relationship, national security will be at the forefront of her government’s agenda.

In an interview, Park explains that she expects success to follow a gradual process of confidence building, and that she plans to meet with North Korea’s new leader, Kim Jong-Un in the new year. Following discussions, Park hopes that South Korea will be able to resume aid on condition that Pyongyang halts all nuclear weapons programmes.

Park wrote in an article in 2011 that “In order to transform the Korean Peninsula from a zone of conflict into a zone of trust, South Korea should adopt a policy of ‘trustpolitik,’ establishing mutually binding expectations based on global norms.”

‘Trustpolitik’ will require both sides to come to a mutual agreement and to build trust in each other to ensure that security issues do not threaten to collapse the relations again. Park said that she expects North Korea to meet their agreements and warns that severe sanctions will result if any of the agreements are broken.

On the 29th, it was announced that South Korea will serve two years on the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member. From 1st January, they will take an active role, especially in discussions of tightening sanctions on North Korea.

However, she faces decades of negotiations and countless failed attempts to promote the non-proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in North Korea. From engagement to appeasement, negotiations and economic sanctions have continually been in effect but have been largely unsuccessful.

Spanning from 1998 until 2009, the engagement tactics applied by President Kim Dae-Jung became famous as the ‘Sunshine Policy’.

The policy emphasised cooperation while remaining distinct entities. Slowly, the policy built trust and led to the Inter-Korean Summit in June 2000. Although it did not completely stop North Korea’s militarisation, it slowed down the process and improved inter-Korean relations.

In the international sphere, the South Korea’s intermediary role in the United Nations on the issue of sanctions also significantly enhanced their relations with North Korea. The policy failed, however, in reining in Pyongyang’s erratic behaviour.

Under the current President, Lee Myung-Bak, who was elected in 2009, the hard-earned trust rapidly disintegrated. He took a traditional hard-line against North Korea, undoing the progress of the Sunshine Policy. When a torpedo caused the Cheonan naval sinking on May 2010 that claimed 46 lives, President Lee retaliated by dropping all trade and North Korea responded by cutting all ties.

Park, however, has proposed a policy that will combine the two previous methods: while she will be advocating diplomacy to build trust, she was clear that she will not tolerate North Korea’s tendency to disregard agreements.

But does North Korea even desire reunification? One high-ranking defector claims to have obtained the last will and testament of the late leader, Kim Jong-Il. The will states that North Korea should pursue reunification once the current South Korean president’s term ends. The will also urges his son, Kim Jong-Un, to continue the development of nuclear weapons.

These are conflicting demands. Missile launches in the past year have only heightened tensions in the international community as nations condemned the actions.

The Korean Central News Agency quotes Kim Jong-Un’s demand for the development and launch of ‘more working satellites, including communications satellite, and carrier rockets of bigger capacity’. Seemingly, peace and reunification are not on North Korea’s agenda; instead they focus on national security and becoming a nuclear power.

Yet Kim Jong-Un still says that he wants to meet with South Korea and promote a conciliatory policy towards their neighbours.

President Park believes that the reduction of military tensions is crucial towards establishing peaceful agreements. Reunification will only come about once the Korean War is officially ended by the two nations signing a peace treaty.

But once peace is achieved, there are further hurdles to full unification. In the 60 years the countries have been separated, cultural and political identities have diverged. The North Korean economy has also been strangled by international sanctions, and most of the population live in poverty.

Before attempting to reunite, it is crucial to address the problem of the economy first. By helping their neighbour’s economic situation, South Korea might also gain their trust.

If the nations do finally reunify, South Korea would help the North develop to compete economically with the rest of the world. In return, the South would get access to the abundant resources by the border with China.

It remains that both sides face the conflicting desires of security and trust. Ji-Hwan Hwang argues that, “the security dilemma will generate spirals of mutual hostility and lead to a serious crisis. Thus, the fundamental solution to the North Korean crisis lies in how to build a sense of mutual trust and resolve the security dilemma.”

This will require effort from both parties, but the possibility of a reunion is slim if both countries are preoccupied with national security. Geun-Hye Park’s so-called ‘trustpolitik’ is doomed to failure as long as North Korea continues to develop their nuclear weapons programme, and expand their military. South Korea and the rest of the nations that sit on the UN Security Council will be forced to tighten sanctions; this will only worsen relations between the two Koreas. After all, the very basis of maintaining security implies that there is no trust.

Nicole Park


Nicole is a recent graduate of English Literature and Government and International Relations at University of Sydney. She is looking forward to doing Honours and a postgraduate degree afterwards in English Literature.

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