Hastening Korean Reunification: The Writing on the 38th Parallel

Whatever their differences, the five governments that must contend most directly with Pyongyang-Seoul, Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, and Moscow-all assume that a rapid reunification of Korea would run contrary to their national interests. Implicitly or explicitly, their policies all posit that a gradual drawing together of the two Koreas would be optimal for financial or geopolitical reasons.

In South Korea, pronouncements about unification have been explicit and detailed. In 1991, according to that year's July 4 Washington Post, then-President Roh Tae Woo declared, "Our people do not want an accelerated reunification." Despite his subsequent fall from grace and the perennial disagreements on the point in Seoul, this cautious sentiment continues to guide the South's policy. Studies by the Korea Development Institute, the Republic of Korea's (ROK) leading quasi-governmental economic think tank, have argued that "the German experience demonstrates that national unification involves enormous costs, and, going forward, this is probably the most critical concern for South Korea," and that "the experience of German national unification convinced a large number of South Koreans that sudden economic integration in Korea . . . will result in disaster." Rather than risk derailing the South Korean economic "miracle," the prevailing consensus in Seoul goes, the South should try to plan for a reintegration with the North over a period of several decades, while the North reforms its polity and transforms its economy.

What are the alternatives? The notion of purposely working to prepare for, and thereby perhaps to hasten, Korea's reunification may seem fraught with risk-and it is. Such a strategy can offer no absolute guarantee that reunification would be peaceful. But in the perilous years ahead, no strategy can promise perpetual peace in the Korean peninsula-or northeast Asia, for that matter. Indeed, all of East Asia, as the political scientist Aaron Friedberg said in the Winter 1993-94 International Security, is "ripe for rivalry," and will be for many years to come. Under the circumstances, a policy that prepares for and attempts to expedite the coming of a free, peaceful, and united Korea looks decidedly superior to the alternatives.

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