24 January 2005

Unification or Uni-Direction?

The Unification of the two Korea’s has been a hot topic for discussion for the past half century, and the nearness of the fifth anniversary of the 2000 Inter-Korean summit is likely to raise another round of public musings on the best method, timing and likelihood of reunification.

So I thought I’d get a head start.

What follows is not a suggestion – I am anything BUT a policy proscriber, and have often taken issue with those who, for whatever reason, feel they are better qualified to guide and chastise the paths of nation states than their own leadership or people (but more on that another time, as this very brief aside seems to paint me as an isolationist or an apologist for totalitarian regimes). What I am is an observer, and will offer my observations without hesitation (for better or worse). What is DONE with those observations is up to others.

I have a simple, if startling, observation on the two Koreas – or more accurately, a question: Does unification really matter?

Now, before you leap all over me or have my blog blocked in Seoul, let me explain. For fifty years, both Koreas eyed one another as an imminent threat, and both waited for the best moment to invade and destroy the leadership of the other. While Pyongyang gave it a shot in 1950, Seoul has several times prepared to return the favor, restrained by the united States and a defense agreement that hamstrung the South Korean military from gaining the offensive weaponry necessary to roll North.

I make no judgment on good or bad, right or wrong here, just on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the policy. In the end, Seoul ended up under Washington’s nuclear umbrella, yet possessed few if any weapons capable of reaching Pyongyang, while the entirety of the Korean peninsula was within range of North Korean weapons.

With the end of the Cold War, the issue of Korean unification would have dropped off the map in the United States, and this is something Pyongyang was painfully aware of. As Communist nations collapsed in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Chinese Communist Party not only embraced capitalism but also the government in Seoul, the North Korean leadership was staring down the blade of the grim reaper, and mortality is rarely a pretty sight.

Thus, nuclear crises and the offering of an inter-Korean summit. This is 1994, not 2000, and it is Kim Il Sung, not his semi-legitimate heir Kim Jong Il, who shares none of his father’s revolutionary credentials, and little of his good looks or charm. The elder Kim’s demise, not long before the expected arrival of South Korean president Kim Young Sam, threw a wet blanket over inter-Korean relations as Pyongyang sorted out its leadership – and direction.

Successive nuclear and missile crises have been Kim Jong Il’s ways of remaining relevant as well as offering a bargaining chip through which to gain concessions from the United States. Ultimately for Kim the younger (and likely for Kim the elder in his last few years), the goal was and remains a peace accord with Washington. Just as China benefited from Nixon’s visit, North Korea observes, so too can Pyongyang gain, and still not risk its leadership.

But with Washington thinking otherwise, and calling North Korea’s nuclear bluff, and with Kim Jong Il not having the credentials to be able to reverse the past fifty years of existence and simply give u Juche and Songun policies and embrace the South, a change of relations with the united States and unification with the South appears far off.

Enter the change in thinking. Say what you will about North Korea’s leadership, it is clever – otherwise, how do you explain their survival? Pyongyang is seeking accommodation with the South, and the South, with the change in U.S. security posture and regional polices since the end of the Cold War, appears willing. Both Seoul and Pyongyang eye a militarily resurgent Japan warily, and both know they need the other to stand a fighting chance – be it on the economic or military front.

And this is where the policy (or natural shift) of uni-direction comes in. If you ever suffered through calculus, there was something called limits, and basically you can imagine two lines converging, but never quite meeting. This is the path I see the two Koreas on. The fundamental national interests are merging. The end of the Cold War global structure has left this remnant of the old system sitting as an anomaly, and the old underwriters of the two sides – China, Russia and the United States – seem to have little time for their former proxies.

As competition between Japan and China rises and Washington re-shapes its strategic vision of East Asia, the two Koreas see fewer real differences in their regional strategic outlooks. The combined population, resources, technologies and human capital of a combined Korea, coupled with the close sense of ethno-nationalism and the willingness to sacrifice for the common good would make a re-unified Korea a powerful competitor in Northeast Asia. Or so they hope.

But there are limitations. The most obvious are ideology and economy. With the latter, Seoul has looked at the reunification of the Germanies and realized that the economic disparity between the two states – not just in GDP but in the very systems of the economies – would lead to a significant upheaval in socio-economic patterns should reunification happen soon and suddenly. Seoul is encouraging investment in the North in order to plant the seeds of cooperation and slowly reshape the Northern economy, but this is a generations-long project. Should one side or the other suddenly collapse, a fear of economics wont keep the two Koreas apart.

Ideology, then, is the limiting factor. The biggest thing holding the two Koreas apart is the inability of the elite on either side of the DMZ to find a way to rejoin without de-legitimizing one or the other ideology – and leadership. The leaders – and the entire elite class – in the North would lose tremendous privileges should there be reunification, and this is something they cannot countenance. And in the South, the idea of “Communizing” the economy is laughable, and tossing away hard-won democracy would be unacceptable to the populace.

The compromise of re-establishing the monarchy – even for show – still leaves the underlying tensions of rectifying the ideological underpinnings of the two systems into a single unified core.

But this does not prevent a certain moving in the same direction on the international stage. Whether through consultations (public or private) or simply by natural law, the two Koreas are moving back toward a single direction. Neither has real designs on spreading its ideology around the region or world, and the leadership in both states is pragmatic enough to know that their ideology and system cannot simply and swiftly replace the other anytime soon.

So like those annoying limits in calculus, the direction of the two Koreas moves closer and closer, never quite touching. On obvious issues – Japanese leadership visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, Chinese claims of Koguryo – the two Koreas speak as one. But the subtler issues remain un-broached – at least in the public eye.

The current status of a divided Korea is an anomaly. It is an untenable anomaly in a post-Cold War system. And while Unification may still be a decade or three away – baring any massive regional upheaval – uni-direction seems already well underway.

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