This research paper provides a critical analysis of past and present methods adopted by China, the United States, and North and South Korea for the purpose of Korean reunification. It establishes a historical and cultural context with which these different policy approaches have evolved and notes the various utilities and insufficiencies of each. Common diplomatic obstacles that have previously thwarted attempts at improving conditions within North Korea will also be highlighted, as these challenges are likely to have a continued effect on the future prospects of reunification. This paper also examines the vastly negative economic and sociological implications of reunifying the two Koreas, as this has resulted in a strong political incentive to maintain the status quo. A body of research will be drawn upon to establish the most economically viable method for reunification to address these issues. Finally, the purpose of this paper is to incorporate all of the topics examined to propose a pragmatic and viable solution to the issues that stand in the way of a reunified Korea.
The War, the Dictator, and His Son
Korea’s communist party was established in 1925, while the country was still subject to Japanese imperial rule. Soon after the party was officially admitted to the Comintern, internal tensions began to develop within the social movement, which eventually resulted in the party’s being broken up into separate factions. These internal disputes, combined with a crackdown on communism by Japanese authorities, led to the eventual dissolution of the party (Suh, 1967). Japanese police surveillance grew increasingly unscrupulous, pushing the communist movement underground and forcing many Korean people into exile, with most fleeing to China, the Soviet Union, and, ironically, Japan (IBID).
As WW2 came to an end, the Soviet Union agreed to accept the surrender of Japanese forces occupying Korea on America’s behalf. The terms of the surrender stipulated that there would be a temporary demarcation line drawn along the 38th parallel (Cho, 1967). This demarcation line resulted in the Russian occupation of Korea’s northern half. Within a month, the Soviet Union had already established its authority over North Korea and was actively working to extend its empire by way of establishing a puppet regime (Suh, 1967). The establishment of this regime initially proved to be a difficult task, as old problems amongst the different communist factions began to re-emerge and a subsequent power struggle ensued between five major factions: (1) the indigenous nationalist group; (2) the domestic communist group; (3) the Yenan faction, comprised mainly of returnees from China; (4) the Soviet faction, (returnees from the Soviet Union); and (5) the Kapsan group, of which Kim Il Sung was the leader (Scalapino &Lee, 1972).
Surprisingly, Kim Il-Sung’s Kapsan group was not the obvious choice for leadership at the time. The Chinese Yenan faction carried a great deal of prestige among the Korean people, as they were prominent in the resistance movement against Japan. However, part of their popularity also stemmed from their strong agenda for Korean independence, which fundamentally clashed with the Soviets’ political objective. The Soviet Union’s clear preference was for the Soviet faction, which consisted of Russian-Koreans who were brought in for the purpose of establishing government (Chung, 1978). This faction was eventually determined to be a nonviable option for leadership due to their lack of popularity among the Korean locals, mainly because the Russian-Koreans had not participated in the Korean independence movement and because of cultural differences (1961). Eventually, the Kapsan group caught the attention of the Soviet Union due to Kim Il-Sung’s renowned involvement in the Korean independence movement, including guerilla warfare against Japanese imperialists, combined with his faction’s pro-Soviet agenda. With the recognition of the Soviet Union, Kim Il-Sung was elected (uncontested) as the first president of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) on October 12, 1948 (Chung, 1978).
Prior to his being appointed leader, an agreement was made between Kim Il-Sung and Joseph Stalin that stipulated that the DPRK would: accept the Soviet Union’s superiority; accept the Soviet economic and political model as the only means of achieving progress; and grant the Soviet Union a monopolistic hold over foreign trade, indicating the successful establishment of a puppet regime (IBID). Less than a year later, Kim Il-Sung met with Stalin to secure his support for Korea to be reunified under Kim Il-Sung’s rule. While condoning the plan to invade the South, Stalin declined to become directly involved in the attack, opting instead to provide only material assistance. Stalin’s selective involvement in this manner was a precursor to the first all-out proxy war that would become a common strategy of the Cold War era (Barnouin; Yu, 2006).
Kim Il-Sung’s attempt at conquering the South was ultimately unsuccessful. Due to China’s last-minute involvement in the war, however, the UN-backed South Korean forces were also unable to overthrow the DPRK (1995). This resulted in an armistice agreement that secured the divide between the North and South by way of a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 4km-wide buffer zone separating the two Koreas. However, this was not an official resolution to the Korean War, which remains the longest-running ongoing conflict in history (Cummings, 2004).
The immediate aftermath of the war was an uncertain time with regard to Kim Il-Sung’s leadership. To once again secure his autonomy over the DPRK, Kim began distributing anti-western propaganda which, among other things, accused the U.S. of spreading disease among the Korean people as part of a germ warfare tactic. This was followed by the DPRK’s first Soviet-style purges, whereby government dissidents would be sent to prison camps without trial (Becker, 2005). The DPRK’s propaganda machine quickly evolved into a cult of personality, in which Kim was depicted as a God-like figure and worshiped accordingly. This was in lieu of other forms of organized religion, which is seen as a potential leadership challenge (“International Religious Freedom Report,” 2007).
Kim Il-Sung died unexpectedly in 1994, having remained in power through 6 South Korean presidents, 9 U.S. presidents and 21 Japanese prime ministers. He also outlived the Stalin regime by more than 4 decades and Mao Zedong by 2 decades (Worden, 2008). Speculation ran high in the wake of Kim Il-Sung’s death, with many political commentators predicting that the DPRK’s collapse was imminent (Kim, 2002). Contrary to the speculation, however, this collapse never came to fruition. Instead, Kim Il-Sung was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-Il, who considerably enhanced his father’s authoritarian tactics of a personality cult, nepotism, and a rigid class structure (Suh & Lee, 1998). The DPRK’s constitution was also amended to posthumously declare Kim Il-Sung the nation’s “Eternal President,” while implicitly referring to Kim Jong-Il as the “Supreme Leader” (Worden, 2008).
Despite the fact that very few changes have been made in political activities under Kim Jong-Il’s regime, living conditions in North Korea have worsened significantly, mostly due to the fall of the Soviet Union, which coincided with Kim Il-Sung’s death. Throughout the Cold War, North Korea’s economy was sustained by essential aid from the Soviet Union. This global shift in the political economy, combined with Kim Jong-Il’s unwillingness to compromise on the DPRK’s rigid economic structure, led to the country’s severe economic stagnation (Suh & Lee, 1998). Consequently, the first decade of Kim Jong-Il’s rule was marred by a major famine in which approximately 3.5 million people died of hunger-related illnesses (Noland; Robinson; Wang, 2001). The adverse effects of this famine throughout the 1990s and the ongoing food shortages that followed have been compounded by extreme insufficiencies in health systems, water sanitation, and energy distribution (IBID; Smith, 2005). While the DPRK’s economic problems have been caused by a range of external factors, Kim Jong-Il’s role in exacerbating these issues is inescapable.
One of the most significant aspects of Kim Jong-Il’s regime has been his military-first policy, which insists that military spending be prioritized above all else, pursuant to the DPRK’s constitution, which additionally calls for “arming all the populace [and] turning the entire country into a fortress” (Cummings, 2004). Within the first decade of assuming control and throughout the peak of a devastating famine, Kim Jong-Il expanded the DPRK’s military from 30/1000 people to 48/1000. Moreover, the nation’s military spending increased from approximately $1.3b to $2b per year (IBID). Despite predominantly affecting Korea’s own people, the military-first policy has remained a defining characteristic of Kim Jong-Il’s regime, often resulting in diplomatic tension due to brief skirmishes across the DMZ, ballistic missile launches into Japanese waters, and nuclear weapons testing (Whan, 2005).
Diplomatic Brick Walls and the Way Through
Both North and South Korea, along with the U.S. and China, all have established policies for reunifying Korea. Despite apparently having a common objective, these different policies conflict with one another in significant ways regarding the terms under which the reunification of Korea would be acceptable. Each country has been reluctant to compromise on its terms of reunification, which means that progress in this area has been slow. However, the greatest diplomatic obstacle has been North Korea’s complete unwillingness to compromise on its ponderous brand of socialism, known as the Juche system.
Juche, usually translated as “self-reliance,” is a political philosophy devised by Kim Il-Sung that calls for complete political, economic, and military autarky throughout Korea (Warden, 2008). So fundamental is Juche to the North Korean government that many political commentators have referred to it as theocratic and consider it to be the doctrine of a religious movement (Park, 1996; Hitchens, 2007). Kim Jong-Il’s resolve to adhere to the Juche system is demonstrated in North Korea’s ongoing isolation from the outside world. Certain aspects of the Juche philosophy also resemble National Socialism, as it considers the Korean people to be a superior race that requires protection from foreign influence (Warden, 2008). Due to its economic insufficiencies and association with totalitarianism, the Juche system is completely incompatible with the national interest of other countries within the region.
Conversely, the reunification policy in the South is somewhat ambiguous. While officially embracing the idea of reunification, the South Korean government approaches the issue with a great deal of hesitation. Furthermore, a significant demographic within the South Korean population has denounced the idea of reunification entirely (Eberstadt, 1997). The underlying cause of the South’s reluctance to commit to a solid reunification policy is mostly due to the enormous contrast between the economy and infrastructure of the two nations. Over the last 50 years, South Korea has established itself as the 12th-largest economy in the world with an approximate GDP of $30,200 per capita, as opposed to the North, which is estimated to be as low as $1,900 per capita (IMF, 2011). This enormous economic difference in wealth has been the cause of a great deal of anxiety over South Korea’s future.
These concerns heavily influence South Korean policy, as many economists have asserted that North Korea’s collapse is inevitable (Kim, 2002). Dealing with such a sudden event would be devastating to the South Korean economy, with financial estimates ranging as high as $1 trillion (Cole, 2010). Even more concerning is the ever-present danger of all-out war resuming between the two Koreas, the mere prospect of which has a negative impact on South Korea’s economy. Despite South Korea’s extremely high potential for economic growth, it frequently sustains damage to its credit rating in the stock market as a result of the actions of its belligerent neighbor (Hankyoreh, 2006). Additionally, the sustained segregation between the two Koreas has led to a significant cultural divergence. As a result, bigotry and xenophobia directed at North Korean defectors has indicated the presence of a serious potential challenge in the event that the two cultures are spontaneously re-integrated (Demick, 2009). As a consequence of these factors, South Korea has shifted its focus away from encouraging reunification, opting instead to secure stable inter-Korean relations and offset the likelihood of a collapse by providing the North with a substantial amount of aid (Laney & Shaplen, 2003).
Despite America’s strong relationship with South Korea, their attitude toward reunification is, nevertheless, quite different and has resulted in disagreements between the two nations occurring at various times (Laney & Shaplen, 2003). This is in large part due to conflicting economic incentives that influence the political interests of the U.S. and South Korea. As previously stated, South Korea is reluctant to see a sudden collapse of the North due to the severe effect that it would have on their economic stability. America, on the other hand, views the DPRK as a hangover from the Cold War that is both an inconvenient and expensive liability (Eberstadt, 1997). Moreover, Kim Jong-Il’s volatile regime is considered a serious threat to America’s national security due to a combination of outspoken threats of attack, defiant nuclear weapons testing, and arms trading with other hostile nations such as Iran (Nicksch, 2006).