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The Reality of Unification

Hur Jae-young


Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies

Issue Brief # 53

This year, Korea celebrates 70 years of independence. During this time of reflection, our society continues to make an effort in finding parallels between Germany, which was divided until 1990, and the present-day Korean Peninsula. Yet many seem to overlook the fact that the circumstances for Germany were substantially different to the current split between the two Koreas.

Economic factors cannot be ignored when comparing the two cases. When Germany was unified in 1990, the GDP per capita for West Germany was estimated to be only about twice as large as that of East Germany. South Korea’s GDP per capita today on the other hand outstrips North Korea’s twentyfold. Regardless of the relatively smaller economic gap between East and West Germany, their unification cost them three trillion U.S. dollars, and research indicates that present-day Germany still struggles with fiscal gaps. By comparing the difference in GDP per capita in Germany and the Korean Peninsula, it is quite evident that Korea’s unification could be much more costly than Germany’s.

From the first summit between the two Koreas in 2000 onwards there followed a series of both friendly and hostile exchange. At times, progress was catalyzed by cultural interactions and economic cooperation, but the progress made was also hampered by incidents such as the Battle of Yeonpyeong, the shelling of Yeonpyeong, and numerous nuclear tests. Furthermore, changes in South Korea’s political administration since 2008 significantly influenced policies toward North Korea. It is clear though that despite transformations in South Korea’s leadership, unification has always been considered crucial in policy-making.

While some leaders encourage an optimistic perception on unification by claiming that it may happen soon, the reality of unification poses many challenges. For example, despite the fact that the majority of South Koreans support unification, they are reluctant to carry the economic burden of it. The apparent contradiction in opinions could perhaps stem from a culture and education system that emphasizes unification should occur, while failing to explain why or how it should take place.

Even if the North Korean government collapses tomorrow, there is no guarantee that North Koreans will want unification. Sheer will and determination from South Korea alone may not ensure peaceful or mutual unification and thus give rise to more problems. It should be noted that arguments against a sudden and unprepared unification does not necessarily imply opposition towards unification itself. In the case of Germany, West Germany’s overly enthusiastic efforts that lacked considerations on the situation in East Germany caused side effects that are still apparent today. Unification is not easy.

Without thorough preparation, unification cannot be successful. To imagine unification taking place when South Korea has its own problems could only exacerbate the circumstances under which the Korean peninsula is united. It is not too late however for the public to start discussing methods and costs of unification more openly and in a consistent manner that could translate into academic research and ultimately productive policy-making.

Many say that for a couple to get back together after a break-up it is mandatory that both parties become more open-minded, trusting, and willing to compromise. In repairing a damaged relationship, we can only anticipate and prepare for the challenges the two countries may face once they unite, especially when they have been divided for over half a century.

Translated by Somang Kim

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