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Seeking 'Korea as a Whole'

Translated by NKR Intern Seung Yeon Chung

On April 27th, 2018, there was a historical moment in which the leaders of both Koreas shook hands. Ever since the US-North Korea Summit occurred on June 30th, 2019, inter-Korean relations have been undergoing some unprecedented changes. However, South Korea is currently taking a step back and watching the movements of the great powers. We often propose two reasons when we talk about inter-Korean issues and reunification of Korea. First is the ‘nation’ discourse, that we are the people of Korea (Han-minjok). By exercising the right of people’s self-determination, a compulsory provision under international law, a nation can decide their own politics, society, or culture. The second reason is the Constitution of the Republic of Korea. The reunification argument is supported by the Constitution which declares that the territory of the Republic of Korea shall consist of the Korean peninsula and its adjacent islands. This implicitly defines the regional scope of validity under the Korean legal system.

In this respect, if one were to argue that we ought to be “one” again since our division was against our will in the first place, one should consider the historical timeline. Before legitimizing the need for inter-Korean cooperation or reunification, from which period we have been ‘one’ is something that should be contemplated.

In the case of West Germany, they drew their legitimacy on reunification building upon the theory of ‘Germany as a whole (Deutschland als Ganzes)’. The concept of ‘Germany as a whole’ is shown in the treaty on the final settlement with respect to Germany in September 1990 (Zwei-plus-Vier-Vertrag). The treaty stipulates: “Having regard to the rights and responsibilities of the Four Powers relating to Berlin and Germany as a whole, and the corresponding wartime and post-war agreements and decisions of the Four Powers…”. Based on the “Germany as a whole” theory, the time period of when Korea came into being as a “whole” needs to be determined to conduct the self-determination argument. There has not been any exact agreement as to whether “Korea as a whole” started from Korean Independence Day, the day of the establishment of the Korean government-in-exile, or the day of the declaration of the Korean Empire.

To figure out the starting point of “Korea as a whole”, we have to analyze the constitution regarding the founding of the Republic of Korea. The first Constitution enacted on July 17th, 1948 declares ‘the founding of the Republic of Korea through the March First Independence Movement of 1919’. This continues through the first amendment of the Constitution in July 1952, the second in November 1954, the third in June 1960, and the fourth in November 1960. An amendment was made in 1962 following the regime change and the enforcement of free elections after the democratic movement in 1960. It specifies: “[w]e, the people of Korea, proud of a resplendent history and traditions dating from time immemorial, upholding the cause of the Provisional Republic of Korea Government born of the March First Independence Movement of 1919 and the democratic ideals of the April Nineteenth Uprising of 1960 against injustice…”. This statement is also present in the sixth amendment to the Constitution made in October 1969 and the seventh in December 1972.

The eight amendment created in October 1980 changes matters slightly: ‘[w]e, the people of Korea, proud of a resplendent history and traditions dating from time immemorial, upholding the cause of the Provisional Republic of Korea Government born of the March First Independence Movement of 1919 and the departure of the fifth republic based on our mission of peaceful unification and restoring the nation’. Finally, the ninth amendment made in October 1987, which created the current Constitution, states “[w]e, the people of Korea, proud of a resplendent history and traditions dating from time immemorial, upholding the cause of the Provisional Republic of Korea Government born of the March First Independence Movement of 1919 and the democratic ideals of the April Nineteenth Uprising of 1960 against injustice” describes the establishment of Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea from the March First Independence movement and thereby proves the legitimacy of it. Therefore, based on the current Constitution, ‘Korea as a whole’ began on April 11th, 1919, the day when the Korean government-in-exile was established, and based on the territory at the time, the principal agents are the North and South Korean people and the whole Korean peninsula.

There exists a limitation with the concept of ‘Korea as a whole’ in that this theory disregards the constitution and official history of North Korea. Above all, North Korea criticizes the South Korean government by saying they did not inherit the legal tradition of the Provisional Government of Korea based in Shanghai. North Korea argues that the South Korean government is a separate government consisting of pro-Americans and pro-Japanese completely ruling out those who participated in the independence movement, including people in the Provisional Government. They also assert that Syngman Rhee assassinated Kim Ku, the president of the government-in-exile, and protected the assassin. North Korea assesses the South Korean government after Syngman Rhee as the criminals who annihilated the legal traditions of the Shanghai Provisional government and oppressed the independent activists and the authorities of the Provisional Government. (1)

Moreover, the assessment of the Provisional Government also differs in South Korea. While South Korea emphasizes that the Provisional Government in Shanghai fought for the recovery of sovereignty, North Korea claims that the Provisional Government was first organized in Shanghai in April 1919 and was barely active under the protection of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang party. Based on the fact that the independence army which the Shanghai Provisional Government formed was also under the supreme command of the Kuomintang party, North Korea argues that the base of Anti-Japanese revolution was not the Provisional Government in Shanghai, but rather Kim Il Sung’s People’s Revolutionary Army, which led the revolution and national independence. (2)

Therefore, it is likely that further discussion is needed about ‘Korea as a whole’ by taking North Korea’s historical narrative into account. This should be dealt with through the interaction and communication of the historians of both Koreas. As mentioned above, the starting point and the standard on ‘Korea as a whole’ contradicts North Korea’s historical understanding and its constitution. As a result, it is necessary to determine ‘Korea as a whole’ based on the historical space and time that both Koreas can agree on.

One of the projects that North and South Korea did after the 2018 inter-Korea summit was the restoration project of Manwol Pavilion, a palace built in the Koryo period. According to the ‘legitimate dynasty’ of North Korean history, North Korea has been continuous from Gojoseon, Goguryeo, and Koryo to the present state. Also, North Korean history describes Unified Silla as the latter part of Silla Dynasty and argues that Koryo was named after Goguryeo by Wang Geon. By pointing out that King Gyeongsun of Silla defected to Koryo and Koryo accepted a large number of Balhae people from Liao’s invasion, North Korea claims their legitimacy of the Korean dynasty.

Gaegyeong, the capital of Koryo, was the biggest economic city in the Korean peninsula in which Kaeseong merchants actively did commerce and spread the name ‘Corea’ to the European merchants. Currently situated between Seoul and Pyeongyang, this capital not only has a connection with both South and North Korean history but also has spatial significance to the two Koreas in that it has the Kaesong Industrial Complex which represents inter-Korean connection. In this sense, it is relevant to see the year 918 as the starting point of ‘Korea as a whole,’ when Koryo (Corea) was founded.

***The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies.


(1) ‘Ryeoksareul eogokhanuen bireolhan noreumeuro oedeul geoseun sesangui josowa binanbbunida,’ Rodongshinmun, September 12, 2015. (2) Ibid

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