3 reasons why North and South Korean reunification is unlikely

Hofstra University’s Professor Julian Ku explains the various factors at play influencing Korean reunification. Following is a transcript of the video.

Julian Ku: Unification is way down the road, so that’s the ultimate goal that everyone says they want, but no one thinks they’re very close to that.

South Korea is so much wealthier, more powerful, it’s just a totally different type of country than North Korea now that it’s hard to imagine them unifying in any sort of easy way. The societies have grown so far apart, so I think that the South Koreans would see North Korea as a burden, they’d have to invest an enormous amount of money to rebuild North Korea, reeducate, or at least deal with the costs of unification.

We have a country essentially living in a dark period where they have very little internet access. It’s not like any other country in the world; North Korea is one of the most isolated, closed off, totalitarian societies in the world. South Korea, on the flip side, is one of the most open, free, technologically savvy societies in the world.

So, to combine those seems almost unbelievable, especially the younger generations in both countries have really no memory of any connection between the two sides. There’s not a huge amount of popular support in South Korea for unification. People talk about it as it’s something that’s great, but they I think recognise how different the countries are and how unbelievably costly and difficult an actual unification would be.

The main obstacles, I think, are North Korea’s difficult relations with all the other countries besides South Korea, and that includes the United States and China. The real sticking point is that technically the United States and North Korea are still in an armed conflict, meaning that the end of the Korean War was just a ceasefire, they never really formally resolved all the issues from that war. And so that’s why US troops are still in South Korea, and that’s why they’re all pretty much on armed alert, they could fight at any time. Resolving those sort of international complications is really the bigger obstacle, much less getting to the question of what the Koreas want from each other.

Unification is way down the road, so that’s the ultimate goal that everyone says they want, but no one thinks they’re very close to that. I think what they would want is de-escalation. Maybe everyone agrees to take down their nukes. The US has already removed all nuclear weapons from South Korea and the idea is North Koreans would shut down their nuclear program.

And then, some sort of peace agreement with the United States, and then everyone starts pulling back their troops from the demilitarized zone, so that not everyone’s ready to shoot at a moment’s notice. Only at that point can they really talk about some sort of unification.

I think regular exchanges where they start opening up travel between North Korea and South Korea, they have done some cooperative projects where they have these sort of peace zones where the South Koreans build stuff and North Koreans and South Koreans can sort of work together in some small zones. I think that’s what we can imagine happening after the nuclear crisis is solved.

Unification is just something, it seems unlikely that could happen anytime in the near future unless North Korea just collapses for some reason. We don’t have a lot of precedence for this, the best example for us in recent history is the unification of West Germany and East Germany in the early 90’s. In that situation essentially East Germany was basically swallowed up by West Germany and I think that would be pretty simple.

The reason why that doesn’t seem likely to happen though is because China has a strong interest in maintaining a separate country in North Korea that’s not just swallowed up by South Korea. And that’s one of the biggest differences between East Germany and West Germany and North Korea and South Korea. The Russians, or the Soviet Union, no longer cared whether East Germany became part of West Germany, but the Chinese still care and they can make a big difference in preserving North Korea as a separate country.

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