Korea’s March to Reunification : Convergence of Interests Makes the Impossible a Probability


South Korea is once again seething with discontent. Today the protests are directed at what the political opposition perceives as an insufficiently harsh attitude on the part of President Roh Tae Woo’s government toward deposed leader Chun Doo Hwan. A wrenching examination of the crimes of the Chun regime has been under way for some time, and it threatens to undermine political stability, in part by threatening to expose possible evidence of Roh’s connection to past corruption and brutality.

Buried in all the political furor, however, is an opportunity of astonishing proportions. North and South Korea, embittered adversaries since 1950, recently have been moving cautiously but unmistakably toward reunification.

The two sides have engaged in periodic but not very serious talk about this concept since the end of the Korean War. But now a convergence of interests is unfolding that could render reunification, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, a real prospect within the next decade. Roh’s bold overtures to the north and the renewed U.S. commitment to better relations with Pyongyang have laid the foundation for concrete proposals.

Why is this happening?


First, economic and political developments in the Republic of Korea have opened South Korean minds to the possibility of rejoining the peninsula. South Korea’s dynamic economy has provided the self-confidence to boldly pursue reunification and a carrot to tempt citizens and officials of the north into an accord. Politically, the December, 1987, presidential contest marked the first free election in South Korean history. The April, 1988, National Assembly elections yielded another first--a parliament not controlled by the government party. These developments accompany continuing demonstrations of radical students spurred by government concessions on civil rights. Coupled with a rapidly emerging Korean nationalism--fueled by revisionist history that blames the United States for the division of the peninsula--student calls for reunification will become increasingly difficult to ignore.

Second, North Korea’s economy is a disaster. Kim Il Sung’s brutal regime has become an international pariah because of its participation in terrorism, including the Rangoon bombing in 1983 and the sabotage of KAL Flight 858 in November, 1987. After failing in its bid to co-host the Olympics, Pyongyang desperately needs to improve its economic and diplomatic relations with the outside world.

Third, North Korea’s two principal allies, the Soviet Union and China, have developed dynamic new objectives. Both are pursuing economic revitalization at home, and neither wants to pay the economic and political costs of supporting the north in a conflict on the peninsula. Both also seem to view Kim Il Sung as something less than rational, not a promising peg on which to hang their long-term regional ambitions.

Fourth, South Korea has made impressive new advances toward the communist world. It recently established relations with Hungary; it has sought investments in China and new ties with the Soviet Union and various Eastern European countries. Such overtures are a symptom of both the decline of the Cold War in Northeast Asia and a diminished U.S. demand for tough anti-communist policies. These developments, in turn, allow Seoul to consider better relations with the north.


Fifth, coincident with these changes in Asia, President Bush will confront agonizing decisions on defense spending. Draconian cuts in defense outlays will probably require reductions in U.S. forces stationed abroad. It is highly probable that the first calls for cuts will be aimed at the roughly 43,000 U.S. troops in South Korea. Such American troop reductions would satisfy the north’s chief precondition for serious reunification talks.

The outcome of the political debate in South Korea is also important to the emerging issue of Korean reunification. If President Roh’s democratic government survives, or if one of the major opposition leaders (Kim Dae Jung or Kim Young Sam) becomes president through the constitutional process, progress toward reunification would be almost assured. Should the South Korean military revert to historical form and seize power, however, all reunification bets are off.

The bottom line is that never since the division of Korea has international interest in reunification converged so forcefully. Reunification, or something like it, would dramatically reduce tensions at this volatile intersection of superpower interests.

However, the continuing maturation of South Korean democracy and progress toward reunification must go hand-in-hand. Each is practically and politically necessary for the success of the other, and only a return to power by the army would halt both trends. American leaders must recognize this and use every means at their disposal to sustain the reunification momentum--as they have begun to do already. Only such a course will serve the interests of South Korean stability and international peace and security.