Liberal Times; Time of Unification

Article excerpt

In political discussions with Korean friends and colleagues I am often asked, when I think the Korean peninsula will be reunified. This is a very tricky question, to which for several reasons there cannot be a clear answer. Whoever pretends to know an answer may well be called a political fortuneteller, but surely not a serious political analyst. Serious predictions depend on precise data. And it is exactly the lack of these precise and objective data that make political analysis regarding North Korea so problematic.

For very fundamental reasons the issue of the timing of Korean reunification plays a crucial role. In an indirect manner the answer to this question reveals the assessment one has regarding the stability of the North Korean regime. And the assessment of the stability of the communist order in the North is a determining factor for every strategy vis-a-vis Pyongyang. It is not difficult to identify different evaluations of key players in this important matter. ``How long North Korea can hold out, is one of the major factors determing the North Korea policy.'' This is the first sentence of an analytical article published a short while ago in a leading Korean newspaper. There the author argues that under the leadership of former president Kim Young-sam the prevailing view in the Seoul government was that the collapse of the North Korean regime was more or less imminent. This assessment was based on the many reports coming out of North Korea, depicting the economic collapse of a country devastated by a catastrophic famine, that according to some estimates killed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. According to the newspaper report, the major concern of the past government was how to manage the chaos that would ensue after North Korea fell. The far-reaching policy shift regarding North Korea after Kim Dae-jung took over the government in early 1998 is also the result of a very different perception regarding the stability of the communist regime in Pyongyang. The President and his advisors at the Blue House are convinced that the regime in North Korea is far from collapsing. This is actually an assessment shared by Western diplomats who have visited North Korea and who deal with this matter on a day to day basis. The assumption that the North Korean regime is more stable than has long been thought has led the Kim Dae-jung government to readjust the South Korean strategy and devise a gradualist approach that aims at a gradual, and -- yes -- slow change in the north. South Korea's media soon found a suitable name for this strategy: the Sunshine Policy.

It is conspicuous that South Korean politicians exercise great restraint regarding predictions as to when they believe unification will be achieved. I almost get the feeling some sort of unwritten law prohibits such public statements. One of the few high-ranking public officials who was more forthcoming in this matter in the more recent past has been former foreign minister Hong Soon-young: At the beginning of the year he augured that -- in the case the South continues its engagement policy -- unification of the Korean peninsula would occur around 2025. Only a few weeks earlier the minister described in a newspaper article how he envisioned this future reunified Korea: The unified nation should be a democracy upholding freedom and a market economy thriving on private initiative. The minister's forecast may well have sounded superb to every liberal minded person. …