Korean Endgame: A Strategy for Reunification and U.S. Disengagement

By Selig S. Harrison | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Trading Places

HOW, WHEN, and whether Korea can be reunified is the overarching issue that has confronted both the North and the South since the division of 1945. It is this issue, above all else, that shapes their attitudes toward the United States. Pyongyang and Seoul alike believe that the United States bears the principal responsibility for the division. Both believe that the United States should now accept the principal responsibility for helping them put the pieces back together. At the same time, there are profound differences between North and South, and within the South itself, concerning the role that the United States should play during the transition to reunification and thereafter, especially concerning the role of U.S. forces.

The dramatic reversal in the relative economic and political strength of North and South over the past five decades has led to a corresponding turnabout in the way each of them views reunification.

Initially, a confident North Korea believed that it would be able to reunify the South under its control because its economic and political institutions were more stable than those of the South. Kim Il Sung, who presided over an acquiescent populace that had been successfully repressed by his totalitarian system, saw a South Korea in which authoritarian military rulers faced seething popular opposition. No longer able to rely on Soviet and Chinese military support and facing a U.S. military presence in the South, he could not embark on a new Korean war. But he nevertheless expected to unify the peninsula through political means. Pyongyang saw itself as the custodian of a “pure” Korean nationalism unsullied by the South's dependence on U.S. forces and Japanese capital.

In proposing a confederation as an interim step toward reunification, Kim Il Sung assumed that the North, with its claim to the leadership of nationalism, could use interchange with the South within a confederal structure to win converts there. Conversely, the South, lacking a domestic political consensus, felt insecure in the face of the political and military challenge posed by the North. The South Korean military regimes that governed from 1961 to 1987 feared that a confederation would indeed be used by Pyongyang to prepare the ground for a unified Korea under

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