The Korean Peninsula has been divided since the end of the Second World War, and as the “first generations” of the two Koreas grow older, there are renewed calls for families separated by the hard border to be reunited. However, South Korea’s Minister for Unification, Lee In-young, seems content to merely push for passing letters between families–a move out of step with his job description and the world’s supposed goal of reuniting the two states. Is he playing the long game with North Korea, striving for reunification one small step at a time? Or has he conceded that reunification is unattainable?
Reunification has been a dream for many for decades, and there have been countless declarations, plans, and summits in favour of it. But despite all the promises and work put into resolving the deadlock, none of the major players–North and South Korea, China, and the United States (U.S.)–actually want to see the Korean Peninsula reunited. As nice as it might be to reunite families, the current state of affairs suits the world just fine: reunification changes the geopolitical status quo, which is a change no one would benefit from.
Consider South Korea’s prospects if they are finally reunited with their northern brethren: financially, it will cost a lot. Some estimates put the cost of reunification at US$10 trillion—that’s more than six times South Korea’s GDP—and this will almost entirely be shouldered by the South Korean taxpayer. North Korea’s territory is slightly larger than South Korea’s, and its population, though half that of South Korea’s, is 24 million. That is a lot of infrastructure that needs renewing, and a lot of people who need support.
North Koreans will be overwhelmed by the south’s culture and living standards. If their experiences are anything like the North Korean defectors who claim asylum in the south, most will end up unemployed, continue to live in poverty, and suffer depression and mental health issues. That’s a burden South Korea is increasingly disinclined to deal with–although it would be nice to see families and the peninsula reunited. That's a burden South Korea is increasingly disinclined to deal with, as much as it would be nice to see families and the peninsula reunited. It is no easy task to undertake, and second and third generations seem less determined to see their families reunited.
In the north, where divided families are even less of a consideration, Pyongyang knows that the road to reunification will never end on a positive note for them. Pyongyang insists that reunification must occur on their terms because anything less would be political suicide for the ruling Kim family. Reunification will never end with the Kim regime in charge, and the northern elite will lose their positions to their southern counterparts, who all have more education, experience, and political support from the international community. Unlike most states with massive reforms and government overthrows, the North Korean Government will simply cease to exist in any form. Maintaining the status quo is the only way Pyongyang’s leaders keep their place in the world, and Kim Jong-un knows that keeping the peninsula divided is essential to remaining in power.
On the global stage, the aging first generations don’t even factor into perspectives of China and the U.S. As much as the world wants to see reunification, Beijing and Washington both benefit from a divided Korea.
China gains a lot from having an impoverished state next to it. North Korea provides China with cheap labour, economic opportunities, and important access to the ocean for China’s north-eastern provinces, all of which will be harder to get in a reunified peninsula that could pivot towards the U.S. North Korea also acts as a buffer state for China and should North Korea dissolve–be it the result of conflict or otherwise–China will find American troops deployed further north, directly against China’s borders.
Any conflict on the Korean Peninsula will end up as a proxy war at best, and a full-blown conflict between the world’s two superpowers at worst. War then, is a risky gamble for both Beijing and Washington.
The current state of the Korean Peninsula suits America just fine. Pyongyang’s aggressive rhetoric is enough to give Washington a justification to station almost 80,000 troops in South Korea and Japan, ostensibly to contain Pyongyang, but realistically to maintain a strong presence in the Asia-Pacific, much to Beijing’s chagrin.
Despite the first generations’ desperation for reunification, they must resign themselves to Lee In-young’s policy of passing letters between divided families. For South Korea’s Ministry for Unification to be content with this arrangement suggests acknowledgement that the status quo is unlikely to change anytime soon. Kim Jong-un will never relinquish his grip on North Korea, and Seoul is acutely aware of just how difficult and expensive absorbing the north and its poverty will be. Division on the Korean Peninsula gives Beijing a buffer against the West, and an excuse for Washington to commit troops to the Asia-Pacific. Although reunification might seem like the dream for families divided by the border, it’s likely to be a nightmare for everyone else involved.
Matthew Dodwell has recently graduated with a Masters in International Relations from The University of Melbourne, where he focussed on security issues in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific.