ILC2021-8 Session 5 - Presentation of Mr. Michael Breen

The Question of Values at the Heart of Korean Reunification

Thirty years ago, at a press conference in the wake of the collapse of East Germany, a South Korean journalist asked the German ambassador in Seoul if the two Koreas would be “allowed” by foreign powers to reunify, as the Germanies had.

“You will not need permission. No country can object to Korean unification,” he said. Then he added, mystically, “You see, we Germans were divided because of our sin, but you Koreans were divided because of your innocence.”

There’s a lot in this comment. But the part that interests me is how it underscores the prime role of the Koreans in their re-unification. If foreign powers have no morally acceptable argument to block Korean re-unification, then it’s up to the Koreans to do it. And, as they haven’t, it logically follows that they don’t want to, at least not yet.

What I mean by this is that, as important as re-unification may be, something, for the Koreans, is more important.

As to what this is, the answer is quite obvious. But as is the way with politics, the deeper an assumption is planted, the less likely it is to be articulated. We need to be clear on this, however, because unarticulated assumptions lead us to act at cross purposes.

That thing that is more important than re-unification is national values.

What do I mean by this? Simply, I mean those things the community most values. For example, in secular democracies, we tend to place greatest value on family, the quality of our lives, freedom of religion, thought and expression, opportunity, fairness, the right to vote, trust in institutions and in our neighbors. These all matter more to us than some political arrangement. Or, to put another way, we want our political arrangements to protect us and make it possible to have what we value.

In this picture, re-unification for the Koreans seems like a lofty vision to aspire to, but it is not an end. It is a means to an end. It is not the vision, but the strategy to reach the vision of a state with a system that embodies and protects their values.

This may seem like a fussy point if you take what Koreans say about being one blood and all that. But the truth of matter is that political unity isn’t a matter of race, language or shared history. The North Koreans and South Koreans remain apart because they have conflicting values. Re-unification in these circumstances can only happen by force.

Values, of course, change over time. Values have shifted on the Korean peninsula over the decades.

Take the North Koreans. Unlike other communist revolutions which swept the past away, Kim Il Sung’s revolution was anti-imperialist. It involved not sweeping away the Korean past, but liberating it. That’s why their philosophy of self-reliance – Juche – essentially says “up yours” to foreigners. To sustain the revolution, Kim said they need a strong leader. As a result, in North Korea, the leader is the state. The person of Kim Jong-un is more important than all the nation’s institutions and symbols. This state values obedience, loyalty and the collective over the individual. And enough people buy into this to keep the system in place.

South Koreans couldn’t be more different. Their values are those of modern democracies: freedom, justice, rights, equal opportunity, primacy of the individual and so on.

You might assume, as Koreans are nationalistic, that love of country is a value. It is, but South Koreans are split on which concept of the country to be loyal to. It is useful to bear in mind that this is the main issue that separates the democratic right and left. The right is loyal to the Republic of Korea, formed in 1948, and sees the eventual re-unified state as an expanded version of this republic. The left is loyal to a Korea that has its roots in the struggle against Japanese colonial rule before World War Two, a nation still in the womb and to be born upon re-unification.

As for other stakeholders – Russia, Japan, China and the US – their national values are not so important. It is their perceived interests that matter. And, with regards to the Koreas, those interests are very much to do with the China-US rivalry. For example, the rising superpower of illiberal China will not want a situation in Korea that puts American troops on its border any more than America wanted Soviet weapons in Cuba; for its part, America may come to a point where it withdraws troops from South Korea. At the wrong time, such developments can lead to bloodshed.


Considering all this, I suggest three steps before we start thinking of any tactical ideas regarding North-South re-unification.

  • Step One is to identify the desirable vision. This is a no-brainer. That vision is for a Unified Korea that is a law-based democracy with a free market economic system. We must reject the North Korean system and any fantasies about a hybrid.
  • Step Two is to expand this vision to include all northeast Asia. America and its allies should articulate a vision of a region whose countries are law-based democracies with free market economic systems. Under this umbrella, we should take every opportunity to nudge the illiberal states, especially China, in this direction.
  • Step Three is where strategy and tactics come in and we can argue about this. I say we tie the North Koreans down in all manner of talks and exchanges, not in the hope they will lead to re-unification, but because, like the Lilliputians who tied down Gulliver, we need to distract them and stop them misbehaving.

And then we wait for the powershift that will create the conditions for real re-unification.

Thank you.


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