Reuniting a Nation – the Korean Peninsula and the Way to Reunification

Reviewed by Sean Choi

In his article “Reuniting a Nation – the Korean Peninsula and the Way to Reunification,” Tan Aik Seng from the National University of Singapore presents lays out an alternative approach that South Korea may adapt in order to facilitate the unification of North Korea and South Korea. In arguing for a different approach, Seng discusses the benefits that would arise from a potential reunification, the current approach, and why a different approach would be more effective.

Seng believes that the socio-cultural value and the economic benefits merit the reunification of the Korean peninsula. Currently, many families are separated across the border, and they suffer emotionally from their separation. Additionally, both South and North Korea spend a significant portion of their budget for military preparation against each other. Through unification, such costs can be eliminated and families can be reunited once again. South Korea currently takes a carrot and stick approach in which the country contests against the military demonstrations of North Korea and gives aid for concessions from North Korea. Seng, however, believes that South Korea should give unilateral, unconditional aid because such aid will lead to the increase in the living standards and technological status of North Korea. Drawing from modernization theory, Seng believes that the increased economic status of North Korean citizens will have democratizing forces that lead to exertion of public pressure against the authoritarian regime.

While Seng presents a different framework that may contribute in the scholarship, I believe that he severely overlooks the facts on the ground and takes an overly paternalistic approach in prescribing what will be beneficial for North and South Korea. Contrary to his stance that reunification will have socio-cultural value, many South Koreans do not perceive to have a cultural connection to North Koreans and this separation will increase as time progresses. In addition, Seng assumes that toppling of the authoritarian regime in North Korea will be beneficial for both parties when the fall of the regime may induce chaos from the lack of control. Lastly, Seng’s view that modernization of North Korea will have a democratizing force is too optimistic. This claim makes several assumptions that appear hard to be fulfilled. First, the North Korean regime must be willing to spread technological advancements to its people; second, the people must want to use the technological advancements; and third, the technological diffusion and the ensuing democratization must induce enough change to make the North Korean regime lose its current absolute power.

Hence, because Seng provides a simple solution to a complex problem, his answer overlooks numerous facets that currently hinder the reunification of the Korean peninsula. While it may be important to be optimistic regarding such unforeseeable events, I believe it is also just as important to recognize that such multi-faceted problems do not present straightforward answers.

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