SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s president has declared that the reunification of Korea is drawing near — a surprising statement at a time of soaring tensions on the divided peninsula.
While a single Korea is the stated goal of both the communist North and the democratic South, it has seemed a faraway dream this year, which saw an alleged North Korean attack on a South Korean warship, an announcement by Pyongyang that it is expanding its nuclear programs and, most recently, the shelling of a South Korean island two weeks ago.
In the wake of the Nov. 23 artillery assault on the South’s Yeonpyeong Island, both sides have raised the temperature on the peninsula by trading angry barbs and threats of retribution. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has not shied away from tough rhetoric, as he looked to deflect criticism that his military’s response to the shelling was too weak.
On Friday, North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun stoked tensions further, accusing South Korea and the U.S. of pursuing a policy of hostility and confrontation and reiterating that Pyongyang needs its nuclear program to fend them off.
"We once again feel convinced that we have made the right choice in strengthening our defenses with the nuclear deterrent," he said, according to an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax.
Still, twice this week, during a trip to Malaysia, Lee has expressed optimism that reunification is not long off.
"North Korea now remains one of the most belligerent nations in the world," Lee said in the interview published Friday in The Star, a Malaysian newspaper. But, he added, it’s a "fact that the two Koreas will have to coexist peacefully and, in the end, realize reunification."
In a speech Thursday night, Lee made similar remarks, saying that North Koreans have become increasingly aware that the South is better off. He did not elaborate on how their knowledge has expanded, but he said it was "an important change that no one can stop."
"Reunification is drawing near," Lee said, according to the president’s website.
He also called on China to urge ally Pyongyang to embrace the same economic openness that has led millions of Chinese out of poverty — and said that North Korean economic independence was the key to reunification.
Lee didn’t give a specific timeframe for the reunification of Korea, which was divided after the end of Japanese rule and officially remains in a state of war because the Koreas’ 1950-53 conflict ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
It wasn’t clear why Lee was making a push for reunification now. South Korean leaders often call for a peaceful reunification with the North. There is in Seoul, however, a wariness of the huge social and economic costs associated with absorbing the impoverished North.
North Korea also has called repeatedly for reunification, but it imagines integration under its authoritarian political system. It has shown no sign that it would allow any reunification that results in its absorption by the richer South.
It was long assumed that China, the North’s main ally, would also pose an obstacle to reunification under Seoul’s rule. But a recently leaked U.S. diplomatic cable recounts a conversation between the U.S. ambassador in Seoul and a high-ranking South Korean official, who told the American that China has largely resigned itself to such an integration.
Beijing "would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the U.S. in a ‘benign alliance’ as long as Korea was not hostile toward China," the official is quoted as saying in the cabled published by WikiLeaks.
Economic opportunities in a reunified Korea could further induce Chinese acquiescence, but China would be unlikely to accept the presence of U.S. troops north of the demilitarized zone that currently forms the North-South border, the South Korean official said, according to the cable.
In August, Lee said South Korea should prepare for reunification by studying the possibility of adopting a reunification tax aimed at raising money for the costs of integration.
Lee proposed a three-stage reunification process in which the two Koreas would first form a "peace community" involving denuclearization of the peninsula, then an "economic community" for cross-border economic integration, and eventually a "community of the Korean nation" with no institutional barriers between them.
Paik Hak-soon, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute think tank near Seoul, said the Koreas should follow the German model of reunification. But, he said, that model is "nearly impossible when tensions are rising."
Germans in the west largely footed the bill for the reunification of the two sides after the collapse of communism, bringing the overall infrastructure of the former East Germany up to a standard similar to that in the west. A tax first levied in 1991 has gone to improve roads, schools and other essentials in the east.
Reunification through the German model could cause enormous burdens, but it could also bring economic benefits, said Yoon Deok-min, an analyst at the state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul.
The North has abundant natural resources and a relatively well-educated and cheap labor force.
Already, the South is tapping into those resources at Kaesong, a joint industrial park in the North where South Korean-run factories employ North Korean workers. The park, an important symbol of inter-Korean cooperation, has continued to operate despite the current tensions.
In The Star interview, Lee said North Korea should "open its doors for economic growth as Beijing has done. I hope China will actively encourage the North to choose the same route that it has taken."
"Ultimately, the foundation for reunification will be laid when North Korea becomes economically independent," Lee said.