Reports this week noted that officials from North and South Korea met for the first time in a long time, the subject once again being “reunification.” Leader Kim Jong-un made reference to it during his annual New Year’s speech, in which he expressed ‘hope’ that the upcoming Olympic games in South Korea would be the beginning of a new era between Pyongyang and Seoul.
Is this a serious effort? Probably not, given North Korea’s history, current status as a rising nuclear power, and the fact that South Korea doesn’t really want to absorb the impoverished North.
Here are some excerpts from a good analysis of the current situation:
After North Korea burnished its credentials last year as a nuclear-armed state, there’s been much discussion about what Pyongyang aims to do with its nuclear missiles. The panic in the western media has been palpable. But so is the contrast with the South Korean media’s more sanguine response. I find it notable that The Interpreter‘s most read post of 2017 was on precisely this topic. Why were South Korean officials going on holiday when U.S. President Donald Trump was talking about ‘fire and fury’? Why did South Korean celebrity news routinely crowd out North Korea in the press last year?
The answer is partially exhaustion. South Koreans have been living next to North Korea and its threats for so long that there is now a ‘boy who cried wolf’ effect. North Korean threats have been so over-the-top and ridiculous for so long that South Koreans simply tune it out. When the North says it wants to reunify Korea or turn Seoul into a ‘sea of flame’, the effect is more eye-rolling than fear. In short, talk is cheap, and no state more than North Korea has demonstrated that over the years.
Another answer is that North Korea probably no longer really wants to reunify Korea, no matter what it says, and that recognition has slowly filtered through. All things being equal, sure, North Korea would like unification on its own terms. But is it willing to carry real costs for that? Probably not.
Indeed, South Korea is probably no longer willing to carry real costs for pushing unification either. De jure, these are both irredentist-revisionist states; constitutionally, they are committed to unification. And North Korea being what it is, Northern rhetoric about unity is predictably frightening and extreme. But de facto, neither Korea is making serious (ie. costly) moves to bring unity about.
Read the rest here.
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