In January 2014, South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s reference to the unification of the two Koreas as a potential “economic bonanza” caused a resurgence of interest in the unification dialogue. Subsequently, in May and June of 2014, President Park brought up the topic of unification as a major agenda item for South Korea, toward which both US President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jingping expressed approval. The North Korean regime, however, evinced a strong negative reaction to these statements, and the official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea, Rodong Sinmun, made its stance explicit in arguing that the international community’s confrontational maneuvers “injure [the North Korean] ideology and system.” Countries neighboring the Korean peninsula have also tended to accept unification as an elusive vision for the future rather than as an immediate possibility. To what extent, then, are the theories of peaceful unification feasible initiatives, and how can they contribute to peacebuilding in northeast Asia and the international community?

The Internationalization of the North Korean Issue

In modern society, North Korea poses a number of complex risks. North Korea’s development of a nuclear weapons program is a subject of particular concern to the international community. Since 2006, North Korea has publicly conducted nuclear tests amidst suspicion and surveillance—and despite the international community’s attempts to contain the situation. North Korea’s development and testing of nuclear weapons is targeted at undermining principles of nonproliferation, and such jeopardization of the world order established post-World War II is one of the major challenges confronting international politics today. The United States, China, Russia, and Japan, alongside South Korea, launched the Six-Party Talks with North Korea in 2003 in order to address the denuclearization of the country, but the dialogue has been suspended since 2008.

Moreover, in 2009 and 2013, North Korea’s de facto government conducted nuclear tests, effectively establishing itself as a nuclear power. In addition to the continuation of missile tests, North Korea’s successful launch of the Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite in 2012 established its status of having achieved substantial abilities in intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) technology. After North Korea’s first and second nuclear tests, the United Nations subsequently adopted Resolutions 1718 and 1874. It additionally adopted Resolution 2087 after the 2012 satellite launch, and finally, Resolution 2094 after its third nuclear test, which imposed a variety of sanctions on North Korea.

Recently, however, North Korea has drawn the world’s attention in areas other than its nuclear program. On November 24, 2014, the US film studio Sony Pictures Entertainment was hacked in light of its production of the movie The Interview, a caricature of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. President Obama attributed it to the work of North Korean hackers. Following the development of nuclear and missile technology, North Korea has reportedly attained technological capabilities for cyberterrorism to a degree that is once again a cause for concern. Additionally, the North’s harsh and systematic human rights abuses captured the attention of the world. In February 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council’s adoption of the North Korea Human Rights Resolution (based on a report published by the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) established that the North Korean government should be held responsible for crimes against humanity. The Commission of Inquiry’s report stated that top North Korean leadership would be liable to prosecution by the International Criminal Court, and the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly adopted the resolution on November 18, 2014 by an overwhelming majority.

The perils and the urgency of dealing with North Korea have been amplified by the ascendancy of Kim Jong-un to his current position. Any expectations for advancements that Kim Jong-un, the First Chairman of the National Defense Commission who has studied abroad in Switzerland, could have promoted have all but dwindled; instead, a harsh and overbearing image of the young political leader has taken root. In 2013, Kim Jong-un revised the Socialist Constitution of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to reinforce the nation’s dual ambitions of nuclearization and economic development. Nuclear power was hailed as the pride of the nation and framed as an important asset for maintaining the systems of the North Korean state. It has been difficult to predict the inner workings of the North Korean government, and the world watched in shock when Kim Jong-un executed Jang Sung-taek, his uncle and a leading figure in government, in December 2013. Therefore, the possibility of the liberalization of North Korea under Kim Jong-un’s rule has ultimately become increasingly slim.

The destabilization of North Korea poses a further threat to its border regions, particularly with China. There is a large-scale movement of refugees across the border into China, which has the potential to cause unrest in the East Asian region. North Korea has retained a large number of its conventional weapons, and its commitment to militaristic values and practices also amplifies the potential for military unrest in the region. Furthermore, sudden instability in the state system of Northeast Asia may aggravate hostilities between the United States and China. While North Korea’s problems are compounded by the possibility of greater cooperation between the United States and China, in reality, the tension between the two powers is exacerbated by their dealings with North Korea. China and the United States have consistently adopted opposing stances in the six-party discussions of international sanctions against North Korea and internationalizing human rights issues in North Korea. In particular, while the annual large-scale US-South Korean joint military exercises threaten North Korea, they are more likely to conflict with China’s security interests.

The Korean Peninsula’s Post-Cold War Lag

The structural division of the Korean peninsula and North Korea’s response to the end of the Cold War are, from a historical standpoint, at the root of the problems beleaguering North Korea. During the second half of the 20th century, the global Cold War ideological faction opposed to the axis, coupled with the deep wounds of war, locked the North and South into hostile relations. However, the impact of the end of the Cold War was limited. While the Soviet Union was dismantled and Eastern Europe transitioned into a reunified German regime, the structural divide of the Korean peninsula has since remained unchanged. The post-Cold War era of globalization even impacted the Jasmine Revolution in the Middle East, but the impeded flow of people and materials across the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea persists.

Certainly, this is not to say that the end of the Cold War did not have an effect on the Korean Peninsula. The South Korean government, in the wake of the Cold War, was able to expand exchanges with former communist countries and was also able to deepen economic engagement with China. South Korean President Roh Tae-woo’s 1988 “July 7 Declaration,” born of his perception of North Korea not as a hostile country but as a potential partner, further enabled large-scale progress on the Korean peninsula after the end of the Cold War. In 1992, the adoption of a basic agreement on the commitment to cooperation and the joint declaration on denuclearization, as well as summit meetings conducted by Kim Il-sung in the North and Kim Young-sam in the South, were steps toward resolving the Cold War’s imposition of the geographic divide on the Korean peninsula.

This trend toward cooperation, though dampened by the sudden death of Kim Il-sung, was revived with the advent of the Kim Dae-jung administration and the first ever inter-Korean summit in 2000. The official exchanges and cooperation under the governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun demonstrated an earnest attempt to pursue an institutionalized peace agreement. However, these attempts to change the Cold War structure imposed on the Korean peninsula ultimately failed. In the wake of North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006, the nature of inter-Korean relations reverted back to being laced with hostility and opposition.

The resulting delays in post-Cold War reconciliation greatly intensified the asymmetries and imbalances between North and South Korea, giving North Korea further latitude to adopt a more passive stance toward South Korea. South Korea, China, Russia, and Eastern Europe have largely normalized relations, and yet North Korea has failed to normalize relations with the United States, Japan, and the West. North Korea has always denounced the “United States’ anti-North Korea policies,” and for this reason, the relationship between the two countries has not transitioned beyond that of a cease-fire type agreement based on fundamentally militaristic considerations.

Furthermore, the protracted end of the Cold War deepened the consequences of the so-called “Asian Paradox” in Northeast Asia. While the end of the Cold War contributed significantly to expanding economic exchange and greater regional market integration, the dialogue over shared values vis-à-vis human rights and establishing a common security system like the Helsinki Process did not make the same headway. Since the end of the Cold War, despite the rapid economic growth of China and the Northeast Asian region, international tensions and conflicts over political orientation were not alleviated. The peace regime that had briefly appeared on the Korean peninsula vanished into thin air, ultimately with limited effect. Consequently, due to the delayed resolution of the Cold War, the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia are confronted by major obstacles in forging a new community through mutual communication and trust-building. The structure and division of the Korean peninsula still to this day constitute the core of this disorder.

A Provisional State of Stability and Instability

The delay between the end of the Cold War and the rise of globalization resulted in impeding the two Koreas’ formation of an orderly coexistence. Having been divided for 70 years, long since the end of the Cold War, there is no strategic framework for interaction and mutual understanding between the two Koreas. The relationship between North and South Korea remains suspended in a precarious state—not quite war-torn, though certainly not peaceful—compounded by the existence of the emotional considerations reminiscent of an ethnic community once bonded by nationhood and brotherhood. While families separated between North and South embrace each other warmly when they have occasion to be reunited at the Demilitarized Zone, the residents of the North and South must brand one another as the enemy. The meeting of North and South Koreans can thus be defined as either lawful and or unlawful, depending on the situation.

Certainly, the authorities of North and South Korea have drawn up a number of agreements for pairing with each other, including the July 4 North-South Joint Statement of 1972, the Basic Agreement of 1992, the June 15 North-South Joint Declaration of 2000, and the October 4 Declaration of 2007. While the existing agreements differ in terms of content, the emphasis of each agreement forms a consensus around three main points. The first point is to respect the other’s existence in order to recognize and protect the political principle of non-intervention. Second, use of force is prohibited in favor of establishing and promoting a common goal of peaceful unification. Third, the relationship between South and North in terms of a unified ethnic community is distinct from international relations and must thus be solved independently. These principles are central to the two Koreas when dealing with common issues. This relationship is defined, conceptually, as a “provisional special relationship formed in the process of pursuing unification.”

However, these agreements have not established norms that broadly regulate the relationship between the two Koreas. The basic agreements did not even attain legal status through ratification by the South Korean National Assembly. Declaration 6.15, upon which North Korea places special emphasis, underscores the importance of a common and unified plan of cooperation, but it is limited in its function as an official strategic principle, as it is not equipped with the status of a legal norm. There have since been numerous meetings, negotiations, agreements, promises, two summit talks, and international conferences on the inter-Korean relationship, but the framework for lasting peace yet remains incomplete.

Unlike the case of East and West Germany, North and South Korea find it more difficult to accept each other as political entities because the separate political systems and national division were imposed upon them by foreign powers. The collective trauma and hostility that the Korean War left behind has intensified this tendency. Therefore, it is difficult for Koreans to accept the division of the peninsula as mere political reality, and mixed, contradictory attitudes persist amongst both populaces. For example, 60 percent of South Koreans express strong distrust of and resistance to the Kim Jong-un regime. In light of this situation, the two Koreas will find it difficult to engage one another in dialogue and this impedes the possibility of open debate and normalized negotiations.

Planning for Peaceful Unification

The majority of South Koreans believe that the complete resolution of the North Korean issue will bring structured peace to the region. In this regard, the unification of the two Koreas forms the core of the Northeast Asian Peace Initiative. But the pursuit of unification in the divided Korean peninsula could potentially also exacerbate the instability of the region. The question that remains is then either the pursuit of peace through division or peace through unification.

In reality, the relationship between peace and unification is a rather ambivalent one. Unification is brought about through dialogue and discussion, but it also unearths an ideological battle. The two Koreas released at least three official documents regarding unification. The so-called “7.4 Joint Statement” of 1972 pledged that the two Koreas would pursue peaceful unification through three principles. Since then, these principles have been repeatedly emphasized. In 1992, the two Koreas signed the “Basic Agreement” based on employing nonaggression and cooperation in the gradual, step-by-step pursuit of unification. During the first ever inter-Korean summit of 2000, the so-called “June 15 Declaration” was adopted, and the two sides acknowledged that there could be common ground between the South’s conception of a confederate political system and the North’s formula for a loose federation. The North and the South agreed to use this common ground as a basis for promoting unification.

However, the two sides diverge in their interpretation of the principles of unification. North Korea regards principles of national independence as a US issue, and therefore considers the withdrawal of US troops from Korea as a prerequisite for broaching the issue of unification. They understand the principles of peace to be predicated on the dissolution of the North American armistice system. South Korea, on the other hand, seeks to establish principles of peace by prioritizing civil consensus between North and South Korea over the United States-South Korean alliance. However, South Korea’s overall policy choices for establishing national peace means that there is a focus on non-violent and non-military approaches, as well as various approaches featuring humanitarian access. It is also important to note that there are no substitutes for international cooperation and the South Korean alliance with the United States. We must achieve unification through international cooperation.

There are two major dimensions to the unification of the Koreas. In other words, our approach to unification can either prioritize political and military dimensions, or it can prioritize building trust through social and cultural channels. North Korea has continued to seek normalization of relations with regards to political and military issues, demanding an end to US-South Korean joint military exercises. Meanwhile, the South has entertained solutions to humanitarian issues under the principle that trust and cooperation can be cultivated through infrastructure development, economic cooperation, and the recovery of cultural homogeneity. In addition, South Korea and the United States have deemed North Korea’s nuclear disarmament a top priority objective, as North Korea’s nuclear program is considered the greatest threat to peace in the region. It is clear that if peace is to be achieved at the political and military level, both sides need to simultaneously promote the process of unification through the lens of promoting a comprehensive and interconnected social and cultural value system between the nations.

At this point, the unification initiative must be oriented around building a relationship of trust between the North and the South, particularly at the regional level. Unification is no longer about pursuing a nationalistic agenda or addressing the psychological wounds that both sides incurred during the Korean War. Unification is also not about building a unified nation state in the increasingly modern world of the 21st century. If unification is used as a means of mobilizing nationalist sentiment in Korea, then it is not necessarily even desirable. Now, unification and peacebuilding calls for building a comprehensive, global context. Unification is not only the wish of the South Korean nation, but it also needs to be at the core of a regional strategy that features cooperation with the United States, China, Russia, and Japan.

Soft Power and Preparations for Unification

President Park Geun-hye’s government has stressed the need for preparing for unification. The phrase “unification preparation,” however, does not refer to the immediate realization of unification, but rather to more long-term vision and preparation. In fact, the very low level of inter-Korea exchanges and cooperation, as well as the low level of trust, makes it difficult to anticipate the unification process at this point. What is important is that the people of the Korean peninsula cultivate a future-oriented conception of a unified nation and comprehensively prepare to achieve it.

In the 21st century, the Korean peninsula will need to rely on unprecedented levels of cooperation and cultivate a collective vision of unification. A survey conducted by Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies suggests that the current orientation or attitude of the South Korean people toward unification is quite heterogeneous; according to the survey, approximately 60 percent of the respondents agree with the need for a unification vision, but they also see it as a long-term task that will take at least 20 to 30 years. In other words, there are not very many people who believe that unification is likely, at least in the near future. Moreover, the unity within South Korea itself may be weakening. The South and the North may claim that they are achieving unification through their own independent efforts, but in fact, the differences in underlying ethnic categories have changed significantly. There are substantial differences separating the political forces in the debate about unification issues. Progressives recognize North Korea as an independent political entity and thus believe that unification must be a voluntary decision on both sides. Conservatives, in contrast, highlight the qualitative change of the current North Korean regime as a precondition for achieving liberal democratic unity.

Therefore, in the 21st century, democratic values, human rights, freedom, communication, tolerance, and diversity will shape the task of constructing a comprehensive, future-oriented unification vision for the two Koreas. At the same time, in order to fully achieve unification, it will be important to strengthen soft power channels between the countries. Democratic advancements through the expansion of civil society, channels of communication, and a culture of tolerance, as well as respect for diversity and human rights are what will create momentum for and prepare the Korean peninsula for unification. In this sense, unification is a northeast Asian, and ultimately global, mission and endeavor for peace.