As its former chief, can you tell us more about what the Ministry of Unification does? Is South Korea the only country to have such department?

To my knowledge, Ministries of Foreign Affairs in East and West Germany served the functions of Korea’s Ministry of Unification. However, the Ministry [of Unification] is one of a kind.

The Constitution of the Republic of Korea has a clause that stipulates the government shall “seek unification and… carry out a policy of peaceful unification.” The Ministry of Unification is a department that was established to uphold this spirit of the Constitution and to execute the gargantuan amount of work needed for unification.

To give you some specific examples, the responsibilities of the Ministry include improving North-South Korean relations and thus paving the road for a peaceful unification. It also includes educating the South Korean public, so that the public recognizes the importance of unification. The Ministry is also entrusted with the task of adjusting South Korean institutions and economy in ways that are conducive to unification. An example would be ensuring that laws and regulations are in place to protect North Korean defectors. Furthermore, the Ministry works with the international community to convey the message that the unification is a prerequisite to peace and stability in East Asia. It also highlights human rights violation issues in North Korea.

To carry out these missions, the Ministry collaborates with other government offices, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health and Welfare.

What prompted you to be interested in Korean unification and eventually rise up to the position of a Minister?

I majored in comparative politics, and many PhD theses in this discipline use case studies. My research topic was state formation and its case study was North Korea. Studying North Korea as a state, I naturally became more interested in Korean reunification. In South Korea, it is inevitable that academic research on North Korea gravitates towards unification issues, one way or the other.  

I researched in 1980s, when North Korean Studies was becoming a hot issue in South Korean academia. It was a time marked by a fierce controversy over how South Korean academics should approach and study North Korea. Then, in the mid-1990s, a severe economic crisis struck North Korea, causing a famine that killed an estimated three million people. In 1997, my research assistant and I drove along the China-North Korea border from the Chinese side, near the Tumen River. Seeing starving North Korean civilians in tears across the river with my own eyes, I could not help but wonder why they had to undertake such unspeakable sufferings. North Koreans who had relatives in China would secretly hand over letters addressed to their relatives to Chinese merchants and plead that they deliver these letters when they return to China. I remember going through heaps of those letters, reading harrowing tales of unfathomable hardships. This is when I realized what unification was really about. It dawned on me that my approach– conducting theoretical research behind a desk as an academic– would never let me understand the reality of this problem. Of course, I was aware that Koreas would not unite any time soon, but the experience prompted me to break away from pure academics and to devote my time thinking more on policy-oriented, practical issues. I began talking to politicians about unification and served as an advisor to government offices. I am not sure if this is what helped me to become a minister, but I genuinely became more interested in practical strategies of unification and what I could do hands-on. Later on, I found myself writing more policy proposal papers for government agencies than research theses.

How would you describe the two years you served as the minister?

For one thing, the drastic transition from a scholar into a high-ranking public official concerned me the most. I was worried if I could do well, for I never had the opportunity in the past to understand the inner workings of the public sector. On a more personal note, I do not think it is advisable for professors, like myself to go on to become ministers overnight. I say this because I feel like a career of a public servant differs greatly from that of an academic. I was, and probably still am, unfamiliar with administrative procedures. Adjusting to the world of civil service was indeed difficult, but the experience was certainly an enriching one.

Serving as the minister, I became painfully aware of the sheer difficulty of unifying North and South Korea. The two nations have been separated for decades now and many Koreans question the need for unification, for this state of divide has become the new norm. This social inertia makes it really hard to convince the public that the unification is indeed necessary. Perhaps, this signifies a failure on the part of the South Korean government to enlighten the public on this subject matter. But many individuals hold fast to the belief that unification is neither important nor possible. Besides, the Ministry of Unification is rather small in terms of budget and personnel count. Despite its importance, unification issues receive little funding from the government. It is understandable given that the government must prioritize its spending and unification issues might not seem urgent. However, we cannot ignore the heavy economic and social costs we incur from the current state of separation. If the government had a long-term vision, we would have been in a better situation.

This is how the South Korean society perceives the unification. As an academic, I could afford to be idealistic, while ignoring the reality to some degree. As a minister, I worked inside the government on the issues that were all too real. Answering questions from representatives in legislative hearings, I recall thinking to myself, “this really isn’t easy.” 

In one of your past interviews, you mentioned that it was difficult being the only civilian in government to handle national security issues. Can you elaborate on this?

Just like the United States, South Korea has a National Security Council. The council is composed of five key members: the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Minister of National Defense, the Minister of Unification, the Chief of the Blue House National Security Office, and the Director of the National Intelligence Service (a CIA-equivalent). During my time, I was the only civilian on the council. The Minister of Foreign Affairs was a public official, promoted from within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the other three had military backgrounds. On the contrary, I was a professor before joining the public sector.  

Have you experienced the role of other ministries, such as the Ministry of National Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs overlapping or even clashing with that of the Ministry of Unification?

I’ve seen it happen. Just to give you some theoretical examples, say the Ministry of Unification wants to ask China to pressure North Korea to cease its missile testing. That would be the function of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But, say a series of recent events deteriorated China-South Korea relations. The Ministry would then be reluctant to make any diplomatic moves that may potentially exacerbate the relations.

If there were an armed conflict in the DMZ, the first responders would be the soldiers. While the Unification Minister may suggest an inter-Korean summit to resolve the conflict, the Defense Minister may want to reinforce firepower to guard our border and pursue a hardline policy to deter further provocation.

You see, ministers are bound to disagree in these National Security Council meetings. If the meeting agenda largely concerns North Korea, the Unification Minister speaks first. Afterwards, other ministers voice their opinions. Through deliberation, divergent stances eventually become funneled down into a single policy. Each ministry has its own unique function and purpose. The whole point of having numerous ministries is to ensure that tasks with multifarious sides are effectively carried out by separate entities with different areas of specialization. If the ministers think that a certain course of actions proposed by the Ministry for Unification hurts the national interest in foreign affairs and defense, they have every right to manifest their dissent and clarify their positions. When all the cards are on the table, it is about deciding which national interest needs to take priority.  

How do you think Trump’s Presidency will affect unification? While it may be too early to tell, what possible scenarios can you project, based on his past actions?

His past actions and statements make the future all the more unpredictable. But I am sure of one thing. On the surface, Trump’s presidency does not bode well for inter-Korean relations. Nonetheless, it is noteworthy that President Trump does not have extensive knowledge on foreign policy and national security and never worked in that field. He might as well perceive international affairs through a purely economic lens. After all, his pick for Secretary of State is a former CEO. I do feel like America’s foreign policy under President Trump will deviate from previous diplomatic traditions. I am unsure if this change will work in favor of unification, but it is up to South Korea to use current situations to its advantage. The unification is on us, not on President Trump.

Are there past examples of discourse on Korean unification being influenced by political situations abroad?

The Korean unification issue came to be framed differently in the mid-2000s. Under President Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), unification was very much a problem limited to the Korean peninsula. That changed approximately between 2001 and 2003, with President George W. Bush taking office in the United States and with the production of highly enriched uranium in North Korea. The unification question suddenly became a problem of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program, with broader implications for northeast Asia and the world at large. This is when the Six-Party Talks began, involving China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States. Especially because North Korea ramped up its nuclear capacity aiming to antagonize the United States, the unification issue further came to be framed as an international conflict.

In 2009, Goldman Sachs published a report projecting that a united Korea could potentially surpass France, Germany, and even Japan in terms of GDP. South Korean newspapers also emphasize the explosive economic synergy that the abundant natural resources and cheap labor of the North and the advanced technology and industry of the South can spark. Do you find these predictions to be excessively optimistic? Are they grounded on sound economics?

I am not an economist myself, so I cannot say for sure. Personally, I hold the view that economic benefits of unification are real, but it is an overstatement to say that the unification will transform South Korea as an economic powerhouse. I do see how the unification can be a blessing for some key aspects of the South Korean economy. In the immediate term, our endangered industries such as manufacturing and construction would boom. At the same time, we would need to take in countless North Korean citizens, to whom we will need to extend our welfare programs. While the industry may win, I cannot say for sure if the same will be true for the economy as a whole. Initially, unification will come with an immense price tag.

Thus, what really matters is integrating the two economies into one. Which specific industries win and lose is less important. Through unification, North Korea needs to become a region that can sustain itself. If you look at Germany, young people from former East Germany still want to live and work in former West Germany. Cities such as Dresden that were under East Germany consequently show signs of an aging population and lack economic vitality, compared to their West German counterparts. This phenomenon would be more severe in the case of Korea. Industrial and living standards are incomparably higher in the South. Once we reunite, those in the North would mass migrate to developed cities in South Korea, such as Seoul, Busan, Gwangju, and Daegu. Why would they stay in the North? This is a very plausible post-unification scenario. Therefore, sustained investment in infrastructure, living standards, and industries in the North needs to be made to bridge this gap between the two Koreas. It won’t happen overnight. Perhaps the so-called “explosive economic synergy” of unification talked about in the media may be attainable only if we can overcome this problem. For this reason, careful post-unification planning to equalize living standards in the North and South is of paramount importance. If we don’t get this right at its onset, situations may become infinitely harder to remedy later. This is an economic aspect of unification.

Then, there are societal implications of reunifying. Although South Koreans and North Koreans are of the same ethnicity, they have many differences that can serve as sources of conflict. It is likely that South Koreans will lead the reunification when it happens. North Koreans will inevitably feel a sense of inferiority, while South Koreans feel a sense of superiority. I am concerned that this social stratification may ignite major intra-ethnic conflicts.

I say these things not to discount the necessity of unification. My point is that we need to identify these potential problems beforehand and come up with plans. It is naive to think the South can simply take the North in because our economic system produced more wealth and our political structure yielded more stability. Some problems that may arise from unification are all too obvious. We have seen them surface when West and East Germany came together– some of these problems still exist in German society.

This is where the Ministry needs to step in. Just the other day, a colleague of mine at the Korean Association of North Korean Studies was suggesting disbanding the Ministry of Unification. His reason was that its role has diminished into nothingness, in light of recent events such as the shutting down of the Kaesong Industrial Complex that significantly decreased North-South transactions and froze diplomatic relations. I believe that such cannot be the reason for disbanding the Ministry of Unification, because the Ministry of Unification’s responsibilities are more far-reaching than merely taking care of diplomatic conflicts. A good portion of its operation should be devoted to researching possible scenarios of post-unification conflict and working on mitigation plans. Sadly, I don’t see that happening at all. As I said earlier, South Koreans are surprisingly uninformed about Korean unification. Thus, the Ministry has an obligation to prepare for the future, even if the public doesn’t perceive it as an urgent matter.

What lessons can we draw from the unification of Germany?

For unification to take off, the nation leading the process needs to be “decent.” And by “decent,” I mean it needs to be more democratic. It should have extensive societal safety nets. I would also say economic resilience and vitality are almost prerequisites. In that regard, West Germany is a role model. At the time, it was world’s third-largest economy. Its welfare system is world-famous. As much as the political parties competed against one another, they also united to form coalition governments. The West German Minister of Foreign Affairs who oversaw the unification transition had been in office for 10 years. Imagine how consistent West German foreign policy would have been. Compare that to South Korea, where my two-year-long incumbency as a Minister is considered exceptionally long-lived. The fact that West Germany was politically, economically, and socially stable went a long way in coherently reuniting the East and West together. This would be the first lesson.

The second lesson is that sustained interaction is vital for divided states. East and West Germany had a good amount of exchange going on, leading up to the historic fall of the Berlin Wall. West Germany gave economic aid to the East. West Germans were relatively free to travel to the East. East Germans could watch West German television broadcasts and could migrate to the West, with the consent of their government. Separated family members frequently visited each other. This level of intimacy may be difficult in the Korean context, due to security concerns. However, efforts to maintain a reasonable level of inter-Korean contact are needed.

Korean reunification may take many forms. The ideal would be one nation, one system, and one government. But it can always happen in stages and we need to be flexible to possible situational changes. The important thing is to remember why we are pursuing unification. It is to bring peace, stability, and prosperity to the Korean peninsula. It is also because we are all Koreans, torn apart by politics. This endeavor ultimately contributes to world peace.

I invite everyone in the international community to take interest in and support Korean reunification. I would call East Asia a powder keg. It is a battleground where the world’s powerhouses such as China, Japan, Russia, and the United States all compete for their influence. The unification issue sits on that powder keg. I hope more people understand that reconciliation of the Koreas brings peace elsewhere.