The Korean armistice of 1953 was concluded in the ‘truce-village’ of Panmunjom. This signified the divide between North and South Korea. In 2018, Panmunjom was also the venue for the summit between the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Jong-un.
Both advanced a pledge on reunification. Despite the recent statement by the UN that the highly-militarised Korean peninsula was “the most tense and dangerous peace and security issue” in the world today, both countries have in principle agreed on reunification of the two Koreas as a common objective.
The two sides had unequivocally sustained the aspiration of reunification since the end of the bloody ‘Korean War’ (1950-53) that killed over 1.2 million people.
In 1972 they reiterated and formalised that intent in a joint communique that outlined the steps towards reunification, specifically without external interference, provocation, force or imposition of each other’s ideological sensibilities.
However, in the backdrop of the Cold War half-hearted commitments and irreconcilable alignments ensured that the frequent détentes between the two Koreas lapsed into an awesome scenarion of a possible nuclear conflict.
Beyond symbolic reconciliation in the form of sportspersons from both countries marching together or occasionally teaming up, like in the recent mid-tournament decision to have a combined women’s table tennis team, the dynamics of political reunification remain susceptible to insecurities of the regimes, external threats and practical concerns surrounding the ‘cost’ of accommodation within two very disparate economies.
The last successful reunification was that of the Deutsche Wiedervereinigung or the German reunification in 1990, when the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) became a part of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany).
Exactly like the two Koreas, the virtually homogenous populace of the two Germanies was artificially divided as the spoils of World War II and then became a victim of the Cold War ‘divide’. It was only overcome as the Soviet Union which perceived the ‘Iron Curtain’, dividing the essentially-homogenous Germans, to be unnatural.
Fuelling the fears of an unviable Korean unification is the bill of approximately $2 trillion or $100 billion a year for the western part of Germany to realign, restructure and integrate the eastern part. The estimated ‘cost’ of Korean reunification is over $3 trillion.
However, like the international sceptics in the event of a reunified Korea, the Germans also had to overcome paranoia by other West European powers. As Margaret Thatcher had once said, “We defeated the Germans twice! And now they’re back”.
Even the French and the Soviets, who had suffered Nazi Germany’s rise in the 1930s and Forties, were concerned, as were the emotionally charged Israelis, who recalled the Holocaust and wondered if the reunified Germany, “will try to do it again”!
Since then much water has flowed down the Rhine to allay fears and Germany has emerged as a responsible, ‘inclusive’ and democratic power-house of Europe (largest economy in the Continent) that sustains the fragility of the European Union, provides a disproportionate 20 per cent to the European Union, and is the third largest contributor to the UN (8 per cent).
Unlike Germany, the other two instances of reunification in the last few decades have been Vietnam’s reunification with the Viet Cong and the storming of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, by North Vietnamese troops (1975-76) and the decidedly restive and untenable reunification of Yemen (1990), which has since been torn asunder in a civil war.
Essential homogeneity of population in the reunified lands and the vested interests of external powers that indulge in proxy-fighting to keep the two lands disunited, are the common features, as they were in Germany, and as it is in the Korean peninsula.
On the contrary, non-homogeneity owing to religion, historical, tribal affiliation and ethnicity have resulted in dismemberment of countries, for example South Sudan (religious/ethnic divide), Kosovo (ethnic divide), Montenegro (historical independence), East Timor (religious divide)etc.
The arbitrarily political and ideological attempts at unification have failed in the long term as in the case of United China (including PRC/mainland China and ROC/Taiwan), with nationalists unable to pursue the process.
In Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and Moldova the ‘divides’ are much sharper than the restricted emotions and plausibility of unification. Wholly unnatural and unilateral decisions by certain regimes to unify or confederate sovereign countries, are reduced to a fizzle owing to impractical ideas and the failure to reconcile seemingly compelling factors.
The major examples are the short-lived Federation of Arab States (Egypt, Syria and Libya) by Nasser and Gaddafi to create a Pan-Arab state or the non-starter of the East African Federation (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda).
However, forced military ‘unification’ like the annexation of Crimea by the Russia can be more enduring as it has the support of the local population that identifies the people with the Russians as opposed to the Ukrainians.
Closer home, the occasional talk of Akhand Bharat or Greater India, has no traction in neighbouring countries and remains a romantic idea that is politically flagged to recall the grandeur of the past. In the wounded and unsettled history of the Indian subcontinent and the subsequent geopolitical evolution, the concept of reunification is an impossible goal.
The possibilities of either ‘unification’ or further ‘division’ are becoming politically, financially and even morally, unviable and across the world.
There was a hypothetical study of a reunified Korea by Goldman Sachs. It predicted that the cheap labour and natural resources of North Korea could combine with the abundant capital and technology of South Korea to have an economy that could turn out to be larger than Japan by 2050.
More realistically, burying the prospect of reunification of the Koreas may just be the bargaining chip towards driving the more crucial agenda of denuclearization, de-escalation and disarmament in the tinderbox within the Korean peninsula that has the potential to unleash a Nuclear Armageddon.
However, the talk of reunification of the two Koreas envisages emotional engagement and bridging the trust deficit. This is unlikely to attain fruition given the hegemonistic aspirations of an emerging China, that is essentially opposed to a potentially prosperous and challenging democracy on its northern borders.
The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry