Korean Reunification Likely To Stay a Dream for a Long Time

At best, there have been only vague or veiled references to it, but as the North Korean and South Korean leaders meet in communist Pyongyang for their first summit, the hope for reunification hangs over everything they say and do.

It might not take another half century, but words probably will be all the Koreans will have to work with when it comes to reintegrating sister nations that technically have been at war for half a century.

"Reunification at this point appears impossible, and I would not forecast it over the next five years at least," said Ralph A. Cossa, executive director of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Other Korea experts agreed, saying that merging the very communist and dictatorial North and democratic and very capitalist South simply isn't on the boards for the Asian peninsula except in the distant future.

There are strong reasons to bring North and South together, among them the resources and labor the two could share and a sense of nationalism that has burned hot since the Japanese occupation in the early 20th century.

But there's even more keeping them apart than a difference in opinion on whether Josef Stalin cut a more dashing figure than Douglas MacArthur. First of all, simple economics seem to prohibit the idea. Many point to the model of Germany. That country is still dealing with the consequences of marrying wealthy capitalist West Germany to cash-strapped communist East Germany in 1990 — unemployment skyrocketed, economic growth slowed, Eastern Germans flooded the West, the new nation struggled to improve the infrastructure in the East and many Eastern Germans complained of being treated as second-class citizens.

The two Koreas are in an even worse position. Isolated from just about every other nation in the world, North Korea scarcely has an economy to speak of and has been crippled by famine and natural disaster. South Korea, meanwhile, has had to deal with its share of troubles in the overall Asian financial crises, and its economy has never been as consistently hearty as West Germany's.

Marcus Noland, a senior fellow at the Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C., said it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars for South Korea to absorb the North in a process that would be many times more economically difficult than the European reunification was. One indicator of the difference is the gross domestic product of the nations: In 1990, the West German GDP was four times that of East Germany; estimates put the South Korean GDP at 12 to 15 times that of its northern neighbor, he said.

Then there's the military problem. North Korea has what is estimated to be the world's fifth largest army, 1 million strong. It's unlikely to embrace reunification when there's the possibility of war-crimes tribunals for a conflict that killed an estimated 2 million to 5 million Koreans, many of them civilians.

"People still remember that, and some will demand that someone be held responsible," said Shin Giwook, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor of sociology and an expert on Korean politics and society.

And there are the cultural differences that were there before the split and that have deepened in the 55 years since each Korea started pretending the other didn't exist.

One became a reclusive, tightly controlled state that centered around the cult of personality of its leader, Kim Il Sung, and created quasi-religious birth myths about Kim's son and successor, Kim Jong Il. The other, after shedding a right-wing police-state government, is now an enthusiastic capitalist heavily influenced by the materialistic tendencies of the United States and Japan. Many Koreans on either side may be mistaken in thinking the peninsula is more homogeneous than it really is, and that will have to be taken into account, Shin said.

"Many Korean people believe there won't be much problem after reunification because we share the same language, the same culture, the same traditions, the same ancestors and so on," he said. "But, in my experience, they're quite different ... and there will be very big problems."

William Drennan, Korea analyst for the Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C., said South Koreans ought to look for a foreshadowing of such ethnic and cultural problems in their own lands, where those from the southwestern province of Cholla suffer discrimination from other groups.

Finally, Shin pointed out, each successive generation of South Koreans after the war has been less eager to join paths with their northern brethren.

"They really don't care or really see why Korea has to be reunified," he said.

In the end, Cossa said that rather than looking forward to the summit as the equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which brought East and West Germany together, it ought to be considered the Asian version of the Helsinki Accords, those hesitant first steps toward peace between the U.S. and Soviet Union that ushered in the detente period in the Cold War. The Koreas might first experiment with a "one nation, two states" confederation formula that would recognize the common roots of both sides while maintaining political differences.

"We have had false starts before and, even if this is genuine, it will still be a difficult journey," Cossa said.