Address of Peter Prove, Director of the World Council of Churches' Commission of the Churches on International Affairs at the event commemorating the 40th anniversary of the May 18 Democratic Uprising


On the one hand, the reunification of the Korean Peninsula may be seen as inevitable. A people who share the same language, traditional culture and ancient history cannot possibly remain divided forever. A period of some 75 years of separation must certainly be seen as a temporary anomaly when set against the vast millennial sweep of shared history. A division that is a relic of Cold War geopolitics surely cannot persist much longer in the 21st century world that is so radically altered since then.

On the other hand, this division has proved extraordinarily resistant to historical shifts that have rewritten the world order elsewhere. The bloodshed and bitterness of the Korean War have left a persistent legacy of hate, fear and suspicion in the minds of people on both sides of the divide. Big Power competition and confrontation has continued to play out on the terrain of the Korean Peninsula, and helped keep it divided. And the different political, social and economic paths travelled by the two Koreas in the intervening years have compounded a division based on ideology and conflict, with a division based on mutual incomprehension and indifference.

Nevertheless, the extraordinary events of the last couple of years have shown that the pivot between the apparently impossible and the seemingly inevitable is very finely balanced, and can swing wildly back and forth. In 2017, the Korean Peninsula seemed to be on the very brink of war, threatening catastrophic human and economic consequences, not just for South and North Korea, but for the region and the world. But then in 2018 peace suddenly - miraculously - became possible, following the Olympic Peace moment and a series of high-level political summits which produced images that most people could hardly have imagined. However, in 2019 the political atmosphere chilled once again, and the momentum for peace seemed to evaporate.

Throughout these dizzying fluctuations, and for more than three decades before, the focus of the World Council of Churches’ work for peace on the Korean Peninsula has remained essentially the same: promoting and facilitating people-to-people encounter between North and South Koreans, accompanied and supported by well-wishers from around the world. Whatever the political leaders might or might not agree, ultimately the real foundations for sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula must be built between the people through the simple but incredibly profound act of encounter and mutual exchange and understanding.

What we have learnt from these decades of engagement in people-to-people encounter is that North and South Koreans, when enabled to meet, recognize in each other their common humanity, their common Korean-ness, and a shared hope for peace and togetherness rather than conflict and division. That mutual recognition is a powerful antidote to the enemy images, suspicions and disillusionment that have otherwise prevailed in much of the modern history of inter-Korean relations. And it is an essential foundation for reunification.

And so, in general, and without minimizing the degree of divergence during these 75 years of separation, we are inclined to believe that, far from being impossible, peace and reunification is actually ultimately inevitable, that the unhealed wound of division will eventually be healed, and that when it finally comes, the healing will be much swifter than we can presently imagine.

But for that healing to be as complete as we hope, it must genuinely be the outcome of a peaceful coming together of both North and South, rather than the result of forced subjugation or chaotic collapse of one side or the other. Any attempt to create reunification by military force, political confrontation or extreme economic pressure inevitably carries an unacceptable risk of catastrophic conflict with unimaginable humanitarian consequences for the region and beyond.

So what sort of Korean reunification can be envisaged through peaceful means? Can two such radically divergent political and economic systems be combined in a single unified sovereign state?

Of course, since at least as long ago as 1972 the governments of North and South Korea have both proclaimed as a goal the eventual restoration of Korea as a single state. In the North-South Joint Communiqué of that year, steps were outlined for achieving peaceful reunification of the country. Sadly, and not for the last time, little or no progress was made in implementing this agreement.

In 1980, in a report to the Sixth Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea, North Korean President Kim Il-sung elaborated on his proposal for a loose confederation between North and South Korea, in which their respective political systems would initially be retained. In 1989, South Korea advanced the Korean National Community Unification Formula, envisaging a three-stage process for unification: i) reconciliation and cooperation, ii) the formation of a Korean Commonwealth, and iii) the realization of a unitary state. Versions of this concept have informed South Korean government policy ever since.

In 1993, one year before his death, President Kim Il-sung wrote his Ten Point Programme for Reunification of the Country, suggesting reunification with South Korea under a pan-national unified state, a Federation, leaving the two systems and governments intact, removing outside influence from the Korean peninsula, and cooperating on trade and foreign affairs.

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy sought to promote reunification through economic assistance and cooperation, rather than sanctions and military threats, and envisaged a three-stage process: increased cooperation through inter-Korean organizations, national unification with two autonomous regional governments, and finally the creation of a central national government.

When North and South Korea signed the June 15th North-South Joint Declaration in 2000, both sides acknowledged that “the low-level federation proposed by the North and the commonwealth system proposed by the South for the reunification of the country have similarity”, and agreed to work together for reunification in this direction in the future.

So since then, it has been clear that some sort of ‘one country, two systems’ model is the approach by which peaceful reunification may be pursued, at least for the foreseeable future. However, the devil is - as always - in the detail, and the complexities of practically advancing this vision across its many dimensions - security, political, economic and social - have so far defeated the best efforts of technocrats, and the limited timeframes of political opportunity.

In the meantime, support for reunification in South Korea has been falling, especially among young people. In the 1990s, the percentage of people in government polls who regarded reunification as essential was over 80%. But by 2011 that number had dropped to 56%. And according to a December 2017 survey released by the Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU), 72.1% of South Koreans in their 20s believed reunification to be unnecessary, and were more concerned about issues related to the economy, employment, and living costs. Furthermore, poll results indicate that a majority of South Koreans are not willing to see their living conditions suffer in order to accommodate the North.

However, if these obstacles can be overcome and if other nations will refrain from pursuing their own strategic interests at the expense of the Korean people, and though the costs of reunification may be daunting, the benefits will be enormous.

Most obviously, the economic benefits have often been focused on (though not always constructively). The costs of maintaining the division and military stand-off are vast, and entail additional incalculable opportunity costs. In the current context, both Koreas budget disproportionately on defense, and 2 million North Korean youth are bound to compulsory military service for two to ten years. Moreover, the division of the Korean Peninsula has negatively impacted development of infrastructure for transportation and communications that might have enhanced export-oriented economic development. On the other hand, it has been observed that the unification of Korea would create a considerable domestic market of some 80 million people, combine North Korea’s human and natural resources with South Korea’s technological capacities, and position the Korean Peninsula as a hub in the global trade and transportation system linking the Eurasian economic bloc and the Pacific.

But while the economic advantages and incentives may help to provide the driving impulse for the first steps towards reunification, much more attention needs to be given to the benefits in the political and social dimensions.

In the political realm, so much of South Korea’s painful history of military dictatorship and oppressive national security ideology has been based on the need - actual or perceived - to counter the threat of North Korea. Likewise, anyone who has seen North Korean propaganda against the South can attest to the extreme vitriol that runs through it.

In South Korea, the Gwangju Movement for Democracy is considered as the historical turning point at which Korean people began to challenge the national security ideology (against the North) which had been abused for so long by dictatorial regimes, and to overcome the so-called ‘red complex’. From the Gwangju experience an understanding grew that without pursuing reconciliation and reunification of the divided nation, it is not possible to achieve a peaceful Korean Peninsula in which the value of human rights and democracy is realized in its fullness. Gwangju was therefore the point at which the objectives of democracy and of reunification, isolated from each other until then, began to be understood in a holistic way.

Once the ‘enemy’ - against which the politics of hate and fear has been mobilized - becomes a partner, the liberating and moderating effects on political culture within both North and South are likely to be considerable.

In the social dimension, it is evident that North and South have much to learn from each other, to the mutual enrichment of both. While the North obviously has much to gain from the South’s experience of social modernization and global integration, some of the South’s social ills arising especially from the loss of family bonds and community solidarity may be ameliorated by values re-learnt from the North.

In any event, whatever model of reunification is ultimately pursued, the people of both Koreas will find in the international ecumenical movement - and I believe in many many other people and communities around the world - a great reservoir of goodwill and support for their efforts to create a peaceful and prosperous future together.

Peter Prove, Director of the World Council of Churches' Commission of the Churches on International Affairs