Korean dream centres around peaceful unification

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Geopolitical Notes From India

M D Nalapat

EACH time this columnist visits East Asia, the difference between this corner of the world and South Asia becomes obvious and painful. Seoul, the capital of South Korea, is a city as modern as any in the world, and although Incheon airport is not as big as its counterparts in Delhi or Beijing, it is functional, and the lines before immigration counters are orderly and flow smoothly. The only problem was getting there. The 7.30 pm Asiana Airlines flight from Delhi did not have flatbeds even in Business Class, and sleep during the flight therefore proved elusive. Asiana is similar to several world airlines in choosing its more obsolete aircraft to fly on South Asian routes. India’s civil aviation ministry has been generous in giving foreign airlines landing rights in the country’s busiest airports, without at the same time insisting that the airline companies fly aircraft that are as modern on routes to and from Indian airports as is the case in flights from and to European and North American destinations.
However, despite the old fashioned seats on board, the cabin crew epitomised the courtesy and efficiency that is so characteristic of the Korean people, and just before 6 am, the flight landed at Seoul to zero degree temperature. The city is the venue for the One Korea Conference organised by the Global Peace Foundation, whose Chairperson, Preston Moon, wrote a book entitled the “Korean Dream” in 2014. He is optimistic that the Korean peninsula too will soon get united, the way East and West Germany were in 1989. That coming together took the collapse of the Soviet Union to materialise. Clearly, a similar geopolitical shock will need to occur before the Korean peninsula gets unified in a way not seen since 1945, the year when the defeat of Japan ensured that the people of the peninsula became free. A country and a people that is over 5000 years old in terms of history, Korea has been through several trials that continue to the present.
Notwithstanding adverse circumstances, the southern half of the peninsula has become a major economy, something obvious in Seoul, where infrastructure is of a high standard. Much international commentary on the Korean peninsula is based on the implicit premise that its history began in 1945,with the close of the 1939-45 global war between the US, Russia and the British Empire on one side and Japan and Germany on the other. However, the “Korean Dream” is set in the context of the 5000-year history of the Korean people, and is therefore optimistic that the relatively short period of separation will end. Certainly, the Korean people have a distinctive personality and character, although vastly different circumstances in the north and the south have resulted in differences in personality between those from the two sides.
Should the two sides come together, however, such differences are likely to last less than a generation, and a unified peninsula could challenge Japan in economic growth, especially because Asia’s most modern economy has been going through a period of sluggish growth for over two decades. The Japanese being orderly and focussed, such a decline in economic conditions has not created the unrest or even the pain that would have been the case in some other countries. Indeed, the downside of economic slowdown has been shared across the board in Japan rather than bundled onto just the lower economic deciles, as has been the case in the US, where the adage “the rich have become richer and the poor poorer” has come true. In South Korea, anger has grown against the “Chaebols”, the ultra-large companies that dominate the RoC (South Korean) economy, and this has fuelled a thirst for accountability that has seen some of the biggest businesspersons in South Korea go to jail on charges of corruption.
The last time this columnist spoke on Korean unification in Seoul, it was a year ago, and the streets surrounding the National Assembly (where the talk took place) were filled with protesters demanding the resignation of President Park. That took place, as did her subsequent jailing, and the elections which followed brought in Moon Jae-in, a liberal politician who seeks better relations with Pyongyang. However, the missile launches and nuclear tests of the DPRK (North Korea) have opened the possibility of a conflict between the US and Japan on one side and North Korea on the other, a situation that is causing considerable anxiety in Beijing, which does not wish to see the North Korean regime implode the way the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) did during 1991 when it was headed by Mikhail Gorbachev. The worry is that a war would ensure that millions of refugees from North Korea would move towards the border with China.
Given the examples of Iraq, Libya and Syria, where the US and its allies turned on local leaders even after they had handed over WMD stocks to the NATO countries, it is all but impossible that North Korea will agree to surrender its WMD, thereby placing itself at the mercy of the US and its allies, principal among which in the region is Japan, the former colonial master of the Korean peninsula and still therefore as unpopular among the Korean people as is the case in neighbouring China, which still remembers the invasion of Japan in the 1930s, a conflict that caused millions of deaths and tens of millions of lives to get dislocated. The future is hidden from view, and it is not clear as to what will take place in the Korean peninsula over the coming years. Will President Trump make good on his repeated warnings to North Korea and launch a war ? By now, the DPRK has sufficient firepower to cause significant damage, if not to the US, then certainly to Japan as well as to South Korea.
There has been much talk of “Red Lines”, the crossing of which by a country invites retaliation from the other side. There are also what may be called “Black Lines”, the crossing of which paralyses the other side and makes retaliatory action impossible. Such would be the case were Pyongyang to develop the capability to launch a nuclear attack on the continental US. At present, it is probably close to gaining the capacity to launch such an attack on Japan. Should such a capability act as a “black line” and thereby prevent the US from going to war ? Certainly the risks of war are high, which is why more and more people in the peninsula are hoping that Preston Moon is correct, and that there will be a peaceful unification of the Korean peninsula. However, this is an outcome rationalised not by the cold logic o geopolitics but by faith that the Almighty will ensure that a people divided for seven decades will finally unite once more.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.