The Koreas: To Reunify or Not?

Kim Jong Il's sudden death sent Seoul scrambling — and reignited decades-old questions about the future of the Korean Peninsula. Should South Korea President Lee Myung Bak push for unification?

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South Korean Presidential Residence via Getty Images

South Korean President Lee Myung Bak presides over an emergency Cabinet meeting in Seoul on Dec. 19, 2011, to discuss national-security issues arising from the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il

More than any other nation, South Korea feels most threatened by the North. Indeed, the two neighbors are still technically at war. So Pyongyang’s announcement yesterday of Kim Jong Il’s death sent Seoul scrambling. Frazzled lawmakers packed up their things and rushed out of party meetings. The KOSPI tumbled. According to the South Korean press, the nation’s Defense Minister heard the news from North Korean television like millions of others. South Korean President Lee Myung Bak cleared his desk for the day and put his nation’s military on the highest alert.

Since he came to power in 2008, Lee, a former CEO, has taken a no-nonsense approach to the unpredictable North. He reversed the South’s nearly decade-long “sunshine policy” of engagement with Pyongyang, which was forged to persuade the North to behave better. Instead, Lee, 70, played hardball. Referring to the previous years as the “lost decade,” Lee put into place a revised strategy that made South Korean aid contingent on the North’s dismantling its arm program.

(PHOTOS: Mourning the Dear Leader)

It wasn’t coldhearted as much as an attempt to rein in the North. “Lee took a very tough line toward North Korea,” says Gi-Wook Shin, director of the Seoul-based Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center. Shin likens the administrations’ differing policies to parents who take opposing disciplinary roles for the good of their child. “He has been playing the ‘bad cop’ role. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad.” Nevertheless, Lee’s approach has drawn its share of criticism. It was under his watch that Pyongyang’s worst provocations in recent North-South relations have taken place: the sinking of a South Korean warship in March 2010, which killed 46 sailors, and less than a year later, the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which killed two soldiers and two civilians.

Now that Kim is gone, Lee could seize the moment to smooth things over. A similar opportunity presented itself to Seoul in 1994, after the death of Kim’s father, longtime North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. Then South Korean President Kim Young Sam was scheduled to meet Kim Il Sung for a much anticipated summit, but the Great Leader died of a sudden heart attack before the date. Kim Young Sam “didn’t show any goodwill toward North Korea” after the death, says Shin, which angered Pyongyang. On Tuesday, Seoul sent condolences to Pyongyang and said some representatives, but not an official delegation, might attend next week’s funeral. “This could be an opportunity for Lee to improve relations with North Korea,” says Shin, “if he wants to.”

(MORE: Kim’s Death: Jitters in Northeast Asia)

Should he want to? A conciliatory gesture would not go down well with Lee’s conservative base, and as South Korea enters an election year, it might be a political risk that he and his party are unwilling to take. But there is also the larger question of whether closer ties guarantee more stability, especially in a post-Kim era. Since his inauguration, Lee has emphasized that South Korea’s foreign policy should not be defined by its relations with the North, and focused on strengthening ties with the U.S., China, Japan and Russia.

After the Korean War, South Korea’s de facto foreign policy was anticommunist — ergo anti-North — for more than 20 years. There were moments when relations thawed, like the planned summit in 1994, but things didn’t really change until the election of Kim Dae Jung in 1997 and the introduction of the sunshine policy. Wayne Patterson, a history professor at St. Norbert College in the U.S., sums up the thinking behind Kim Dae Jung’s rapprochement: “Maybe if we’re nice to North Korea, they’ll be nice back.”

They weren’t. Kim Dae Jung met with Kim Jong Il in 2000, a landmark summit that helped earn him a Nobel Peace Prize and for which, it later came out, Seoul gave about $500 million to Pyongyang. After the South and the U.S. started delivering food aid to the North, where a catastrophic famine had killed up to 2 million people in the 1990s, evidence began piling up that the North Korean military was skimming off a significant portion of the aid. Pyongyang would not allow international monitors in to verify that the food was going to the children and elderly citizens who needed it most. Meanwhile, the North continued to build up its nuclear arms program, testing its first nuclear weapon in 2006. (The second and last was in 2009.) “To cut to the bottom line, it didn’t work,” says Patterson. Kim Dae Jung’s successor, Roh Moo Hyun, continued the policy, but, notes Patterson, “North Korea did not modify its behavior.”

(PHOTOS: Looking Back at Former President Kim Dae Jung)

Many analysts question whether Kim Jong Un, one of Kim Jong Il’s sons and the named successor, is ready to take the reins of his family dynasty after only a little over a year in the spotlight at his father’s side. “Nobody will really challenge him,” says Shin. “But that doesn’t mean he’ll succeed.” If the young Kim and his advisers can’t keep their frail economy afloat, the nation could face an economic collapse — or even a revolt. “A popular uprising is very unlikely, but it’s not out of the question,” says Charles Armstrong, director of the Center for Korean Research at Columbia University. “Nobody predicted the Arab Spring a year ago.”

Given a crisis of that magnitude, Lee’s administration may not be able to resist gunning for a unified Korean Peninsula. “Seoul is looking very carefully to see any signs of instability or change in North Korea following the death of Kim,” says Armstrong. The idea has loomed large in South Korea’s national psyche ever since the countries were split at the end of World War II, though today the notion’s popular support stems more from political correctness than real conviction that life would be better under unification. There are, after all, some clues as to what might await the South. When West Germany integrated East Germany, the cost of absorbing the poorer nation was enormous, says Patterson, and the wealth gap between South and North Korea is much larger than it was between East and West Germany.

Still, the South Korean government is doing its best to keep unification relevant. Last year it proposed a special tax that would set aside money to help pay for the cost of one day integrating the North into the domestic economy. Recently it launched an online television channel aimed at getting South Korea’s younger generation, for whom the war is distant history, thinking about reuniting with the North. But even those who publicly support the concept of a unified Korean Peninsula may privately question whether South Korea can handle it. “What would happen if 15 million starving, poor North Koreans flood into the border looking for jobs and homes?” Patterson says. “Can [they] actually do it?”

Also, when it comes to erratic nuclear states, there is no such thing as a bilateral decision. Since 2003, South Korea has been joined by the U.S., Russia, China and Japan in the so-called six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. Though the talks have been stalled since 2008, just days before Kim’s death, news emerged that a major announcement over U.S. food aid and Pyongyang’s cessation of uranium enrichment would soon be made. That’s now on ice — as probably is any chance of change between the Koreas.