South Korea's Unification Plan 'No One Wants to Just Swallow Up the North'

Is it possible that Korea will ever reunite? People in the South firmly believe it will happen -- and are even starting to save up money for the massive costs it would entail. In an interview, South Korea's unification minister, Yu Woo-ik, shares his assessment of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and what his country could learn from Germany.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Minister Yu, Russian government advisers believe Korea will reunite within the next 20 years. Do you share this belief?

Yu: Of course we have that firm goal, but the point in time is unimportant. What is important now is that we not lose our belief that Pyongyang will overcome its doubts about our honest intentions and negotiate seriously with us. No one here is hoping for a collapse of the regime or wants to simply swallow up the North. We want a peaceful reunification and to make it possible for all refugees to decide voluntarily where they want to live.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The new regime in the north under Kim Jong Un, the young son of Kim Jong Il, who died in December, is also talking a lot about reunification right now. Is that talk credible?

Yu: We have to create mutual trust. For that to happen, we need a new channel of dialogue between the two countries that remains stable, independent of the respective current political situations.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Has the government in Pyongyang now opened the door to that, with its surprise announcement that it will stop uranium enrichment and halt nuclear tests?

Yu: North Korea has at least recognized that the nuclear issue has considerable influence on whether or not a common dialogue can advance -- and that an appropriate signal is important. Now we will have to see how dependable this announcement really is.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you have doubts about its seriousness?

Yu: It is still too early to conclusively assess that. But it is a good signal that the government in the North is willing to move. If the announced steps are indeed implemented, then it will achieve the precondition for new talks -- also with an expanded number of parties, as we have always demanded.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you mean that, unless there is a swift resumption of the six-party talks, which also include China, Russia, Japan and the US, nothing will move forward on the issue of reunification either?

Yu: Absolutely. The issue of the inter-Korean dialogue and the six-party talks over Korea's future are going hand in hand as the wheels on a car. If one stands still, then the vehicle doesn't move forward. All progress in relations in the last 20 years has always happened in parallel with the talks.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is the new regime stable enough yet for serious negotiations?

Yu: We are assuming that North Korea still needs a bit more time. At the moment, the country is in a phase of "testament politics" following Kim Jong Il's death, and foreign policy activities have been cut back a bit. But we are hoping that the new leadership will stabilize itself quickly and that it will confidently take up the dialogue instead of cementing old structures. North Korea must now decide whether it is serious about its offer or if it instead wants to insist on sticking to its earlier positions, including its nuclear policies, and therefore isolate itself further. If it chooses the latter, then its people will continue to suffer.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As part of your work plan for this year, you have announced "substantial preparations" for unification. What does that mean?

Yu: We need to act now if we are serious about reunification. To this end, we need a diplomatic approach for reunification that also includes neighboring countries. We also need to make financial resources available. After all, we learned from Germany that reunification costs a lot of money.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That's why researchers and experts in Seoul are demanding a special tax or levy like Germany's so-called solidarity surcharge, which is levied on all taxpayers and funnels much of that money toward investment in infrastructure in the states that belonged to the former East Germany.

Yu: A reunification tax would mean forcing people (to do something). We would prefer to focus on a voluntary approach. The government is therefore planning to set up a unification fund worth about €55 billion that should be approved by parliament before elections this summer. The seed capital would come from the government and the rest would be donated from Koreans living here and abroad.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: If you include the transfer costs, then German unity cost more than €1 trillion -- much more than your planned fund.

Yu: Of course it may turn out that we will need five times the amount contained in the fund just in the first year. But this isn't just about money -- it's about the desire for unity. If people see others standing in line to give money -- as happened when (South Koreans) voluntarily collected gold in 1998 to help us successfully combat the economic crisis together -- then the symbolic value is immeasurable, even for people in the North. It would show that we are serious about this.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But the desire for reunification is rapidly shrinking in your country. Particularly among young South Koreans, the level of support is low -- far below 50 percent -- because they are afraid of the economic consequences it could have.

Yu: People have gotten used to the division. And up until now we have always only emphasized the costs of reunification, but never the costs of division. Those aren't just the costs related to refugees or humanitarian aid programs for Pyongyang, for example to help fight famines. There are also security policy and social policy costs. But we would only have to pay the money for reunification once, and the benefits would be for ever.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Which kind of aid do you expect from Germany ?

Yu: The conditions of German reunification are not directly comparable, but Korea can still learn from Germany's experiences. In particular, we should not come into the situation unprepared, and we should look at how the integration of East and West was tackled.

Correction: An earlier version of this interview stated that the planned unification fund would be comprised of €55 million. The figure is actually €55 billion. We apologize for the error.

Interview conducted by Manfred Ertel
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