Korea has been a divided country for 70 years. Is reunification still possible, and if so, what would need to happen to make it happen? Those were among the intriguing questions that Soo-Hyuck Lee, former deputy minister of foreign affairs and trade of the Republic of Korea—familiarly known as South Korea—posed when he delivered the Law School’s prestigious 2014 Clarke Lecture last October 6 in Myron Taylor Hall.
Introduced by Dean Eduardo Peñalver and Professor Annelise Riles, director of the Law School’s Clarke Program in East Asian Law and Culture, Lee is currently a professor at Dankook University and dean of its Human Resources Development Center and Humanities Academy. He was South Korea's representative in negotiations with North Korea and the architect of the six-party talks among North Korea, South Korea, China, the United States, Russia, and Japan. The talks, which aimed to resolve the conflict on the Korean Peninsula after North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003, were disbanded in 2009 when North Korea pulled out.
Some history: When World War II ended in 1945, the United States and the Soviet Union took over Korea’s trusteeship from a defeated Japan, with the plan to depart once a free and independent Korean government was established. But, predictably, the two superpowers favored different forms of governance and different Korean candidates. The conflict led to the Korean War in 1950-1953, which ended with two Koreas, pro-Western and capitalist in the south, pro-Soviet and Communist in the north.
In the south, a democratic republic emerged, with such economic success in recent years that it has been called one of Asia's four "tigers" (the others are Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan). The north, which got help from the Soviets in building its large nuclear arsenal, became a tightly controlled dictatorship under three generations of the ambitious Kim family, which has ruled North Korea since 1948.
One certainty: "We can't expect reunification as long as the Kim family is in power and maintains its tight control," Lee said. But, pragmatically speaking, the North Korean regime is not likely to collapse anytime soon, regardless of whether the country's current ruler, Kim Jong-un, holds onto power or not, said Lee.
Lee, who was formerly South Korea's ambassador to Germany, noted that it too was a divided country-sliced in two in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II following the defeat of Hitler's Third Reich. It took 45 years and Soviet Union leader Mikael Gorbachev's perestroika policy to bring about reunification then, Lee said. "The UK, France, and most other countries opposed it, but finally they were forced to accept it.
While Lee said he was tempted to draw parallels between Germany and Korea, there were too many differences to do so. "Can we find such a man [as Gorbachev] in North Korea or China?" he asked. "Would China accept it [a reunified Korea]? Leave solders to enforce it? Or would an alliance between the U.S. and South Korea support it? Such an alliance won't arrive so quickly," he cautioned.
But the biggest obstacle to reunification remains North Korea's nuclear capability, Lee said. "We hope that North Korea will dismantle their nuclear program, and that will lead to reunification," he said, but it might take decades.
Meanwhile, "North Korea promised the U.S. that it would freeze all of its nuclear programs but didn't keep those promises," he noted. In a quiet but firm voice, he told the audience that, since signing a disarmament agreement: "North Korea has conducted nuclear tests three times and long-range missile tests three times. They have increased their nuclear capability in terms of quantity and quality and have rebuffed sanctions and demands to stop." The reason given? "They need their nuclear capability for their survival."
Might North Korea ever actually use its nuclear weapons against South Korea if it felt threatened? "It's not either-or, it's multidimensional," Lee explained. "Stability in North Korea is of utmost interest to China. Traditionally, balance of power, not aggression, has been the best way to achieve it," he said. "China may need North Korea for the present. If so, the U.S. may want to keep its soldiers on the Korean peninsula."
"South Korea's strategy is to prepare military capability and make North Korea fearful of total war," Lee commented. "And North Korea's is to create North Korean phobia. The dilemma is its ultimate weapon might ultimately be useless."
The good news: "Some of these long and patient negotiations might lead to solutions," said Lee hopefully.
LL.M. student Tedi Dobi, from Albania, who has spent time in North Korea, said about Lee's talk: "It's interesting to hear an account from an expert who has direct relations with the authorities in North Korea and comes from a similar culture. Normally, what we hear about North Korea in the media is filtered."
-Linda Brandt Myers