Glenn D. Paige (1989: 57)

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One way... is to adopt ancient yin-yang philosophical symbolism to express the combinatorial creativity (even non-violent dialectic) of northern red and southern blue striving purposively for the welfare of all within the circle of peaceful Korean unity.

-- Glenn D. Paige (1989:57)


The issue of the so-called reunification of the Korean peninsula is considered one of the most volatile in the world today. The two halves of the peninsula have each evolved into successful examples, one might say archetypes, of their forms of economic and political systems. Despite official policies calling for unification, the pleas of families divided for over forty years, and the decline of socialism, the Korean people remain divided after almost fifty years of independence. Why?

The answer to this question, if perfectly known, would also imply a prescription for achieving unification. Unfortunately, like most questions in political science, the answer is more complex than solely blaming the irrationality of Kim Il Sung, a man long portrayed in the American press as one of the most unscrupulous leaders of any nation on earth. The answer may be approximated by examining current internal and external factors affecting Korean unification.

Much of the literature on this issue refers to Korean "reunification." In a sense, this is a misnomer, for while Korea had been unified under various monarchal dynasties for over 1200 years, it had been a colony of Japan for the thirty-five years immediately preceding liberation in 1945. Korea has never been a unified republic. The term "reunification" expresses the desire of the Korean people to be united once again, but at what cost? The term fails to convey the ideal of self-determination which is an underlying theme in much of the literature. Since liberation, both parts of the peninsula have experienced non-indigenous forms of government and economic systems. Both parts of the peninsula have enjoyed certain measures of success in the context of these systems. But neither have achieved true democracy or independence from their patrons, be it a capitalist or socialist state.

Gregory Henderson and Richard Ned Lebow, in a chapter of the seminal study of Divided Nations in a Divided World (1974:434-6), identified the two primary problems faced by countries such as the Koreas. These problems include:

1. Identity. Divided states find it more difficult to claim uniqueness as a basis for cohesion. The justification for the two states is their ideological differences, which in turn, discourages economic cooperation and necessitates high military expenditures.

2. Successor status. Divided states are parts of a former whole. Each claims legitimacy as the "true" successor, and each undermines the claims of legitimacy of the other. For many divided states, and the Koreas have not been exceptions, the goal of unification is to destroy the rival state.

Henderson and Lebow then proceed to postulate four stages of division (ibid: 439-41). These stages are:

1. Initial division: mutual non-recognition; sole claim of legitimacy; ideological conflict; fortified, closed borders; use of propaganda, terrorism, and armed conflict against the rival.

2. Middle term: tacit acceptance of coexistence; decline in ideological confrontation; exchange of ideas; decline in covert and overt hostilities; decline in mutual perceptions of the likelihood of military confrontation.

3. Rapprochement: economic cooperation in tourism and trade; political cooperation on external issues and security; exchange of people and ideas; and the establishment of formal consultative machinery.

4. Absorption of one state by the other due to elimination of rivalry by allies and integration.

Henderson and Lebow's model was found accurate when tested against recent unification of the Germanies, but whether it applies as well to the Koreas remains problematic. One set of reasons is discussed in the second part of this paper. Current domestic events in the Koreas can be interpreted in both optimistic and pessimistic fashions. Moreover, two Koreas continue to figure prominently in the foreign policy objectives of the four major powers in east Asia, as will be explored in the third section of this essay. Finally, there are major differences as well as similarities between the two Germanies and the two Koreas. These differences and the lessons from German unification provide important considerations for the discussion. This paper will survey the alternative pathways proposed for Korean unification and will conclude with the author's own assessment of the prospects for peaceful unification.

How the Koreas will respond to the issue of unification depends on their problem-solving abilities. Glenn D. Paige, professor of nonviolent political science at the University of Hawaii Institute of Peace Studies, is confident that Koreans have a unique cultural potential for achieving nonviolent solutions to global political problems. He suggests that these capabilities be directed into solving not only the unification issue, but other global questions as well. In an essay more exhortative than explanatory, he identifies these cultural traits as including the wide-spread prevalence of the yin-yang philosophical symbol, useful for identifying underlying commonalities of seemingly disparate positions. Paige also cites the life-respecting humanist roots of Korean traditions and their nonviolent creation myth. He also notes that civil authorities prevailed over military officials in traditional society. Historically, Koreans were more apt to be victims than aggressors in territorial disputes. He identifies life-affirming, pacifist streams in traditional philosophy and religion, including Confucianism and Buddhism, as well as more recent forms of Marxist humanism and Christian nonviolent resistance. In final support of his argument, Paige notes that Koreans have intimate knowledge of the four major powers in the region, both as allies and as aggressors. They include the Chinese, the Japanese, the Russians, and the Americans.

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