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Monday, May 20, 2024

A new proposal for unifying the two Koreas

South Korea’s 22nd parliamentary election is now over. On Apr. 10, the same day as the South Korean election, Kim Jong Un paid a visit to the Kim Jong Il Military and Political Academy. Kim addressed the future military commanders and anti-South commandos in training, emphasizing that “now is the time to be more thoroughly prepared for a war than ever before.”

Revisions to North Korea’s constitution – a process which pushed back the scheduled March elections and April convention of the 15th Supreme People’s Committee – appear to be wrapping up. In early 2024, Kim formally rejected the idea of reunification and a common Korean people (minjok). As these revisions make their way into the constitution, Kim’s “great change” (division with South Korea and a willingness to go to war) will likely accelerate from here on out.

The current state of affairs

Experts in South Korea and around the world have expressed a wide variety of stances about options for unification going forward and what might happen in the case of an inter-Korean military confrontation or similar crisis scenario after Kim adds the “territoriality clause” to North Korea’s socialist constitution. 

At his Mar. 1 address, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol decried Kim Jong Un’s “two-state narrative” as being opposed to both reunification and the idea of a unified Korean nation, asserting that “unification is precisely what is needed to expand the universal values of freedom and human rights.”

Yoon’s declaration may have left just as great a mark on the history of Korean unification as Kim Jong Un’s “two state narrative.” His announcement formalized reunification as a key task in the history of the Korean people that can never be forsaken. He also stressed moving beyond the previous focus on intergovernmental dialogue and cooperation to place emphasis on expanding universal human values and improving quality of life for North Korean residents. 

As a result, the Ministry of Unification has sped up a number of the unification support efforts that it began at the start of the Yoon administration and is widely expected to present an outline of these efforts in time for the Aug. 15 Liberation Day holiday. 

Important points to consider going forward

The world is now moving beyond traditional notions of ethno-nationality and more widely embracing the roles and rights of individuals as members of the “global village,” as citizens, and as individual persons. In other words, the borders between countries are growing blurred by the increasingly wide array of online and offline interactions between states. As a result, multi-nationality and multiculturalism have become buzzwords for an era defined by low birth rates and aging societies.

With South Korea’s expected entrance into the G7 and the prospect of becoming a multicultural country on the horizon, unification must go beyond the concept of a common Korean people to focus on achieving universal human values.*

Limitations of the Korean national community unification formula

As the name suggests, the 1994 “Korean National Community Unification Formula” operates on the framework based around a national ethnic community. The formula proposes a gradual, three-stage process towards unification: 1) reconciliation and cooperation, 2) a Korean Union, and 3) complete national unification. We must first achieve stage one, “reconciliation and cooperation.”

However, when we look back on the history of our North Korean policy, the tactics employed by Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un of swinging back and forth between hardline and moderate stances have  engulfed previous policies in debate about South Korea’s “one-sided concessions,” we can see that we have yet to clear the threshold to even enter Stage 1.

This is the result of failing to properly understand North Korea and its strategies, as well as changes to the world order. Instead, South Korea has either underestimated North Korea or based too much of its approach on emotion and idealism. As a result, it is clear that North Korea ended up taking the reins of the unification process and has been pushing South Korea around ever since.

A new formula for unification

Looking at succession and development, my proposed new formula for unification builds upon the existing framework of “one people, one country, one system, one government” and the National Community Unification Formula’s multi-stage approach.

First, I would change the plan’s name from the “Korean National Community Unification Formula” to the “Free Peace Community Unification Formula,” removing the exclusionary concept behind “national community” in favor of prioritizing a more inclusive values-focused model.

Second, I believe we need to expand the fundamental principles of the plan from “independence, peace, and democracy” to “freedom, peace, democracy, denuclearization, and co-prosperity.” I chose to remove the principle of “independence” since it could be misunderstood by neighboring countries and possibly be misappropriated as part of North Korea’s long standing narrative about withdrawing US troops from the Korean Peninsula. 

By adding in universal human values and declaring that “unification is about expanding freedom, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and contributing to the co-prosperity of mankind,” we can preemptively address the concerns of key players like the United States and China while promoting real change in North Korea.

Third, I propose making the current unification formula more reflective of reality by adding a Stage 0, “Normalizing the North Korean Regime.” While it is possible in theory for two countries with different ideologies, political systems, and cultures to smoothly work together or come together to form a union, in reality, this is virtually impossible. In particular, under circumstances (like the present) in which North Korea rejects dialogue, cooperation and exchange, we will inevitably end up failing yet again because we are trying to grab at something inherently out of reach.

Fourth, I would change the names of the other stages in the unification formula to eliminate overly emotional or moral undertones and references to a two-state system. Stage 1 “Reconciliation and Cooperation” would be renamed “Coexistence and Co-prosperity.” Stage 2 “Korean Union” would become “De Facto Reunification,” and Stage 3 “National Unification” would be renamed “Complete Unification.”

More concretely, “Coexistence and Co-prosperity” refers to a stage in which North and South Korea develop together as an economic and cultural community. “De Facto Unification” envisions a time in which North Korea is no longer a socialist dictatorship but rather a liberal democracy with a market economy similar to South Korea, allowing the two states to form a union at the legal and systematic level.

Especially now that Kim Jong Un has rejected the idea of a common Korean people and unification and keeps tossing around the possibility of “war at any time,” we must concentrate our efforts on Stage 0, “normalizing the North Korean regime,” while pushing the North to respond favorably to “coexistence and co-prosperity.” This normalization would entail relentlessly pushing for five “big changes” in North Korea: denuclearization, liberalization, marketization, globalization, and friendly relations with South Korea.


Unification plans must allow for a broad spectrum of possibilities. In a liberal democratic society with a diversity of opinions like South Korea, it is impossible for 100% of society to agree. However, we must carry out systematic discussion to gradually build popular consensus among Korean citizens, with the exception of those at radical extremes.

The process by which we do so will be extremely important. The government must bolster our security posture while working together with the parliament to encourage public buy-in for a new unification formula. In particular, the government should actively involve the future generations, especially high school and university students, to make them feel that they have a role to play as actors for unification.

The government should further strengthen its security posture and work with the parliament to build public consensus on the new reunification plan. In particular, it should actively involve the future generations, such as secondary and university students, and give them a sense of role as unification agents.

We also cannot overlook the importance of cooperation from nearby countries and international mechanisms in creating a lasting peace on the peninsula and setting out the path for unification. Unification is not just a Korean problem but an international problem. While the road to unification leads straight to North Korea, when the dictator of the north blocks the road, international cooperation opens a way to move around him.

In considering South Korea’s recently heightened international status and role as an active participant in the history of world civilization, I believe that we must move beyond our existing, narrow view of the peninsula and unification and emphasize the need for bold strategies “for the world, for the future, and for unification.” I also firmly believe that the day in which the next generation of North Koreans and our own young generation can communicate in online and offline exchanges will be a critical milestone in realizing the “free peace community” on the Korean Peninsula.

That future is not so far away. We are currently in a pitch-black night, but I can feel that dawn is coming.

*According to a monthly immigration and foreign resident policy statistics report released by the Ministry of Justice’s immigration and foreign resident policy division in Dec. 2023, the number of foreign nationals residing in South Korea increased 11.7% compared to the previous year. The report also stated that foreign nationals (257,584 people) now made up 4.89% of the South Korean population. The OECD classifies a country in which 5% or more of the country’s population comes from an immigrant background as a ‘multicultural or multi-ethnic country. (2024.1.17 Korea Net News)

Translated by Rose Adams. Edited by Robert Lauler.

Views expressed in this guest column do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK. Please send any comments or questions about this article to dailynkenglish@uni-media.net.

Read in Korean

April 16, 2024 at 01:30PM

by DailyNK(North Korean Media)

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