The current division of the Korean Peninsula is the result of decisions taken at the end of World War II. In 1910, the Empire of Japan annexed Korea, and ruled over it until its defeat in World War II. The Korean independence agreement officially occurred on 1 December 1943, when the United States, China, and Great Britain signed the Cairo Conference, which stated: "The aforesaid three powers, mindful of the enslavement of the people of Korea, are determined that 'in due course' Korea shall become free and independent". In 1945, the United Nations developed plans for trusteeship administration of Korea.
The division of the peninsula into two military occupation zones was agreed — a northern zone administered by the Soviet Union and a southern zone administered by the United States. At midnight on 10 August 1945, two army lieutenant colonels selected the 38th parallel as a dividing line. Japanese troops to the North of this line were to surrender to the Soviet Union and troops to the South of this line would surrender to the United States. This was not originally intended to result in a long-lasting partition, but Cold War politics resulted in the establishment of two separate governments in the two zones in 1948 and rising tensions prevented cooperation. The desire of many Koreans for a peaceful unification was ended when the Korean War broke out in 1950. In June 1950, North Korea began the Korean War by invading South Korea, with Mao Zedong encouraging confrontation with the United States and Joseph Stalin reluctantly supporting the invasion. After three years of fighting that involved both Koreas, China and United Nations forces led by the U.S., the war ended with an armistice agreement at approximately the same boundary.
Despite now being politically separate entities, the governments of North and South Korea have proclaimed the eventual restoration of Korea as a single state as a goal. After the "Nixon Shock" in 1971 that led to détente between the United States and China, the North and South Korean governments made a joint announcement on July 4, 1972 that a representative of each government had secretly visited the capital city of the other side and that both sides had agreed to a North-South Joint Communiqué, outlining the steps to be taken towards achieving a peaceful reunification of the country:
- Unification shall be achieved through independent Korean efforts without being subject to external imposition of interference
- Unification shall be achieved through peaceful means, and not through the use of force against each other.
- As a homogeneous people, a great national unity shall be sought above all, transcending difference in ideas, ideologies, and systems
- In order to ease tensions, and foster an atmosphere of mutual trust between the South and the North, the two sides have agreed not to slander or defame each other, not to undertake armed provocations whether on a large or small scale, and to take positive measures to prevent inadvertent military incidents.
- The two sides, in order to restore severed national ties, promote mutual understanding, and expedite independent peaceful unification, have agreed to carry out various exchanges in many fields.
- The two sides have agreed to cooperate positively with each other to seek early success of the North-South Red Cross talks, which are underway with the fervent expectations of the entire people.
- The two sides, in order to prevent the outbreak of unexpected military incidents and to deal directly, promptly, and accurately with problems arising between the North and the South, have agreed to install a direct telephone line between Seoul and Pyongyang.
- The two sides, in order to implement the aforementioned agreed upon items, to solve various problems existing between the North and the South, and to settle the unification problem on the basis of the agreed upon principles for unification of the Fatherland, have agreed to establish and operate a North-South Coordinating Committee cochaired by Direction Yi Hurak [representing the South] and Direction Kim Yongju [representing the North].
- The two sides, firmly convinced that the aforementioned agreed upon items correspond with the common aspirations of the entire people, who are anxious to see an early unification of the Fatherland, hereby solemnly pledge before the entire Korean people that they will faithfully carry out these agreed upon items."
The agreement outlined the steps to be taken towards achieving a peaceful reunification of the country. However, the North-South Coordination Committee was disbanded the following year after no progress had been made towards implementing the agreement. In January 1989, the founder of Hyundai, Jung Ju-young, toured North Korea and promoted tourism in Mount Kumgang. After a twelve-year hiatus, the prime ministers of the two Koreas met in Seoul in September 1990 to engage in the Inter-Korean Summits or High-Level Talks. In December, the two countries reached an agreement on issues of reconciliation, nonaggression, cooperation, and exchange between North and South in "The Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Cooperation, and Exchange Between North and South", but these talks collapsed over inspection of nuclear facilities. In 1994, after former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's visit to Pyongyang, the leaders of the two Koreas agreed to meet with each other, but the meeting was prevented by the death of Kim Il-sung that July.
In June 2000, North and South Korea signed the June 15th North-South Joint Declaration, in which both sides made promises to seek out a peaceful reunification:
- The North and the South agreed to solve the question of the country's reunification independently by the concerted efforts of the Korean nation responsible for it.
- The North and the South, recognizing that the low-level federation proposed by the North and the commonwealth system proposed by the South for the reunification of the country have similarity, agreed to work together for the reunification in this direction in the future.
- The North and the South agreed to settle humanitarian issues as early as possible, including the exchange of visiting groups of separated families and relatives and the issue of unconverted long-term prisoners, to mark August 15 this year.
- The North and the South agreed to promote the balanced development of the national economy through economic cooperation and build mutual confidence by activating cooperation and exchange in all fields, social, cultural, sports, public health, environmental and so on.
- The North and the South agreed to hold an authority-to-authority negotiation as soon as possible to put the above-mentioned agreed points into speedy operation.
A unified Korean team marched in the opening ceremonies of the 2000, 2004, and 2006 Olympics, but the North and South Korean national teams competed separately. There were plans for a truly unified team at the 2008 Summer Olympics, but the two countries were unable to agree on the details of its implementation. In the 1991 World Table Tennis Championships in Chiba, Japan, the two countries formed a unified team.
Eventual political integration of the Koreas under a democratic government from the South is generally viewed as inevitable by the U.S. and South Korea. However, the nature of unification, i.e. through North Korean collapse or gradual integration of the North and South, is still a topic of intense political debate and even conflict among interested parties, who include both Koreas, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States.
Relations between the two Koreas have been strained in recent years, with provocative actions taken under the rule of Kim Jong-il (such as the suspected torpedoing of the ROKS Cheonan and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island) and his son, Kim Jong-un (such as the rocket launches in April and December of 2012 and North Korea's third nuclear test). Kim Jong-un's sudden accession and limited experience governing have also stoked fears about power struggles among different factions leading to future instability on the Korean Peninsula.
Reunification remains a long-term goal for the governments of both North and South Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made calls in his 2012 New Year's Day speech to "remove confrontation" between the two countries and implement previous joint agreements for increased economic and political cooperation. The South Korean Ministry of Unification redoubled their efforts in 2011 and 2012 to raise awareness of the issue, launching a variety show (Miracle Audition) and an Internet sitcom with pro-unification themes. The Ministry already promotes curriculum in elementary schooling, such as a government-issued textbook about North Korea titled "We Are One" and reunification-themed arts and crafts projects.
Support for reunification among the younger generations in South Korea has been seen by some as faltering, with the percent of people in government polls who regarded reunification as essential dropping from more than eighty percent in the 1990s to fifty-six percent. Among Koreans in their twenties, forty-one percent agreed with the statement (and only about twenty percent of teenagers). Many suspect that younger generations, not sharing previous generations' perception of Korea's unnatural division, are more concerned with South Korea's economic development and hesitant to singlehandedly take on North Korean integration and the associated costs (which some estimates put as high as $1 trillion).
Introduced by the Millennium Democratic Party under President Kim Dae-jung, as part of a campaign pledge to "actively pursue reconciliation and cooperation" with North Korea, the Sunshine Policy was intended to create conditions of economic assistance and cooperation for reunification, rather than sanctions and military threats. The plan was divided into three parts: increased cooperation through inter-Korean organizations (while maintaining separate systems in the North and South), national unification with two autonomous regional governments, and finally the creation of a central national government. In 1998, Kim approved large shipments of food aid to the North Korean government, lifted limits on business deals between North Korean and South Korean firms, and even called for a stop to the American economic embargo against the North. In June 2000, the leaders of North and South Korea met in Pyongyang and shook hands for the first time since the division of Korea.
Despite the continuation of the Sunshine Policy under the Roh administration, it was eventually declared a failure by the Ministry of Unification in November 2010 over issues of North Korea's nuclear weapons program, stymied further negotiations, and newly strained relations between the two Koreas.
Opponents of the Sunshine Policy argue that dialogue and trade with North Korea did nothing to improve prospects for peaceful reunification, despite the transfer of large funds to the North Korean government by President Kim Dae-jung, and only allowed the North Korean government to retain its hold on power. Others, such as the Saenuri Party, believe South Korea should remain prepared for the event of a North Korean attack. Hardline policy supporters also argue that the continued and maximised isolation of the North will lead to the country's collapse, after which the territory could be absorbed by force into the Republic of Korea.
In November 2000, President Clinton wanted to visit Pyongyang. However, the intended visit never happened, due to the controversy surrounding the results of the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election. Around April or May 2001, Kim Dae-jung was expecting to welcome Kim Jong-il to Seoul. Returning from his meeting in Washington with newly elected President Bush, Kim Dae-jung described his meeting as embarrassing while privately cursing President Bush and his hardliner approach. This meeting negated any chance of a North Korean visit to South Korea. With the Bush administration labeling North Korea as being part of the "axis of evil", North Korea renounced the nonproliferation treaty, kicked out UN inspectors, and restarted its nuclear program. In early 2005, the North Korean government confirmed that the country had successfully become a nuclear armed state.
On January 1, 2011, a group of twelve lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties introduced a bill into the South Korean National Assembly to allow for the establishment of a "unification tax". The bill called for businesses to pay 0.5 percent of corporate tax, individuals to pay 5 percent of inheritance or gift taxes, and both individuals and companies to pay two percent of their income tax towards the cost of unification. The bill initiated legislative debate on practical measures to prepare for unification, as proposed by President Lee Myung-bak in his Liberation Day speech the previous year. The proposal for a unification tax was not warmly welcomed at the time. Lee has since reiterated concerns regarding the imminence of unification, which, combined with North Korean behavior, led to the tax proposal gaining wider acceptance. Practical measures to prepare for unification are becoming an increasingly frequent aspect of political debate, as concern regarding imminent and abrupt unification increases.
It has been suggested that the formation of a Korean Economic Community could be a way to ease in unification of the Korean peninsula. Lee Myung-bak, departing from the Saenuri Party's traditional hardline stance, has outlined a comprehensive diplomatic package on North Korea that includes setting up a consultative body to discuss economic projects between the two Koreas. He proposed seeking a Korean economic community agreement to provide the legal and systemic basis for any projects agreed to in the body.
North Korea's policy is to seek reunification without what it sees as outside interference, through a federal structure retaining each side's leadership and systems. In 1973, it proposed forming a Confederal Republic of Koryo that would represent the Korean people in the UN. North Korean President Kim Il-sung elaborated on the proposed state (then called Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo) on October 10, 1980, in the Report to the Sixth Congress of the Worker's Party of Korea on the Work of the Central Committee. Kim proposed a federation between North and South Korea, in which their respective political systems would initially remain.
While the situation of South and North Korea might seem comparable to East and West Germany, another country divided by Cold War politics, there are some notable differences. Germany did not have a civil war that resulted in millions of casualties, meaning "it is very hard to believe that People's Army commanders who fought the South in such a bloody fratricidal war would allow the ROK to overwhelm the DPRK, by whatever means". Both sides of Germany maintained a working relationship after the war, but the two Koreas' relationship has been more acrimonious.
The East Germans also had 360,000 Soviet troops on their soil in 1989; however, North Korea has not had any foreign troops on its soil since 1955. "East Germany collapsed because Gorbachev chose to do what none of his predecessors would ever have done, namely, keep those troops in their barracks rather than mobilize them to save the Honecker regime". The East Germans looked favorably at the fact that West Germans had good retirement benefits, public order and strong civil society, whereas the North Korean citizens are not aware of any immediate benefits from uniting with South Korea, because all such knowledge is kept from them by the state.
Under Roh Tae-woo, a former South Korean army general and politician, the Seoul government created a "Nordpolitik" policy, based on the West German "Ostpolitik" model, hoping to make trading agreements with Pyongyang.
The cultures of the two halves have separated following partition, even though traditional Korean culture and history are shared. In addition, many families were split by the division of Korea. In the practically comparable situation of the German reunification, the 41-year-long separation has left significant impacts on German culture and society, even after two decades. Given the extreme differences of North and South Korean culture and lifestyle, the effects might last even longer. Many experts have suggested that the differences between "Westerners" and "Easterners" ("die Mauer im Kopf", or "the wall in the head") will gradually dissipate as younger generations arise, born after reunification and seeing increasing migration between eastern and western Germany. Therefore, it is highly likely that the Korean youth will play a major role in the cultural integration after a hypothetical Korean reunification.
The North Korean population is far more culturally distinct and isolated than the East German population was in the late 1980s. Unlike in East Germany, North Koreans generally cannot receive foreign broadcasting or read foreign publications. Germany was divided for 44 years and did not have border clashes between the two sides. By comparison, the Koreas have been divided for over 60 years, and hostilities have flared over the years. The Korean ethnic nationalist belief that unification is a "sacred, universally-desired" goal to recover an ethnic homogeneity (tongjilsŏng) obscures North-South differences developed since 1945, and risks intolerance for the cultural accommodation necessary for a unified Korean polity.
Korean reunification would differ from the German reunification precedent. In relative terms, North Korea's economy is currently in a far worse situation than that of East Germany in 1990. The income per capita ratio (PPP) was about 3:1 in Germany (US$25,000 for the West, about US$8,500 for the East). The ratio is close to 20:1 in Korea (in 2015: US$36,700 for the South, US$1,800 for the North). While at the moment of German reunification the East German population (around 17 million) was about a third of the West German (more than 60 million), the North Korean population (around 25 million) is currently around half of South Korea's (around 51 million).
In September 2009, Goldman Sachs published its 188th Global Economics Paper named "A United Korea?" which highlighted in detail the potential economic power of a United Korea, which will surpass all current G7 countries except the United States, such as Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany and France within 30–40 years of reunification, estimating GDP to surpass $6 trillion by 2050. The young, skilled labor and large amount of natural resources from the North combined with advanced technology, infrastructure and large amount of capital in the South, as well as Korea's strategic location connecting three economic powers, is likely going to create an economy larger than some of the G7. According to some opinions, a reunited Korea could occur before 2050, or even between 2010 and 2020. If it occurred, Korean reunification would immediately raise the country's population to over 70 million.
The division between North and South Korea can be seen as more comparable to North and South Vietnam, which were also divided after independence following World War II from a colonial power (France). Unlike the Korean War, the Vietnam War spanned a much longer period and spilled over to the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia. The end of the war resulted in all three countries coming under control of the Communist-oriented independence movements, with China and the Soviet Union competing for influence. Relations between North and South Vietnam were also acrimonious, with North Vietnam being largely isolated and unrecognized except by other communist states, similarly to North Korea.
Similarly to both Germany and Korea, the separation of North and South Vietnam has also left significant cultural differences that continue today. Furthermore, cultural differences between the two parts of Vietnam had also existed prior to the partition of the country.
The North Vietnamese population was similar to the North Korean population in that foreign broadcasting or publications was prohibited in the country. In contrast, the South Vietnamese population saw a rising middle class that became increasingly Westernized, maintaining some of the French cultural and social trends of the colonial period and increasingly becoming influenced by American cultural trends as well.
The reunification of Korea could see similar economic effects to that of Vietnamese reunification. Although South Vietnam's economy was almost exclusively dependent on U.S. financial and military aid due to the intensity of warfare by 1975, during its peak it had developed strong industrial, agricultural, and manufacturing output and infrastructure, with trade relations with the West and Japan. Meanwhile, North Vietnam's state-run economy mirrored that of North Korea, with large collective farms, urban industrialization, and trade relations with the Soviet Union and China. As a result, the income per capita ratio of South to North Vietnam was much higher than that of West to East Germany and may have been at a similar level to that of present-day South and North Korea, although South Korea's current economy is much larger than that of South Vietnam in 1975.
At reunification, the state-controlled economy that had formerly run North Vietnam was extended into South Vietnam, which saw the dissolution of its capital and entrepreneurial institutions. This, along with a combined mass movement of North Vietnamese to the wealthier South and mass exodus of capital assets to the United States, saw the South Vietnamese economy collapse, creating a period of economic decline for the entire country until the unified government began market socialist reforms in the late 1980s. Near reunification, North Vietnam had a greater population of 23.8 million compared to South Vietnam's 19.6 million. Nevertheless, the difference is of a much closer ratio than that of current North and South Korea.
In the event of Korean reunification, a flood of North Koreans to a much more developed South Korea may cause the country's economy to undergo a heavy burden that will cost upwards of $1 trillion USD, possibly creating a period of economic collapse or stagnation. Similarly to Vietnam, the income gap between a reunified Korea will take a much longer period to bridge than that of East and West Germany.
In 1984, the Beijing Review provided China's view on Korean unification: "With regard to the situation on the Korean peninsula, China's position is clear: it is squarely behind the proposal of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea for tripartite (between the two Koreas and the United States) talks to seek a peaceful and independent reunification of Korea in the form of a confederation, free from outside interference. China believes this is the surest way to reduce tension on the peninsula."
China's current relationship with North Korea and position on a unified Korea is seen as dependent on a number of issues. A unified Korea could prevent North Korea's nuclear weapons program from destabilizing East Asia as well as the Chinese government. The 2010 United States diplomatic cables leak mentioned two unnamed Chinese officials telling the Deputy Foreign Minister of South Korea that the younger generation of Chinese leaders increasingly believed that Korea should be reunified under South Korean rule, provided it were not hostile to China. The report also claimed that senior officials and the general public in China were becoming increasingly frustrated with the North acting like a "spoiled child," following its repeated missile and nuclear tests, which were seen as a gesture of defiance not only to the West, but also to China. The business magazine Caixin reported that North Korea accounted for 40% of China's foreign aid budget and required 50,000 tonnes of oil per month as a buffer state against Japan, South Korea, and the United States, with whom trade and investment is now worth billions (North Korea being seen as expensive and internationally embarrassing to support).
However, the collapse of the North Korean regime and unification by Seoul would also present a number of problems for China. A sudden and violent collapse might cause a mass exodus of North Koreans fleeing or fighting poverty into China, causing a humanitarian crisis that could destabilize northeast China. The movement of South Korean and American soldiers into the North could result in their being temporarily or even permanently stationed on China's border, seen as a potential threat to Chinese sovereignty and an imposition of a China containment policy. A unified Korea could also more strongly pursue its territorial disputes with China and might inflame nationalism among Koreans in China. Some have claimed the existence of contingency plans for China intervening in situations of great turmoil in North Korea (with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Northeast Project on the Chinese identity of the Goguryeo kingdom potentially used to justify intervention or even annexation).
As relations between North Korea and Soviet Union warmed, the latter returned to warm public support for Kim's peaceful reunification proposals. Soviet attention in Northeast Asia gradually began to focus on a new plan for "collective security in Asia" first proposed in an Izvestia editorial in May 1969 and mentioned specifically by Brezhnev in his address to the International Conference of Communist and Workers' Parties in Moscow the following month:
For us, the burning problems of the present international situation do not push into the background more long-range tasks, especially the creation of a system of collective security in those parts of the world where the threat of the unleashing of a new World War and the unleashing of armed conflicts is centered... We think that the course of events also places on the agenda the task of creating a system of collective security in Asia.
The United States officially supports Korean reunification under a democratic government. Mike Mansfield proposed that Korea be neutralized under a great-power agreement, accompanied by the withdrawal of all foreign troops and the discontinuation of security treaties with the great power guarantors of the North and South.
In the 1990s, despite issues surrounding the controversial Team Spirit military exercises, the Clinton administration still managed to help turn around the situation regarding peace with North Korea through Jimmy Carter's support. It promised light water reactors in exchange for the availability of North Korea for inspection of its facilities and other concessions. North Korea reacted positively, despite blaming the United States as the original aggressor in the Korean War. There were attempts to normalize relations with Japan as well as the United States with Kim Dae-jung in open support. North Korea actually favored the United States military's position on the front lines because it helped prevent an outbreak of war. Eventually, aid and oil were supplied, and even cooperation with South Korean business firms. However, one of the remaining fears was North Korea, with their necessary uranium deposits, having the potential to achieve a high level of nuclear technology.
Henry Kissinger, another supporter of Korean unification, proposed a six-party conference to find a way out of the Korean dilemma, composed of the two Koreas and four connected powers (the United States, the Soviet Union, China, and Japan). North Korea denounced the "four plus two" scenario, as it was also known, by claiming Korea would be at the mercy of the great powers and insinuated the reestablishment of Japanese power in Korea. However, Pyongyang ultimately lacked confidence in getting simultaneous help from Beijing and Moscow.
Following a summit meeting in Pyongyang on June 13–15, 2000 between leaders of the two countries, the chairpersons of the Millennium Summit issued a statement welcoming their Joint Declaration as a breakthrough in bringing peace, stability, and reunification to the Korean peninsula. Seven weeks later, a resolution to the same effect was passed by the United Nations General Assembly after being co-sponsored by 150 other nations.
A scheduled General Assembly debate on the topic in 2002 was deferred for a year at the request of both nations, and when the subject returned in 2003, it was immediately dropped off the agenda.
The issue did not return to the General Assembly until 2007, following a second inter-Korean summit held in Pyongyang on October 2–4, 2007. These talks were held during one round of the Six-Party Talks in Beijing which committed to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
A unified Korea could have great implications for the balance of power in the region, with South Korea already considered by many a regional power. Reunification would give access to cheap labor and abundant natural resources in the North, which, combined with existing technology and capital in the South, would create large economic and military growth potential. According to a 2009 study by Goldman Sachs, a unified Korea could have an economy larger than that of Japan by 2050. A unified Korean military would have the largest number of reservists as well as one of the largest numbers of military hackers.