“China has leverage over North Korea but it is probably not the key [to unification].” This according to Dr. Thomas Bagger, Head of Policy Planning at the German Foreign Ministry. On December 9, 2014, Dr. Bagger visited the Asan Institute for Policy Studies to discuss the security environment in East Asia. The discussion touched upon a variety of issues pertinent to the Korean Peninsula. In particular, much attention was given to the issue of Korean unification.
The session began with Dr. Bagger’s question regarding South Korea’s recent discourse on national unification. He asked, “What is the motivation behind the Park administration’s strong push for unification? Is President Park personally motivated? Is it a case of good politics that involves tactical and domestic motivations? Or is it a byproduct of changing dynamics in the region?”
Ambassador Chun Yungwoo, Senior Advisor at the Asan Institute, pointed out two major components. One is the growing perception within South Korea that the North has become more unpredictable than ever before. The execution of Jang Song-thaek and the decision to conduct long-range missile tests, against Chinese advice, have intensified this perception of unpredictability and have alerted the public to the dangers inherent in the North Korea regime, especially with Kim Jong-un as leader. Another component is South Korea’s “lack of interest in unification,” and President Park’s unification policy can be interpreted as an effort to reignite public interest.
Dr. Hahm Chaibong, President of the Asan Institute, agreed with Amb. Chun and emphasized that, “unification is an attractive agenda for any Korean president.” He added, “Even anything short of unification—as long as it leads to a breakthrough with North Korea—will be considered an accomplishment for any politician.” While he applauded President Park’s effort to put a “positive spin on unification [by emphasizing the economic benefits of unification],” he pointed out that her unification policy now faces challenges because the policy envisions unification by absorption, which leads to further questions about how South Korea can deal with the North. Dr. Bagger noted that labeling unification as a “bonanza, in a purely economic sense, is a stretch.”
Dr. Leif-Eric Easley, Research Fellow at the Asan Institute, contributed to the discussion by addressing China’s role in the issue. He highlighted that, “Since 2010, South Korea has begun to get the sense that its economic interdependence and diplomatic ties are not paying off in terms of influence in China’s policy vis-a-vis the Korean Peninsula.” Hoping to draw a parallel with West Germany’s relationship with the Soviet Union, he asked Dr. Bagger if there are lessons that can be drawn from the West German experience and how West Germany utilized its relationship with Moscow in managing its unification agenda.
In response, Dr. Bagger indicated that Korea and Germany share many similarities as well as differences, with the one categorical difference being North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. From the West German perspective, “building trust with Moscow was more important than building trust with East Germany.” In other words, “the key [to unification] was in Moscow.” He agreed that a similar dynamic exists between China and South Korea. With the two countries growing ever closer, China has much at stake in the Korean Peninsula, and South Korea could leverage that in some way. He did, however, express his skepticism with regard to the extent of Chinese influence.
The discussion addressed other regional issues including South Korea’s relations with the United States, China, and Japan. All participants expressed concerns for the future of ROK-Japan relations and agreed that China and the United States must maintain an amicable relationship for regional peace and stability.