Korean unification delayed as Kim deemed unstable

Korean unification delayed as Kim deemed unstable

When I saw the first public pictures of North Korea’s present leader Kim Jong-un a few years ago, I thought of this young man, “What an unlucky guy, how heavy the pressure must be under his relatives and the big shots in his country.” He was obese, ugly and had a perplexed look on his face (he didn’t have the stupid hairstyle at the time), and he happened to have been chosen as the next Great Leader to succeed his ailing father Kim Jong-il.

A few years later, as promised, Kim actually became the Supreme Leader of North Korea, aged around 28, also obtaining the rank of a Daejang (a general) in the Korean People’s Army. His father - a chain smoker allegedly with epilepsy - had just died, and as the young Kim was crowned, millions of his people were forced to weep at the old Kim’s funeral. A South Korean friend of mine, watching young Kim deliver a lengthy speech after his father’s death, offered a remarkable observation: The young Kim was imitating the style of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but was sticking to the war-loving rhetoric of his father.

After the sinking of the South Korean patrol boat ROKS Cheonan in March 2010 by a torpedo, the North Koreans strafed the -- disputed, according to the North -- island of Yeonpyeong in November of that year with artillery and random rocket shots, killing another four people. At the time Kim Jong-un was in a race to succeed his father, so he was seen to have a direct responsibility in the bombing. “He was seeking to prove his credentials to the North Koreans,” in the words of my South Korean friend.

But what had also died in the attacks, together with scores of South Koreans, was the hope for early reunification (say, within 10 years). The reaction of many South Koreans was “should we really unify with them? Let the North Koreans starve to death with their nukes: in reference to the North’s efforts to obtain (which they managed to do) nuclear weapons, despite the fact that they remained the most isolated and poorest nation in the world.

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s position was no different. (His nickname has been the “bulldozer” since the days when he led the conglomerate Hyundai). He bluntly warned the North that any such attack against the South would be retaliated in exactly the same manner. Long gone were the days of former South Korean President Roh Tae-woo, who strictly followed a “Sunshine Policy” to appease the North Koreans no matter what. South Korea would never return a slap in the face with flowers, and so North Korea did not dare to attack the South later.

Now, what should happen on unification in the short term? Probably nothing much. My South Korean friend tells me that we should wait until Kim Jong-un fully establishes himself in the north. He may in time get rid of the “old guns,” his mentors, including his uncle, the strong military people and so on. If, in time, he manages to do this and if he really has a reformist line, he may indeed push for unification. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, although I don’t personally trust considerably overweight people with stupid hairstyles.
In the meantime, during an international journalists program in South Korea last week, a Unification Ministry official sat with us, reiterating that unification was the most important matter and talked about a “flexibility program.” At this point, I asked him how much this flexibility program cost his government. He said it was barely $110,000. I said it would be a pleasure for the international journalists to raise this money amongst ourselves and help a noble cause like this. Everyone laughed.

Nowadays, unification is not a major issue for Northerners. The summer is coming, meaning that the days they feel it necessary to beg for food are not imminent. Last winter, two North Korean officials visited Turkey to ask for food. This is despite the fact that there are not even diplomatic relations between North Korea and Turkey and a formal peace agreement between the two after the Korean War was never even signed.

My South Korean friend says unification is the ultimate priority, but he also believes that unification should be around South Korea, the side which has developed by far beyond the other. Germany was reunified under this principle, he says.

Although the younger generation in South Korea does not believe that the two Koreas should unify soon, they agree that North Korea presents an immediate security threat for the South. Who can blame them when their Northern neighbors constantly pile up their nukes and attack the South every time conditions permit? Who can blame them for saying, “O.K., we don’t want you.”