The hard-for-some-to-imagine prospect of a united Korea drew closer today with news that the first South Korean freight train had crossed the Demilitarized Zone and headed into North Korea. This regularly-scheduled freight service looks set to continue, not least for economic reasons, as a projected connection with the Trans-Siberian Railway will greatly reduce a variety of transport costs.
The establishment of this rail link is, of course, part of the somewhat erratic foreign policy of outgoing Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. In elections set for December 19, Roh’s party looks as though it will be defeated by Lee Myung Bak of the far more seasoned and conservative Grand National Party. Subsequently, as Japan’s Daily Yomiuri puts it in a headline, the “South Korea vote may cool ardor for North.” But pan-Korean ardor for unification, done realistically and right, will not cool. Korea is a country that was politically united under the same ruling house from the late 14th century until the 20th. Its present division is maintained only by the seeming impossibility of merging the cruel and unreconstructed North with the now free and blossoming South.
These difficulties are now gradually being removed. China has signaled intent to take over North Korea if things go badly there, so Pyongyang is looking for alternatives. In Seoul, even the conservative presidential candidate favors increasing cooperation with the North. The trend is clear—and to many, unwelcome, particularly owing to North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. If the arms of the present two Koreas are amalgamated, the outcome is a military having nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems, advanced jet fighters, and state of the art air-independent-propulsion stealthy submarines—all of which can be indigenously produced.
Such a prospect will elicit two quixotic instincts. One will be to try to keep the Koreas separate. The other will be to attempt to render Korea non-nuclear. Neither, I think is possible, and the first is not desirable. I believe we should explicitly support Korean unification. The first reason is that it is coming anyway. The second is that if we (and Japan) are involved we are more likely to see a liberal and open state emerge. It is in our and Japan’s interest to pull the new state away from China at least to neutrality, and perhaps in our direction. Admittedly, huge headaches will be involved. But better to be moving with inescapable change and attempting to steer it in a positive direction than to allow the new United Korea to align with Russia or China against us.