Korean Unification: Inevitable Challenges

  • Published

Korean Unification: Inevitable Challenges by Jacques L. Fuqua Jr. Potomac Books, 2011, 220 pp.

While there is no shortage of books on Korean unification, there is little consensus as to when it will happen and/or if it will be successful. Jacques Fuqua, assistant provost for international affairs and chief international officer at Auburn University Montgomery (Alabama) authored a riveting account of Korean Peninsula history and how that has caused the current impasse between North and South Korea. Additionally, Fuqua’s book outlines several potential paths for unification and the challenges that will result, foreshadowed by the unification of East and West Germany and the assimilation of former North Korean citizens into South Korean society.

I was surprised to learn the Korean Peninsula has been divided since 1392, with the exception of the Japanese occupation, 1910–45. While all Koreans share a common background, South Koreans have always regarded Northerners as “culturally backward and . . . socially lesser beings” (p. xv). They still view North Koreans in much the same light, although the cause for the political, educational, and social divide is the authoritarian nature of the North’s government.

The governments of the two Koreas have issued three joint commitments to unification since 1972 but have different views of how it will occur. Fuqua’s conditions for reunification (peacefully or through conflict) are accepted by Koreanists. Additionally, his statement follows a common hypothesis—that in any unification model, one Korea (most likely South) will absorb the other. However, the challenges that will arise in South Korea post-unification are Fuqua’s strongest argument against postponing it.

The financial costs associated with unification, based on the German model, are the easiest to grasp and may be as high as $5 trillion (p. 75). But as staggering as the fiscal tax will be, Fuqua states there is no comparison to the hardships unification will cost the South Korean and international community as it deals with the suspected humanitarian crisis looming across the Demilitarized Zone. Bill Keller alludes to this in his op-ed, “The Day After.” He states, “the end is likely to be messier than anything we’ve seen in the Arab Spring. . . . The Day After is likely to last 20 years.”

Fuqua goes into great detail on the ordeals associated with unification. He relates the experiences of 20,000 North Korean migrants or Saeteomin in South Korea and government officials charged with engineering what has resulted in a nonseamless transition for the former North Koreans into South Korean society. While it is easy to plan how to eradicate the differences between the level of education and health care in the Koreas, second and third order effects of these basic governmental services, or lack thereof in the case of North Korea, cause huge chasms between the two societies. Fuqua lists many examples, but one most poignant is basic technologies which South Koreans take for granted. Additionally, the separation of the two Koreas for centuries has resulted in different cultures and Hangeul dialects. Third, the stigma associated with the South Korean government paying a stipend to former North Korean citizens until they are able to support themselves and their families contributes to the long-held discrimination by South Koreans toward their Northern relatives (pp. 11–14).

The aforementioned differences are compounded by the fact that South Koreans who did not experience the Japanese Occupation and/or Korean War are ambivalent about unification. As the years go by, more and more South Koreans prefer that unification be pursued gradually, as the South stands to lose more than it gains (p. 150). For that reason, Fuqua states it might be best to “postpone paradise” (p. 153).

Overall, Korean Unification is a thoroughly researched and enjoyable read. Fuqua’s explanations of how the long history of the Korean people led to the current situation on the peninsula, plus his vignettes on the struggle of both the South Korean government and former North Koreans to ensure a successful and rewarding life for the Saeteomin, clearly show that the easiest part of unification will be how it begins.

Jessica Baker

US Air Force Academy
US Air Force Academy

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."