The 130 attendees of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta luncheon on Oct. 15 at the Commerce Club downtown were encouraged to open their minds to the benefits of a unified Korea despite their concerns about the nuclear policies of North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.
A simpler more digestible task would have been to make an accounting of the differences separating the two countries, especially in view of this summer’s heightening of tensions and the vast difference in their economic circumstances.
It’s hard to discern how close North and South Korea can be to outright war. In early August when two South Korean soldiers were grievously injured after stepping on land mines in the southern half of the demilitarized zone, it seemed as if the possibility was not far off.
Tension rose significantly after the incident with the South Koreans claiming that the landlines were planted by the North Korean military near the South Korean guard posts where they knew soldiers would be patrolling.
South Korea resumed at full blast its propaganda broadcasts for the first time in 11 years while North Korea fired artillery shells across the border on Aug. 20, prompting retaliation by South Korea, which fired back a dozen shells.
The shells from both sides landed in unoccupied parts of the demilitarized zone without causing anyone any harm. A few days later more than 50 North Korean submarines left their bases for parts unknown and North Korea doubled the number of its troops on the border.
Meanwhile negotiations between the two sides were in full swing finally producing a breakthrough on Aug. 25 with an agreement to hold formal talks in the future to improve relations. The agreement also called for the south to silence their loudspeakers while the north said it would call off its “state of semi-war.” Separated families and relatives were to have the opportunity to reunite.
Earlier this October several of these reunions occurred including the meeting of a couple in their eighties who hadn’t seen each other for 65 years.
They had been married for only seven months when the Korean War erupted. Although she was five month pregnant at the time, they were separated and hadn’t seen each other until the recent reunion that was permitted for only 12 hours.
With this background in mind, the luncheon program, “Unification of the Korean Peninsula,” certainly was timely.
The council corralled leading Korean experts, who encouraged the attendees whose appetites had not been diminished by the task at hand.
The speakers included Jaechun Kim, director of the Sogang Institute of International and Area Studies in Seoul, Korea; Suk Lee, research fellow at the Korea Development Institute, Sejong-si, Korea and Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program U.S.-Korea policy at the Council of Foreign Relations with offices in New York and Washington.
Kim Reiman of Georgia State University’s political science department was the moderator.
“A united Korea could provide a resolution of all the problems and adoption of international and global governance norms, Dr. Kim said. Among the goals that could be achieved would be a nuclear free zone, elimination of weapons of mass destruction, restoration of the ecosystem, free trade and the elimination of money laundering.
Dr. Lee imagined the possibility of a Seoul-Pyongyang “mega-city” that would bring the two capitals together. The unified country would enable the South to continue its fast-paced economic growth that may be slowed by its low fertility rate and aging population.
Unification also would provide “new connections to foreign markets,” he said, as well as provide opportunities for enhanced participation in cross-border projects such as the Tumen River initiative involving intergovernmental cooperation among China, Mongolia, South Korea and Russia.
Mr. Snyder praised South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, for taking the lead in pursuing closer relations if only to place more pressure of North Korea on a variety of issues including its treatment of human rights.
He also supported efforts that would stabilize the region, imagining that a collapsed North Korea could result in a situation similar to that of Afghanistan or Iraq.
While all the speakers acknowledged the problems in achieving the reality of a unified Korea particularly because of the nuclear issue, there was general agreement that a step-by-step approach would be beneficial.
To learn more about programs of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, click here.
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