Reunification: Unfinished Dreams of the Cold War

By Michelle Kim


[dropcap]A[/dropcap]ll walls must fall down someday, my mother said, chopping vegetables for the kimchi jjigae. Her response was almost reflexive; the conviction behind her statement revealed a powerful faith in the future. When my mother said this,  I had just learned about the reunification of Germany in school. For most of my classmates, the Berlin Wall was a historical triumph of freedom over oppression. But for a few of us, it represented a hopeful vision for the future.




The idea of Korean reunification is an old one. It has been in Korean political dialogue for more than half a century. In the Korean War, China in the communist North and the U.S in the capitalist South reached a stalemate on the Korean peninsula. Neither were willing to budge, but neither could win. At an impasse, they drew a line at the 38th parallel: the Demilitarized Zone. The issue was left profoundly unfinished. The war technically never ended. For the next half century, the line remained with the understanding that the separation would be temporary. Koreans saw this division not as the creation of two different nations but as a ceasefire.

Reunification of the Korean peninsula is a shared dream that remains one of the most important political issues in South Korea. A politician’s party division is drawn by his or her stance toward North Korea. “It’s always the biggest topic for any political party. The president always has to have a specific agenda [regarding North Korea],” said Clint Yoo, Yale ‘20. Each politician offers their own versions of reunification. Some, like the recently impeached Park Geun Hye, favor a more hardline approach, urging the absorption of North Korea. Others, like the current Moon administration, adopt a softer tone, advocating for greater negotiation and engagement in the inter-Korean relationship before any sort of reunification takes place.

However, for the vast majority of the Korean population, the question of reunification has always been a matter of “when” or “how.” Often, disagreements about the timeframe of reunification arose—some wanted to integrate faster, while others were willing to wait. In other times, many debated about the right approach towards achieving reunification. But there was never a question of whether reunification would occur. It was considered inevitable; “someday” was always the sentiment in the back of our minds. Now, that may be changing. With each passing year, the dream of reunification grows more intangible. “Someday” has started to become a fading echo.

South Koreans do not want a war–the consequences would be catastrophic–but they also desire the reunification of South and North Korea. A similar case can be made more North Korea. Daniel Wertz, a senior program officer at the National Committee on North Korea, said, “It’s unlikely [that North Korea] wants to start a war…[but] one of biggest dangers now…is that conflict arises from mutual misperception and miscalculation of the other’s intentions. Given the strong rhetoric from both sides, the risk of miscalculation is very high.”

  Despite the divisiveness of the North Korean issue, there is one broad consensus that military action is not feasible. The costs of war would be devastating. In the capital city alone, there are about 10 million residents, which makes up about a fifth of the entire South Korean population. In the first few moments of war, millions of lives will be easily lost. “I don’t think there are any good or easy solutions. There are just better or worse ways of managing the crisis,” said Wertz. International cooperation and extensive, official negotiation processes will be critical in diffusing the crisis.“It will have to be a gigantic diplomatic effort,” said Hill. Yet, “Until we have a common view of what has to be done, it can’t be done.”

In response to this gap in finding the right solution, the public demands for a peaceful reunification. Yet, the idea of reunification is not fully compatible with peaceful negotiations with North Korea, as ‘demanding for reunification’ indirectly implies that South Korea is asking for the downfall of the North. Thus, politicians created the rhetoric of “gradual” reunification: a reunification that is so slow that it is little more than a distant speck in the horizon. This kind of rhetoric allows South Korean politicians to focus on maintaining the current peace with North Korea without politically renouncing the idea of reunification.

However, “It has no basis in reality whatsoever,” said Charles Hill, diplomat in residence and lecturer in International Affairs at Yale. “There is no concept of how reunification can take place without destroying one or the other…The only hope is that the North Korean regime collapses.”

Others, too, are doubtful about the potential effectiveness of traditional diplomacy with a country like North Korea. “There is periodically something done by North Korea that appears to be deliberately done to ruin good relations, because the North has essentially been running an extortion racket,” said Hill. Through its aggressive rhetoric and actions, the North Korean regime bargains for aid. In the past, during peaceful talks with South Korea, North Korea has dug secret invasion tunnels, tested missiles, opened fire at South Korean troops, and conducted covert operations across the border.

Moreover,  In South Korea, although the dream of reunification is a divisive issue, it is very much alive. The idea of recognizing North Korea as a nation will face heavy opposition. Daniel Wertz noted that it would be “hard for any politician in South Korea to publicly give up on the idea of reunification.”  The possibility of giving up on reunification is unthinkable for many Koreans. Yoo ’21 said, “I’ve always seen [Korea] as a country split in half… I’ve never thought of it as two countries trying to merge into one.”And indeed there are still people who were alive when Korea was one nation. For many Korean households, reunification is a deeply emotional issue; the border divides families. “When we Koreans hear about human rights violations, the starvation, the political abuse, and the overall dire situation of North Korea, it’s not very distant. We have relatives there—our people, not aliens,” said Yoo ’20.

But after sixty-four years, the generation gap is widening the views on reunification. Fewer and fewer people remember a unified Korea, and the younger generation has less family ties across the DMZ. As these memories and attachments fade, the young population of Korea have a different sense of national identity. They consider themselves South Koreans. “In general, younger people don’t feel a connection to their northern brethren,” said In Kyu Chung, Yale ’20. In approaching the dilemma, they focus more on the costs of reunification, especially since the post-reunification economic burden would largely fall on their shoulders. With high youth unemployment rates and an extremely competitive education system, some Koreans feel that there is no need to add another strain to their situation. For an increasing number of people, giving up on reunification and accepting a permanent two nation solution is becoming a legitimate option. “Back then, even if reunification was not feasible, people still had hope,” said Yoo ’21, but now “people are beginning to lose this hope, and when [the] automatic drive for the idea of reunification fades, I don’t see how reunification is ever going to be pursued with great enthusiasm.”

On the other side of the DMZ, it is difficult to know what the North Korean regime wants. In the South, it has largely been assumed—that “North Korea wants a military reunification, where it attacks and conquers the South,” said Chung ’20. “That’s what we thought their goal was…[But] we’re not really sure now.” But perhaps, as Town said, North Korea simply wants a guarantee of national security, and the rhetoric of reunification is only posturing. But some worry that because both Koreas share a cultural heritage, people automatically compare the two, which can hurt the legitimacy of the North Korean regime. In this way, the North Korean regime may perceive the very existence of South Korea as a destabilizing threat. Bracken suggested that “North Koreans need a hostile opponent…to enforce their coercive political environment… [so they] portray South Korea as a puppet state of the U.S.” Part of the issue is that North Korea’s agenda remains largely mysterious. All decisions ultimately rest on one individual, Kim Jong Un, and no one knows for certain what he wants.

Reunification is an idea that is far from dead. But it is fading. Perhaps, Korea will ultimately settle on a solution involving two permanently separate nations. Perhaps, the dream of reunification will be laid to rest as a remnant of a bygone century and a miracle that never took place.


Michelle Kim ’21 is in Branford College. Contact her at