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H. Kim: Address to International Leadership Conference 2019

Address to International Leadership Conference 2019, Seoul, Korea, May 15-17, 2019


Unification has many meanings: ethnic unification, which reunites families who were separated for more than 70 years; unification for practical purposes, which combines the rich resources and superior capital of the South and the North to help each other; and unification of political and legal affairs, like the reunification of East and West Germany.

Considering the changes in the generations that form the two Koreas today since they were divided, as well as the current dynamics of the fourth industrial revolution, internationalization and rade liberalization, it is realistic to push for unification in a practical sense.

The idea that a nation should form a state is inappropriate in this era of multicultural internationalization. Due to the prolonged division of the two Koreas, the longing for the hometowns of separated families who defected to the South before the Korean War is gradually weakening as the generations move on. In other words, the second and third generations born after the Korean War connect with their relatives in North Korea not in their hearts but only in their minds. Their desire to live together in unity is significantly weakened, compared to the first generation’s.

Political and legal unification is not an easy situation due to ideological differences between South and North Korea, political power rivalry and conflict concerning the unification nation's hegemony between the two Koreas, and international dynamics of especially the United States, Japan and Russia surrounding the Korean Peninsula.

Therefore, it is necessary to make efforts to foster change in inter-Korean relations into a situation in which South and North Koreans travel to and from Seoul and Pyongyang and engage in bilateral economic cooperation, just as we do business in Beijing, rather than pushing for complete unification under the current circumstances. The South Korean government's unification plan presents three stages of unification: (a) the inter-Korean reconciliation and cooperation stage, (b) the inter-Korean alliance stage, and (c) the unification state stage. The type of relationship explained here can be seen as the inter-Korean alliance stage, which will be called de facto unification.

The Possibility of Reunification on the Korean Peninsula

Reunification of the Korean Peninsula seems to be far off, being that the division in the dynamics of the international community and related countries are still in competition and conflict. However, as seen in the case of the unification between East and West Germany, there is always a possibility that the dynamics of the international community will work in favor of a reunification. When the window of opportunity for reunification of the Korean Peninsula opens, we should be prepared to advance international cooperation towards reunification, as the West German government and people were.

Given the North Korean regime's hopes for economic construction amid a period in which the international community communicates and cooperates and the emergence of the generations born during the 1980s and 1990s (a.k.a. 8090 Generation) with new characteristics, I think that the de facto unification of the two Koreas, not political and legal, is fully feasible.

Currently, North Korea hopes to become a strong nation—politically, militarily and economically. The ideology of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il forms a strong political powerhouse. North Korea has also established itself as a military powerhouse possessing nuclear weapons. And finally, an economically powerful North Korea has to be established for it to become a prosperous nation.

North Korea is emphasizing an independent and self-supporting national economy for its socialist economic power, but it cannot achieve economic growth with a closed economic system in the current era of the fourth industrial revolution. International sanctions stemming from North Korea's nuclear development are making it more difficult for the North Korean economy. North Korea appears to be trying to overcome this by rehabilitating all of its institutional businesses on its own. However, there apparently is a limit to economic development with its own capabilities. Such situation has become more obvious to the North Koreans as indicated by its negative economic growth in 2018. Accordingly, the Kim Jong-un regime set its focus on economic construction as the nation's permanent strategy in 2018 and is seeking economic assistance from the international community and the lifting of economic sanctions on the North through changes in the inter-Korean and the U.S.–North Korea relationships.

Considering the characteristics of the 8090 Generation of the two Koreas, namely its information service capabilities, respect for personal values and criticism of absolute authority, the current abnormal inter-Korean relations are hard to maintain. With the launch of the second term of Kim Jong-un’s regime, North Korea has also changed its leadership from the generation of the Korean War to the generation after the Korean War. From now on, the 8090 Generation, which currently accounts for about 30 percent of the North's population, will be the central generation of North Korea's change.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is also in the 8090 Generation himself, with overseas experience. This means that he could seek changes in the North by having Chinese President Xi Jinping as his role model and referring to the Chinese style of reform and the opening of Deng Xiaopyong in the late 1970s. Like current President Xi Jinping, he will try to achieve economic growth while firmly maintaining his political status.

A Solution to the Current Situation

In order to overcome the current situation on the Korean Peninsula, which has been rapidly changing, it is important for South Korea and the international community to create an appropriate environment for North Korea, which is on the path of change while advocating economic construction.

North Korea wants economic construction, but it has wariness, fear and no confidence since it is the first time it has done so. Given this, the international community needs to present appropriate incentives to North Korea to ensure its regime's safety and to help the communist country confidently walk down the path of opening its economy.

To break the current deadlock, it is necessary to lower each other's expectations a bit and actively take a step to the other side, rather than to enforce impractical proposals that are burdensome for each other to accept. The government of the Republic of Korea will have to act as an active arbitrator and facilitator, and in some cases take on a role as a guarantor.

Through inter-Korean and U.S.–North Korea talks, the two sides should focus on drawing a road map that fundamentally includes a guarantee of denuclearization, security of North Korea and economic aid, as well as the processes and schedules for realizing them, and on making an agreement on the initial measures. Possible initial steps might be the dismantlement of the North's Yongbyon nuclear facilities, lifting some of the sanctions on Pyongyang linked with denuclearization, and support measures for the North's construction project in places such as the tourist district at Mount Baekdu.

In addition, it is essential to continue humanitarian aid and nonpolitical, noneconomic exchanges and cooperation to resolve the current stalemate as the root cause lies in the mutual distrust between North Korea and the international community. In this regard, it is also worth pushing for the establishment of hospitals and other medical facilities inside the Demilitarized Zone to provide medical aid to North Koreans volunteered by South Koreans and international medical personnel.



To go to the May 2019 ILC Schedule page, click here.