Korean unification talks: More than just six parties

On July 20, the Korea Institute for National Unification and the Korean Political Science Association will hold a joint forum Korean Unification from an International Perspective. The forum is unique in being one of the few efforts to draw in perspectives on Korean unification beyond the participants of the long stalled six-party talks.

It may seem logical that the participants in the six-party talks take center stage in any forum on the Korean Peninsula. China, Japan, Russia, and the United States is each an actor in the modern history of competition and conflict from which the two Koreas emerged. Each participant in the six-party talks has a vested interest not only in the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, but also in its eventual pacification and unification. Although, they each may differ in the details of how the latter should occur.

Yet today, more than ever before, there are states beyond the “big six” which have a vested interest in the denuclearization, pacification and unification of the Korean Peninsula. It is time to recognize that the Korean Peninsula is not only a six party issue nor just a regional issue ― the Korean Peninsula is an international issue.

South Korean overseas development assistance is currently 0.12 percent of gross national income and will grow to 0.25 percent of GNI by 2015. The reach of this assistance is global, from sanitation and renewable energy projects in Sri Lanka to public administration training and reconstruction projects in Haiti.

A cursory glance at the KOICA website gives a taste of how important South Korea’s aid and development assistance has become. Projects range from the construction of a model primary school in Akaki Kaliti sub-city in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to the construction of a canal in Phonehong District, Vientiane, in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

Talking with students studying in Seoul on KOICA scholarships gives an even greater indication. Students speak of “transformation,” “knowledge sharing” and the “practical assistance” that their study in Korea will bring back home. South Korean aid and development assistance is making a difference, sometimes in the neediest parts of the world.

Yet, with unification, it could be expected that overseas aid and development will be refocused on the reconstruction of the North’s moribund economy. Korean unification is an issue that is likely to affect every recipient of South Korea’s overseas aid and development assistance.

South Korea accounts for around 2.9 percent of world trade and is the world’s seventh largest merchandise exporter. It is a key trading partner for Australia, Canada, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Chile. It is also an important investment partner with each of these states and beyond to include Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Brazil. Finally, through training and remittances, it plays an equally important role in regions as diverse as China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Australia serves as a good example. In 2011, South Korea was Australia’s fourth largest export market for goods and services. Yet the statistics don’t tell the complete story. In 2010, more than 35,000 Korean students were enrolled in Australian education institutions, contributing not only valuable education services export receipts, but also contributing to a diverse and vibrant education sector.

Whilst in Australia ― and “so far from home,” most South Korean students will also take on the role of tourist, sometimes joined by visiting parents or friends, adding further to the local economy. In a struggling economic sector, affected by a relatively strong Australian currency, South Korean student vacationers make a big difference.

Yet, with unification, it could be expected that these patterns of trade, investment, labor, education and tourism will change. Were unstable unification to occur, affecting relations between interested parties of China, Japan and the United States, considerably more serious disruptions to global trade and investment patterns could occur. Korean unification is an issue for every state that is lucky enough to benefit from South Korea’s own economic success.

Finally, South Korea today also holds increasingly important global links in historical, cultural and social terms. For the 16 participating states in the United Nations defense of South Korea during the Korean War, there is a lasting bond of sacrifice. Whilst it is not difficult to remember the contribution of the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, this special and lasting bond reaches to Australia, Turkey, Ethiopia, New Zealand, South Africa, Greece, Colombia and beyond. These states share an ongoing bond with Korea and arguably, a longing to see the job completed.

Modern South Korea’s cultural ties, much of it through the “Korean Wave,” are also significant. Indonesia serves as a good example. Newspapers talk of a “K-pop frenzy” and “K-pop hypnosis” in Jakarta. Annual Korea Week festivals in Jakarta have thousands of attendees and online ― a country with the third largest number of Facebook users ― it is near impossible to avoid Indonesian devotees to K-pop. These cultural links are a vibrant bond which attracts public interest and support for the stability and success of Korea.

However, perhaps more significant is the ever-growing presence of overseas Koreans spread across the globe. There are significant numbers of overseas Koreans in China, the United States, Japan, Canada, Russia, Uzbekistan, Australia, the Philippines and Kazakhstan. Overseas Korean populations play a significant role in the economic and political scene of several key population centers across the United States, Canada, Australia, Singapore, the Philippines and New Zealand. These people-to-people links are important and could directly influence important decisions regarding Korean unification which will need to be considered within each state.

With unification, these ties could be expected to both strain and strengthen. Korean unification will be an issue for every state in which South Korea’s historical, cultural and social links play a role in the economic and political fabric of society.

Korean peninsula unification is today an international issue. This reflects the considerable growth in South Korea’s international profile. As an aid and development partner; as an economic partner; and as a historical, cultural and social partner, interest in Korea is at an unprecedented level. Yet, this is easily forgotten with a focus on the “six parties.”

The key question facing South Korean foreign policy planners today is how to direct the unprecedented level of interest into practical support for Korean unification. The KINU-KPSA forum Korean Unification from an International Perspective may be a first step.

CC photo by istolethetv

"Korean unification talks: More than just six parties", Korea Herald, 17 July 2012.