After decades of dreaming of a reunified North and South
Korea, many South Koreans, young people in particular, now see unification as
irrelevant or too costly. This gives urgency to the effort by Park Geun-hye,
president of South Korea, to boost domestic support for unification and lay the
practical groundwork to make it happen.
The dream is at once quixotic and prudent. On the one hand,
it is hard to imagine the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, voluntarily giving up
his family-run dictatorship. On the other, recent Middle East history has shown
how quickly borders can shift and regimes can crumble. If that should happen on
the Korean Peninsula, leaders there and elsewhere in the region must be
prepared to manage a hugely complex and disruptive transition.
As part of her initiative, Ms. Park has named a 50-member commission
— including private-sector experts, government officials and the heads of six
state-run research institutes — to develop a vision of what a unified Korea
might look like, as well as road maps for getting there. In the best case,
peaceful reunification would reunite long-separated families, free 24 million
North Koreans from dictatorship, enhance regional security and eliminate North
Korea’s nuclear threat. Unfortunately, other outcomes seem more likely: the
continuation of the present hostile impasse, or, conceivably, the violent
collapse of the North Korean regime.
A key player in the peninsula’s future will be China, the
North’s chief political patron and the source of its fuel and food imports.
Fearful of chaos on its border, China has long refused to exert the kind of
pressure that would force radical change in Pyongyang. But China has recently
shown more willingness to listen to South Korea on the unification issue, a
good sign since Beijing’s cooperation in managing that process would be
Ms. Park is the latest South Korean president to push for
unification. But as the differences between the countries harden and younger
generations of South Koreans lose interest, she may also be the last.
A version of this editorial appears in print on December 12,
2014, on page A34 of the New York edition with the headline: Is
Peaceful Korean Unification Possible?. Order