SEOUL – South Korean President Park Geun-hye vowed Tuesday to map out a fresh path to Korean reunification, building on a recent thaw in cross-border ties despite the North’s anger over South-U.S. military drills.
In a speech marking her first year in office, Park, who had campaigned on a promise of greater engagement with Pyongyang, said she was setting up a committee under her direct control to work out “systematic and constructive” plans for unifying the divided peninsula.
Her national televised address coincided with the conclusion of a six-day North-South reunion for family members separated since the 1950-53 Korean War.
The event, held in North Korea, was the first of its kind in more than three years, and raised hopes of a sustained upswing in relations between the prosperous, democratic South and the impoverished, totalitarian North.
“For true peace . . . it is necessary to make preparations for reunification that will open a new era on the peninsula,” Park said in her address.
South Korea already has an entire ministry dedicated to unification, and it was unclear how the presidential committee would work differently from — or work with — the existing governmental body.
Reunification is enshrined as a national priority in both the South and North Korean constitutions, but pro-merger sentiment in the prosperous South — especially among younger people — has waned considerably in recent years.
Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at the privately-run Institute for Peace and Unification in Seoul, said Park was keen to be seen as having a “proactive” North Korea policy.
“She may try to use the new committee to revive flagging public interest,” Chang said.
Last week, Seoul’s top official for North Korean affairs warned that the goal of reunification was being undermined by the waning interest of young South Koreans.
Unification Minister Ryoo Kihl-jae said it was time to revamp the three-stage road map to reunification that was set in the 1990s.
With the South’s economy — Asia’s fourth-largest — nearly 40 times larger than that of the North, many cite concerns over the enormous financial burden of integration and the social chaos that might follow.
But since the start of this year, Park has been promoting a counterargument that highlights a potential economic “bonanza” to be reaped from the combination of South Korean technical expertise and the North’s natural resources.
Analysts such as Aidan Foster-Carter, an expert on Korean affairs at Leeds University, remain highly skeptical — not least of the implied assumption that reunification would be a peaceful process.
“If Korean reunification ever happens, it will be a grim, arduous march: a long hard slog to integrate two societies now as divergent as the proverbial chalk and cheese,” he wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal.
“No wonder young Koreans abhor the idea,” he added.
For the moment, Park seems to have the public on her side.
Opinion polls show a healthy approval rating for her first year in office, with some of the highest scores linked to her handling of North Korea.
Park has pushed a trust-building policy with Pyongyang, while standing firm in the face of bellicose North Korea threats — especially during a protracted surge in tensions in the months after she took office.