The Problem with Lee’s Reunification Plan

On August 15th, the 65th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japan, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak delivered a speech outlining his plans for the reunification of Korea. Although the plans are still vague, like the creation of a “peace village” or a unification tax, a few things are clear.

Lee’s calls for reunification are at odds with his policy. “The next step is to carry out comprehensive inter-Korean exchanges and cooperation with a view to developing the North’s economy dramatically.” The truth is that from the day he came into office, Lee has effectively reversed any of the gains made towards reunification by his predecessors, Presidents Roh Moo-Hyun and Kim Dae-Jung. Lee has cut bilateral aid, stymied inter-Korea business efforts, and even thwarted efforts by South Korean NGOs from providing humanitarian aid to the North. For example, the Korean Sharing Movement, among the country’s most respected and organized humanitarian efforts, sent in 2007 some 3,000 of its members to North Korea to provide medical assistance, build homes and schools, and supplant North Korean cooperative farms with fertilizer. By the end of 2009, the Lee administration only gave clearance to 84 individuals.

“Today inter-Korean relations demand a new paradigm,” Lee stated. “It is imperative that the two sides choose coexistence instead of confrontation, progress instead of stagnation.” As Lee was wrapping up his speech, some 30,000 American and 56,000 South Korean troops are embarking on a 10-day war game, which follows on the heels of South Korea’s anti-submarine exercises near the disputed maritime border with North Korea, which follows on the heels of the joint US-ROK military exercises two weeks before which featured 8,000 marines, 200 ships, and the USS George Washington. “The two Koreas cannot afford to repeat the unfortunate history punctuated by mutual distrust and confrontation,” said Lee. The question is who is confronting whom?

“Reunification will happen. It is therefore our duty to start thinking about real and substantive ways to prepare for reunification such as the adoption of a unification tax.” A reunification tax? This seems to reflect Lee’s shrewd approach to exploit the South Korean peoples’ sentiment—the desire for reunification—with the hard-nosed reality that most don’t want to shoulder the burden. A presidential National Unification Advisory Commission conducted a survey before the Cheonan incident and found that 8 of 10 South Koreans age 19 or older believed unification with North Korea was important, yet only 52.4 percent said they would be willing to shoulder the economic cost of unification.

Some estimate that it would cost somewhere between $300 to $600 billion over ten years to raise North Korean incomes to be 60 percent that of their South Korean counterparts. The Rand corporation estimates that it would cost $670 billion to double the GDP of North Korea within five years of unification. The bottom line is this: the people of South Korea, North Korea and the United States are already paying a tax, but not for reunification, but for preparation for war. South Korea has been annually increasing its military spending by 10 percent, and is estimated to spend $665 billion in its Defense Reform 2020 Initiative. According to a State Department official, citing research by Doug Bandow of the Cato Institute, the United States expends nearly $15 billion annually to maintain its 27,500 troops on its some 85 bases and other installations. In other words, the people of all three countries are already spending the money—let’s just get the governments to talk to each other and truly put back on track the reunification process that was laid out by the two Korean leaders on June 15, 2000.