‘Korea will be reunited sooner than we expect’

Academics from North and South Korea are exploring how reunification could work, says Incheon National University president

May 13, 2018
korea handshake
Source: Getty
Watershed: the first symposium on Korean unification will take place this year

Donald Trump’s unconventional approach to international diplomacy divides opinion around the world, but his interventions on North Korea at least appear to be yielding results.

Nine months after the US president threatened the secretive state with “fire and fury like the world has never seen”, there have been several key breakthroughs. These include the release of three US detainees on 9 May, including two workers at North Korea’s Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. Kim Sang-duk, also known as Tony Kim, taught for a month at PUST before he was arrested in 2017, while Kim Hak-song, who also taught at PUST, was detained last year, Reuters reported. The men were arrested for either subversion or “hostile acts” against the government, North Korea had said.

Other breakthroughs include the suspension of North Korea’s nuclear testing programme and the announcement of a meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which is likely to take place in Singapore next month.

Some in South Korea are, however, looking far beyond the prospect of merely establishing working relations with the pariah state on their northern border.

“The day will come when the two countries are united,” Cho Dong-Sung, president of Incheon National University, told Times Higher Education’s Emerging Economies Summit, which took place in the Moroccan capital of Rabat from 8-10 May.

Because Incheon is the closest university to the Korean Demilitarised Zone, the 2.5 mile-wide strip of land separating the two countries, the issue of potential unification of the two states is particularly pertinent to Professor Cho’s institution. And, in October 2017, the idea of “post-unification integration” was adopted as one of Incheon’s grand themes, with researchers from different disciplines applying their time and expertise to how the two states could merge.

For instance, those in Incheon’s history and education departments are exploring what might appear in school textbooks in a united Korea, while health researchers are looking at which communicable diseases would be targeted in the different parts of Korea post-reunification. Law scholars at Incheon are examining how the two countries’ legal systems could be integrated.

Amazingly, Incheon is now cooperating with academics in North Korea on the project, even if the latter are banned from setting foot in South Korea. That is, in part, because the research topics have been judiciously chosen to avoid any accusation that scholars are plotting the downfall of North Korea, said Professor Cho in an interview with THE.

“We have purposely chosen topics which matter, but have nothing to do with ideology,” said Professor Cho, who hosted the first symposium on these issues at Incheon on 30 April.

In October, the world’s first academic conference on Korean unification involving academics from both states will take place at Yanbian University, in Yanbian, the Chinese region that borders North Korea, explained Professor Cho. He said that the input of Chinese professors had been crucial to furthering the research.

While the historic meeting of Korea’s two leaders last month suggests that a rapprochement may be possible, is it not fanciful to expect full-scale reunification in the near future, presumably following the collapse of North Korea’s repressive communist regime?

Professor Cho disagreed. He pointed out that the unexpected events that led to the reunification of Germany in 1990 could equally occur in Korea. “When I was a professor at Seoul National University, [the former German chancellor] Willy Brandt came to receive an honorary doctorate from us in October 1989,” he recalled.

“I remember his response when a student asked him when Germany might be reunited – it was six words: ‘not in the next 10 years’,” said Professor Cho, who added that “two weeks later, the Berlin Wall had fallen".

“Even the most knowledgeable German politician of his generation did not think this result was likely. We do not know what might happen in Korea but we must be prepared for it,” he added.

With political events in North Korea moving in a positive direction, President Trump should be a leading contender for the Nobel Peace Prize if progress continues, said Professor Cho.

“He has a legitimate claim to receive it. And, if three people can get it, maybe [China’s president] Xi Jinping should win too,” he added.


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