There is a book about Korea, written by Daniel Tudor, a South Korean correspondent for The Economist magazine, called “The Impossible Country.”
In the book, Tudor explains that he has given the East Asian nation the “impossible” label because of its unprecedented and unfathomable reconstruction from a country devastated by war in 1953 — a three-year struggle between north and south that left nearly 10 percent of its population dead and over half of its infrastructure and homes demolished — to become the 15th-largest economy and the seventh-largest trade nation in the world.
Tudor also points out that he chose the name because of the seemingly impossible standards of education, physical appearance and professional success that South Korean society has imposed on its people that make personal happiness practically unattainable.
But there is a third reason why South Korea can be called “the impossible country,” and while Tudor never states it directly, he continually alludes to it throughout the book: the country’s ostensibly impossible dream to reunite with its northern neighbor and reestablish its former territory as greater Korea, spanning the entire peninsula to the Chinese border.
When I traveled to Seoul a couple years ago, I had the privilege to meet with representatives from South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, National Human Rights Commission and Ministry of Unification, all of whom spoke with a common voice about the inevitable reunification of the divided nation.
Echoing their president Park Geun-hye — who coined the phrase “reunification bonanza” (referring to the vast economic, social and security benefits that reunification would eventually bring) at the start of her second year in 2014, and which has since become the buzzword for encouraging support of the rather farfetched notion of coaxing the likes of Kim Jong-un and his henchmen into willingly renouncing their autocratic power and turning their mineral-rich territory over to their kinder, gentler cousins in the south so that all Koreans can live happily ever after in a utopic, democratic world — virtually every government official offered the same spiel about how, in 50 or so years, the undetermined cost (estimates run from $500 billion to $2 trillion) of bringing the uneducated, undernourished population of the north (with an estimated GDP that is 43 times smaller than the south) to the same level as the highly industrialized, highly affluent south would be feasible.
There were frequent comparisons to Germany and its successful 1989 reunification of East and West. (The South Koreans take a lot of heart and inspiration in the German experience. There is even a section of the Berlin Wall enshrined in a monument in downtown Seoul.)
But, for the most part, I came away unconvinced.
The same holds true with most younger South Koreans, who don’t remember the 1945 partition and who are leery of assuming the price of assimilating their backward cousins into an already extremely competitive society, especially if the so-called benefits are going to take place a half century down the road, when they will be ready for retirement.
The South Korean officials were quick to point out that not all the benefits would be financial, or at least not directly financial.
There is, of course, the potential advantage of having a land-route connection to China and the rest of Asia (which would translate into less expense for exporting South Korean products) and North Korea’s vast mineral and rare earth reserves (a recent geological study by British private equity firm SRE Minerals Limited suggests that North Korea could hold 216 million tons of rare earth minerals used in electronics – more than double the known global sources and six times the estimated reserves in China, the market leader).
And there is the allusive promise of a pipeline direct from Russia to bring in natural gas to help fuel the country’s continuing economic growth (which would certainly lead to cheaper energy costs).
But, perhaps most importantly, there is the potential assurance of regional stability, with, one hopes, the end of a nuclear-capable maniac right next door who at any given moment is prone to blow the entire southern end of the Korean Peninsula to smithereens on a whim (which, naturally, translates into less military spending).
No one — either in Korea or outside the peninsula — doubts that reunification would be a daunting task, and for the moment, Park and her followers are contemplating a plethora of hypothetical scenarios in which reintegration of north and south might be realized.
South Koreans like to imagine a morally rehabilitated Kim Jong-un meekly surrendering power and granting the south control over his impoverished fiefdom in the spirit of offering his people a better tomorrow.
Kim Jong-un, on the other hand, has more sinister and militaristic visions of forcing the south into submission to his perception of a vast despotic nation led by him and his descendants.
Needless to say, neither side is willing to budge in that department.
So, between the occasional border skirmishes and ongoing hostilities spurred on by sporadic threats of the return of full-fledged war (the Korean War never officially ended, but a tepid armistice was implemented in 1953, which is still in place today), South and North Korea alternately intimidate and court each other in the hopes of reaching their oblique dream of reunification.
The rest of the world looks on skeptically, doubtful that the political reunification will ever come to pass.
But let us not forget that Korea is the “impossible country,” an incredibly resilient and determined nation that survived countless invasions, occupations and exploitations by both Japan and China, as well as a civil war just six decades ago that left it, in the words of one of former South Korean President Kim Dong-jin’s closest advisors, “the poorest, most impossible country on Earth.”
It is easy to underestimate the stamina and fortitude of the Korean people, a people who, time and time again, have rebuilt themselves from nothing, reborn like the phoenix from the ashes of despair and destruction.
It is hard to conceive of Korean reunification, not just for outsiders but for Koreans themselves, but the phoenix nation has surprised the world before and there is a chance that it will do it again. The country’s impossible dream might not be that impossible after all.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.