Challenges of Unifying a Nation: Koreas path to reunification

Recent news has brought back the idea of Korean reunification into the international community’s minds. Noticeably, The North and South have reopened communication channels that had been closed for the last two years (Gallo, 2021). As many may remember in 2018 and 2019 the Trump administration took part in summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. However, since then the country had cut all communication. Now that the inter-Korean dialogue has started up again the question of reunification can be re-evaluated.

Therefore, this Blog will concern itself with a brief history of Korea and reunification. Additionally, the current strategies of both North and South Korea will be presented and a brief comparison with the German reunification will be made. It will also have a look at the international community and important stakeholders within the discussion. Lastly, the security issue of proliferation of nuclear weapons by North Korea and its impact on the dialogue will be reviewed.

How did Korea get divided?

Previously to the first World War the Korean peninsula had been a unified State for centuries (Kim D.K., 2014). It was known as the Korean Empire. However, from 1910 until the end of the second World War (1945) Japan had annexed the country. Beginning with the Cold War Korea became divided between the USA and Soviet Union. In 1950 the Korean War began. It ended in a stalemate in 1953 with the 38th parallel being the boarder. Since then both countries have wanted to unify under their system. But both Koreas changed into vastly different states in the now nearly 70 years of separation. In the late 2010´s the North-South dialogue opened up slowly with the participation of North Korea in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea.

What did unifications in history look like?

Historic unifications of states changed in nature during and after the Cold War. Previously, both Italy and Germany had unified under one government in the late 19th century (Riall, 1994; Confino, 1997). In both countries it was seemingly a pro-democratic nationalist movement that brought the idea to the table. However, the aristocracy were the deciding powers. These Elites had fought the idea at first but had found that over time unification could provide justification for their regime and protect their power. In Germany this mentality was developed in the late 1800s after three successful wars with its neighbours while Italy developed an inner power struggle. This showcases that support for the idea of unification has to be present in both the population and the persons in power for one nation to develop. Additionally, the different powers within the forming states tried to dominate each other. The process in Germany was more successful as there was a hegemonic power within the state and enemies were clearly defined outside the nation.

After the Cold War there were the reunification of Vietnam, Germany and the ongoing one of Hong Kong and China. Vietnam and Germany had been in similar situations as Korea at the time (Kim M. J., 2009; Mertes, Müller and Winkler, 2018). Following the second World War they had been divided between communist and capitalistic powers. However, their reunifications played out very differently. Vietnam became one nation in 1976, a year after the end of the Vietnam War. The United States ended their war efforts within the country which enable the communist north to take over the south. The idea was to create a socialist revolution within the south to adapt them to the communist system. But due to droughts and international embargos the economic growth of the country was slowed down drastically. For Germany it was the slow demise of the Soviet Union that allowed for reunification. The people within the socialist East called for a unified nation in protests that ended in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Additionally, politicians were not opposed to the idea. Similarly, to Vietnam the country became one nation after one year of preparations. Here it was the capitalist west that allowed the eastern states to join under their constitution. Both of these examples are possibilities of the reunification of Korea while the latter is the more likely. However, Germany cannot provide a model as economic mismanagement, security threats and the political regime in North Korea allowed for vast differences between the countries.

In the last example, China took a very different route. In 1997 Hong Kong was handed back to the mainland after it had been a British colony (Niedbalski, 2020). The Chinese government decided that a slow alignment over the next 50 years would be the plan. This was decided due to the vast differences in politics, economy and culture between the two. Therefore, this unification is still an ongoing process. Recent pro-democratic protests in Hong Kong have shown the unwillingness of the people their to give up their political freedoms. Still China was able to detain and dominate their opponents. The large differences between the two Korean states call for a similar solution.

What are the current strategies of both Countries?

Presenting the current strategies proves difficult as North Korea treats their plans rather secretive (Stent, 2021). The international understanding of Kim Jong Un´s plan is derived from what he has openly shared and secret documents and conversations that have been leaked over the years. In 2018 he stated that there should be a peaceful negotiation. Nevertheless, in 2019 leaked documents revealed his plans to continue building a strong military to defy the international community.

We will dominate the world with the nuclear weapons, will make the U.S. apologize and compensate for us for decades of bullying our people, and will declare to the entire world that the world’s powerful order will be reshaped by the Juche-Korea, not the United States.

Kim Jong Un

South Korean politicians on the other hand had always supported a peaceful reunification process (Ward, 2021). Most recently under president Moon Jae In the government encouraged dialogue and economic interactions between the countries. However, consensus on what priority unification should take has always been missing in South Korea. Hence, the importance of the 2022 presidential election. Younger South Koreans show less optimism and assertiveness towards the topic. Their national understanding is based on a civic identity rather than an ethnic one.

Currently, the North´s priority is to safeguard their dynastic regime. So, the possibility of an agreement that will lead to its end is unlikely. Similarly, the democratic South is not willing to conform to totalitarianism. So, piecing together the political differences has to be the first step for a successful dialogue.

What does international law say to the topic of reunification? 

When working towards a legal unification, a variety of factors have to be taken into consideration: coordination among the actors, model rules, compliance with international law and participation in international unification efforts, drafting restatements. According to the National Reports, these factors matter to different degrees and not always in all the systems. (Daniel HALBERSTAM, 2012). The possible reunifications scenarios by what means this could happen are categorized into four parts: gradual change, indefinite status quo, system collapse and war. Furthermore, Seoul would have 3 post-reunification security options: neutrality, autonomy, or alliance (Coghlan, April 2008). 

The United Nations General Assembly adopted in 1970” The Declaration of Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Co-operation among states” (Assembly, 1970). It states that a state’s territory cannot be acquired by another state by using threat, violence, or force. A territory acquired by these means will not be legally recognized. However, an agreement in a peacefully manner and a compromise is not excluded. The European integration and the concept of national sovereignty had played key roles in the unification of Germany (Hailbronner, n.d.). However, in the case of North Korea, the officials are concerned about a reunification which could lead to the interference of United States in the Korean affairs, therefore they would lose the sovereignty of their state (RINAUDO, 2021). 

State Sovereignty represents another principle of international law. It gives states territorial jurisdiction and immunity. States have authority in their territory, and are free from other states intervention on their territory (Codification Division, Article 2(1)–(5), 2021). It should be taken into consideration that after a possible reunification of Korea, the North Korea would join the union as a less powerfully party. North Korea would have less power in the decision-making process. This aspect alarms the North Korean officials to take the reunification into consideration. They believe their political, social, and economic statutes will be jeopardized as well as their ideology and authority. (RINAUDO, 2021). 

What are the views of the International Community? 

Issues such as security and economy will be the two most urgent problems that Korea would have to address in a post-reunification scenario. Seoul would have 3 post-reunification security options: neutrality, autonomy or alliance. The neutrality case is suited for more minor states due to Korea being a middle-power status.  


In an autonomy scenario, the reunified Korea would lift the authority of U.S army on its land. In this case, it would be able to maintain favourable relationships with China and the United States. 

The most secure option would be an alliance. However, with which countries Korea would form alliances depends on the role of China and USA in that process. From both perspectives, a” unified Korea with a declared nuclear capability would lead to a serious deterioration in regional stability, greatly fuelling latent strategic rivalries”. 

For China, DPRK is a strategic position against the United States and the ROK alliance. Beijing has no interest in a reunification process of Korea and is committed to support an indefinite existence of North Korea.  

In contrast, United States is not using a passive approach to the Korean reunification due to the rising Chinese influence on the peninsula and the threats it possess to the regional security. USA wants to keep the peninsula status quo with a non-nuclear North. In the longer term, USA seeks a unified, stable and democratic Korea, with a free-market economy which integrates North and South and is aligned with Washington. 

Of all the reunification scenarios, the more we progress into the future, the stronger the Chinese position and influence is likely to be towards Korea, while United States influence in the region is decreasing over time. 

 However, despite Korean’s desire for autonomy and self-rule, the economic and security situation of a unified Korea as well as the direction Seoul will incline to in the future will not be based on Korea’s actions itself. To a larger extent it will depend on China and the United States actions (Coghlan, April 2008) 

Why did North Korea leave NPT? 

Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is an international treaty adopted on 12 June 1968 in New York. The treaty entered into force in 1970. It aims to prevent the spreading of nuclear weapons and weapons technology and disarmament. The treaty has a safeguard system under IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) (IAEA, n.d.). The treaty was joined by 191 states including North Korea.  

However, North Korea publicity confirmed that is posses nuclear weapons and left the treaty in 2003 declaring that it could” not be bound to the NPT”.It was the first and the only state party that declared that.  After that, the issue of the North Korean nuclear program has not been solved between the DPRK and the international community. North Korea tested nuclear weapons in 2006 and 2009. Pyongyang’s main theme for 2007 was building an “Economically strong Socialist Country based on Nuclear Deterrence” (Coghlan, April 2008) . Followed by its largest nuclear test on 2017. The Security Council adopted Chapter 7 resolutions which is condemning the tests and imposing sanctions (WING, n.d.).In January 2021, North Korea unveiled another missile – a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile which DPRK  declared it to be “the world’s most powerful weapon”. 

Within this context of reforming system-defences that North Korea’s nuclear program can be examined. Because North Korea has become gradually secluded and isolated, it tried to compensate and to balance this aspect by increasing its strategic options through ballistic missiles and nuclear and biological weapons. Pyongyang’s reason for following this tactic is to guarantee the survival of the state. Also, DPRK is using these tactics as a bargaining item to gain concessions from the West. 

Despite the fact that North Korea is possessing a threat to the International Community with its nuclear weapons, a plan for a long-term disarmament is less likely to happen in the future. 

What outlook can be drawn from this for the future? 

A reunification possesses two vital aspects: the reunification and the immediate challenge that comes from it, and the new land that emerges from reunification. The last aspect has the potential to transform relationships in Northeast Asia. Although in the 20th century, there were numerous expectations of a Korean reunification. Since the last decade, these expectations diminished. After the fast German reunification, the Korean’s people hope faded when they realized the enormous cost of the reunification. It is estimated between 25$ billion and 3.5$ trillion and this represents the financial costs only. Seoul would be unable to take in the economic cost itself (Coghlan, April 2008). While the idea of reunification remains, distinct aspects such as how, when and under which conditions this will happen remains uncertain in the future.


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