The South Korean ruling party’s candidate for president has downplayed the prospect of the future reunification of the Korean peninsula, as the country’s voters tire of decades of fruitless diplomacy with the North.
Lee Jae-myung of the progressive Democratic party, whose manifesto includes a commitment to “seek unification through peaceful measures”, told reporters on Thursday that competition between the two Koreas in terms of ideology and efforts to prove the superiority of each system “has no meaning” and did not offer the prospect of “real gains any more”.
Lee, the governor of South Korea’s most populous province, has questioned the effectiveness of US-led sanctions on North Korea. He praised former US president Donald Trump’s efforts to engage directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “very useful and desirable” but said that “[Trump’s] approach was too rosy, trying to strike a ‘big deal’ to resolve all issues all at once”.
Instead, Lee said he would pursue a “pragmatic relationship that helps the economic development and support the livelihoods of the people of the two Koreas”.
Lee’s comments have disheartened those who hope that South Korea will continue to pursue reconciliation with North Korea with the ultimate goal of securing reunification of the peninsula after more than 70 years of division.
South Korea’s constitution pledges that the country shall “seek unification and shall formulate and carry out a policy of peaceful unification based on a basic free and democratic order”.
The Korean peninsula, which is still formally in a state of war, remains one of the world’s great potential geopolitical flashpoints.
Having pursued a nuclear weapons campaign for decades, in 2017 North Korea tested intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the American mainland. Development of its missile and nuclear programmes continues apace.
This month, Lee told a gathering of university students that “it is too late to pursue the unification” of the two Koreas, adding that “there is no need to elevate hostility by denying each other’s system and arguing over which can be absorbed by which”, and that he preferred a “de facto unification status”.
Jeongmin Kim, an analyst with Seoul-based information service NK Pro, said that Lee was “drawing a line” between himself and Democratic party incumbent Moon Jae-in, who has staked his political legacy on transforming inter-Korean relations.
“The progressive line remains the same — that South Korea is no longer engaged in an ideological struggle with North Korea, and that the North is no longer seen just as an enemy,” said Kim.
“But Lee is signalling a shift in priorities: from reconciliation to ‘pragmatic’ economic co-operation, and from reunification to coexistence.”
Lee, who has likened himself to leftwing US senator Bernie Sanders, has emphasised his domestic economic agenda based on aggressive welfare spending, low-priced public housing and cheap loans for the poor that includes a pledge to introduce a universal basic income of more than $400 a month.
The other leading contender for March’s presidential election, conservative candidate Yoon Seok-yul, has also attempted to appeal to younger voters concerned about inequality and the cost of living with a pledge of 500,000 half-priced housing units.
Analysts said that while both candidates have promised to pursue diplomacy with the North Korean regime, their focus on domestic economic concerns reflected the priorities of young swing voters with whom the issue of relations with Pyongyang did not resonate.
“Much of the South Korean population, especially younger people, are highly depoliticised — they have to find a way to survive in a society where the competition is very fierce, where there is low job security and high property prices,” said NK Pro’s Kim, adding that disillusion had been exacerbated by the collapse of the Trump-Kim summit at Hanoi in 2018.
“Hanoi left South Koreans very disappointed — many lost hope that a large-scale discussion of unification would ever happen, and I think many politicians are thinking that too.”