Jürgen Habermas’s public lecture in Seoul on ‘National Unification and Popular Sovereignty’ came as a welcome intervention for those Koreans committed to a reunification process which would be both peaceful and democratic. Although little of what he said, even on German unity, was entirely new to many of them, it was a rare privilege to enlist his international reputation and authority to drive home a number of most important points. For instance, his warnings against adopting ‘a fast track’ to unity following the German model should have a particularly salutary influence at a time when many, even in the ruling circles, are entertaining doubts about South Korea’s ability to bring about or bear the consequences of a ‘German-type’ absorption but also when pressures to go for this option remain strong. Equally noteworthy, especially in the light of his known reservations about nationalism, was his acknowledgement that ‘fortunately’ in Korea the democratic forces were also the national forces promoting reunification—a timely reminder which at once bolsters the self-confidence of those forces and warns them that this link should never be taken for granted.
Outside Korea, the question of Korean reunification still awaits recognition as a matter of global concern. Here again Habermas’s contribution, and the decision of the nlr to publish an English translation of his text, should help to insert that issue into international discourse—which still remains predominantly a Western, even largely an Anglophone, discourse. True, Habermas’s own perception of its global significance is offered tentatively. All the more reason to gratefully take up the opportunity to make some comments from ‘on the spot’—both to continue the open discussion that Habermas began in Seoul, something on which he always places greatest importance, and to explore the possibilities of practical solidarity, perhaps above and beyond what he envisages.
The euphoria of the South Korean ruling circles at West Germany’s absorption of its Eastern counterpart in 1989–90 did not last long. Sobering enough were the ensuing difficulties that severely burdened even the strongest of European economies. It was thus my judgement when I contributed an article to these pages that a new consensus toward ‘absorption in yet another sense’ was being formed, namely, ‘a fuller integration of the two parts of the divided peninsula into the world market, the current state structure of North Korea helping to police its population for the benefit of South Korean and global capital as well as for its own self-preservation.’footnote1 Nearly four years later, the prospective costs of a ‘German-type’ absorption appear as daunting as ever, and they are more widely recognized. Yet other developments have complicated the picture, and the consensus against the German model has not been so firmly established as one might have expected. Among these, the death of the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung in July 1994 not only derailed the inter-Korean summit conference scheduled for that month but brought many uncertainties and instabilities first of all to the North Korean regime, but also to the powers-that-be of the entire peninsula, so that the mutual opening of the two Koreas has not been pursued to any meaningful degree. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the reaction of the government and the mainstream press in Seoul to Kim’s death was almost as extravagant as Pyongyang’s—a fact that reveals something about the nature of the ‘division system’ to which I shall return.
Then came the disastrous flood that hit large parts of North Korea in the summer of 1995, and another, though lesser, flood this year. True, the economic difficulties of North Korea (dprk) owe much to both structural factors—those attendant upon an unusually isolated and ossified command economy—and conjunctural ones, such as the sudden loss of the Soviet bloc markets and sources of supply. Still there is no doubt that the floods have strained the country as never before. All this has given new credibility to the talk of the dprk’s imminent collapse and of the need for South Koreans to prepare themselves for an ‘inevitable’ take-over. Indeed, some of President Kim Young-sam’s recent pronouncements seem to indicate that this view represents his current personal conviction—though it is true that consistency has never been his forte.
Aside from these temporary factors, however—temporary above all because the United States government, still the major actor on the scene, appears bent on stability for the Korean peninsula, but for other reasons that make a different course too risky for Seoul as well—it remains true that neither South Korean nor us ruling circles have any long-term strategy of unification other than absorption. This is not to say that merger is anticipated in the immediate future but that when it comes, it will be of the swift ‘German type’. For, as Martin Hart-Landsberg persuasively argues, ‘One of the most important lessons of the German unification experience is that it is not possible to achieve a gradual unification by absorption.’footnote2 The choice between a fast and a slow track, if it means merely a matter of sooner or later or even much later, is therefore not the main issue. Here Habermas’s stipulation of a ‘way of proceeding which permitted broader discussion and opinion formation, as well as more extensive—and, above all, better prepared—participation of the public’ becomes crucial.footnote3 But how shall we ensure such a way of proceeding in Korea when it was not possible in Germany? One may doubt that what Habermas calls ‘Germany’s experience of a rapid, if not over-hasty, process of unification’ will serve as a sufficiently powerful lesson, particularly since, for all his italicized emphasis, he does not apparently regard that experience as disastrous.footnote4 Nor would ‘disaster’ be the right word, despite the dire consequences for many citizens on both sides, though mostly those of the new Länder.