Remaining Asian Divisions: (Re)unification at a Crossroads

Remaining Asian Divisions: (Re)unification at a Crossroads

Remaining Asian Divisions: (Re)unification at a Crossroads

Duyeon Kim is a visiting senior fellow at the Korean Peninsula Future Forum in Seoul, a non-partisan think tank founded and run by former South Korean national security adviser Chun Yung-woo, and a columnist for The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Since the unification of Germany, many Asia watchers have wondered about the remaining two divisions in the world: China-Taiwan and North Korea-South Korea. Both were once one nation composed of one ethnic heritage but later were divided by complex politics, external forces, and civil war. Discussions surrounding unification have lasted as long as their divisions.

Comparative studies are not always useful because of very different contexts. But these two cases, nonetheless, share two common umbrella questions that are pertinent to policy studies: Is unification necessary and, if so, how should it be done? Both cases involve debates about the use of force versus peaceful means and about the end goal of a “one country, two systems” solution versus one state. There are also distinct parallels between the cross-Strait and Korean cases when it comes to current debates about unification: identity, different political systems, and dwindling popularity with passing generations. These factors will become increasingly important for policymakers in both Taipei and Seoul that will have implications for their respective strategies in managing cross-Strait and cross-border relations.


Since the Cold War, both governments—the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (ROC)— have insisted they are each the sole legal government of China. Beijing sees Taiwan as part of its territory. Meanwhile, South Korea’s constitution declares its legal territory as consisting of the entire Korean peninsula, which is contrary to the United Nations’ designation of two sovereign Korean states, and could complicate matters in times of contingency or post-unification.

When determining whether unification is advantageous for their respective national interests, decision makers in Taipei and Seoul must tackle several key questions. These center on what their respective national objectives are vis-à-vis unification, and if unification is the answer, then by what means it should be achieved.

For Taiwan, its leaders must wrestle with the island’s ambiguous sovereignty and navigate the delicate balance between maintaining the status quo and considering an undefined “right time” to declare independence. There also exists the possibility that Taiwan eventually will have no choice but to unify on Beijing’s terms.

Beijing has long held unification as its ultimate goal and has been rumored to intend to see it realized by 2049 (the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China), although officially no deadline has been set. Like his predecessors, Chinese president Xi Jinping has explicitly aspired for a Hong Kong–like “one country, two systems” outcome with Taiwan. Beijing’s official stance is to reunify through peaceful means, but it has never renounced the use of force; it still “asserts its resolve to use force if necessary.” This means that pressure could mount for Beijing to become more aggressive if it perceives Taiwan pushing for de jure independence and concludes that time is no longer on China’s side.

On the other hand, Taiwan’s political parties are not united on the issue and dispute the definition of “One China.” Taiwan’s Kuomintang party (KMT) has been ideologically pro-unification, while the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP) tends to favor independence. The KMT maintains there is one China with the ROC as the sole representative of an undivided sovereignty. Views within the DPP are more nuanced, but often lean toward eventual independence, with President Tsai Ing-wen favoring maintenance of the “status quo” for now. Taipei’s ultimate fear, at least for proponents of independence, seems to be that it will eventually be left with no other options but to reunify on China’s terms.

For South Korea, meanwhile, key questions are: Should it even aspire to reunify? If so, by force or peacefully, and toward what end?

Traditionally, “Korean reunification” is believed by both South and North Korean governments to mean one country, one system. But in South Korea, political parties paint different pictures for a unified Korea. Conservatives typically envision “one country, one system” under South Korean rule, allied with the United States. For many progressives, however, reunification typically means a federation, and some are even comfortable with a nuclear-armed North as long as it does no harm to the South.

Like the cross-Strait case, Korean unification involves a debate over the means of unification, which is divided in broad terms between the use of force versus peaceful means. South Korean conservative parties tend to include “reunification by absorption” in their discourse, while progressive parties emphasize peaceful unification. It is also no secret that the North has had plans to reunify by absorption as well.

While South Korea’s constitution posits peaceful unification, the use of force has nevertheless hovered in the minds of both countries’ decision makers as an option. An important restraint on either side using military means has been the presence of US forces on the Korean peninsula since the end of the Korean War. In a crisis or contingency, however, South Korea, and perhaps even the North depending on the health of its leadership, might be tempted to attempt to militarily absorb the other.

In both the China-Taiwan and South-North Korea cases there are concerns about the potential downsides of unification, but there is little overlap. Those opposed to unification in Taiwan are typically concerned that unification might compromise their democratic values and rights. Opponents of reunification in South Korea are more concerned about the financial burdens and social problems (such as overpopulation in Seoul and crime) resulting from reunification, while supporters believe a unified Korea could boost the country’s standing in the region.


There are also parallels between the Taiwanese and Korean cases when it comes to unification that would present key challenges for decision makers in Taipei and Seoul: identity, different political systems, and the will of the younger generation.

Taiwan’s political parties are divided on the issue of unification, while China is unified in its stance in favor of unification. Meanwhile, South Korean political parties and the North Korean regime all maintain that unification is a key objective and a desired outcome. A common feature, however, is that the people of Taiwan and South Korea are split on the matter, with a growing younger generation agnostic towards, or opposed to unification.

First, studies show an increasing number of people in Taiwan identify themselves as “Taiwanese” and not “Chinese.” In Korea, South Koreans identify themselves as “South Korean,” although they are ethnically Korean, and they use distinct words for “North Korean” and “South Korean.”

Second, most people in Taiwan do not favor unification any time soon, in part due to the existence of vastly different political systems: 66.4 percent oppose, 18.5 percent are in favor, and 15.1 percent are noncommittal. China is an authoritarian regime, while Taiwan is a vibrant democracy. Similarly, an increasingly provocative North Korea is an authoritarian regime with a backward economy that stands in stark contrast to its vibrantly democratic and economically advanced South Korean neighbor. A South Korean government poll in 2016 showed 50.8 percent of the respondents believed “early unification is not necessary.”

Third, studies show that the younger generation in Taiwan—81 percent of those in the 20 to 29 year-old age group—oppose unification. Similarly in South Korea, a 2016 poll showed 41.8 percent of respondents in their twenties and 38.3 percent in their thirties believe unification is unnecessary.


Most cross-Strait watchers estimate that in the near to midterm, Taiwan will aim to preserve the status quo because of the pragmatic understanding that moving toward independence could result in retaliatory measures from Beijing. Nevertheless, Taiwan’s leadership is likely to seek to preserve the right of the people of Taiwan to make their own decision regarding unification.

Xi Jinping has not set a timetable for unification, but he may do so in his second term as party leader. The 19th Party Congress work report hinted at a mid-twenty-first-century deadline, linking unification with the national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. In the meantime, Beijing will need to define the concepts of unification, “one-China,” and sovereignty, so they reflect the current times and are acceptable to the people of Taiwan. Taipei will need to consider the will of the people in Taiwan and measure that against the costs and benefits of strategic interests.

For Korea, the most plausible scenario for reunification is one that occurs in the event of a crisis on the peninsula as a result of a North Korea regime collapse. Inter-Korean tensions and hostilities arise over security-related matters and not over reunification. The challenge in this scenario is for South Korean leaders to have devised enough blueprints to achieve as soft a landing as possible while dealing with the highly complex and intertwined social, economic, legal, political, and security issues that will likely arise simultaneously. Despite the younger South Korean generation being increasingly opposed to or noncommittal toward reunification, there is a widespread understanding of the potential geopolitical, economic, and strategic gains for a unified Korea. A 2009 Goldman Sachs report projected a unified Korea’s GDP would outpace that of France, Germany, and Japan in 30 to 40 years. The younger generation may find this attractive if they would be able to maintain their current standard of living without incurring major losses in the process. This will be challenging, however. One study estimates the cost of absorbing the North as high as 13 to 15 percent of South Korea’s GDP for over a decade.

Oneness and homogeneity are vital components to Asian identity. But democratic values and economic prosperity on one side of the Strait and south of the 38th parallel seem to be calling into question the need for a political union simply for blood-related nationality purposes among the younger generation, which is already far removed from historical memory of their divisions and the people across the divide.

[1] Interviews with various China and Taiwan experts, August 2017.

[2] Abby Fu, “Why Taiwan’s Democracy Is Not the Fundamental Barrier to Unification,” China Focus, May 15, 2017.

[3] Chiu Yan-ling and Jonathan Chin, “Majority Reject Unification: Poll,” Taipei Times, May 31, 2016.

[4] Kim Hwan-yong, “One in Three South Koreans Say Reunification Unnecessary,” Voice of America, November 17, 2016.

[5] Chiu Yan-ling and Jonathan Chin, “Majority Reject Unification: Poll.”

[6] Kim Hwan-yong, “One in Three South Koreans Say Reunification Unnecessary.”

[7] Interviews with leading Taiwan experts, August 2017.

[8] Goohoon Kwon, “A Unified Korea? Reassessing North Korea Risks,” Global Economics Paper No. 188, Goldman Sachs Global Economics, Commodities and Strategy Research, September 21, 2009.