Blue House/Reuters
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak speaks during an operational report by the Unification Ministry at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, Wednesday.

South Korea says it will prepare for unification with North

South Korea's statement that it intends this year to begin preparations to reunify the Koreas will likely irk China and the North, which could consider it a provocation.

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South Korea’s Unification Ministry said Wednesday it would shift focus next year from pursuing inter-Korean talks to preparing for unification with North Korea.

That announcement is likely to raise the ire of the North and its ally China. It comes as South Korean President Lee Myung-bak said that the South must resolve the problem of the North’s nuclear program through six-party talks, even while stressing the importance of military readiness.

Tensions have been high on the Korean peninsula. The North shelled the South’s Yeonpyeong Island last month, killing four people, including two civilians. Before that, the South accused the North of torpedoing a warship in March, killing 46 sailors. The South’s military drills in recent weeks have provoked increasingly strong rhetoric from the North, which is in the process of a power change.

The Unification Ministry’s new strategy came in a policy report for 2011 delivered to the president. The Financial Times reports that Unification Minister Hyun In-taek said the South would work to improve conditions for ordinary North Koreans as it prepares for reunification. The two Koreas have technically remained in a state of war since the signing of an armistice in 1953.

Bloomberg reports that “the South Korean government has been at pains to draw a distinction between the regime and the people.”

While it is unlikely the ruling elite would change their habits, the way the country’s civilians think is changing fast, officials said at a Unification Ministry briefing, according to a statement from the ministry that didn’t identify the speakers.

Lee said in Malaysia earlier this month that an unstoppable change was taking place among the North’s population and the South needed to get ready for reunification now, according to South Korean newspaper Joongang Daily. The government aims to complete plans in the first half of next year on how South Korea could fund reunification, Unification Minister Hyun In Taek said in an Oct. 20 interview.

The announcement is likely to anger the North, which sees such statements as a move by the South to “absorb” the North. The Korea Times reports that Lee "ruled out the possibility of 'absorbing' North Korea, saying the reunification of the two Koreas should be achieved peacefully." Nonetheless, a Chinese state-run newspaper criticized the plan as provocative, saying it would raise tensions on the peninsula and accusing the South of acting like a “bull in a china shop.”

Peninsula reunification requires collaboration by both Koreas. This plan, which is proposed by the South while it carries out a military drill and includes a strategy which sets preparations in motion for the collapse of the North Korean regime, will hardly enhance ties between the two sides.

The Korean Peninsula is now plagued by the idea of a violent reunification. South Korea is adopting moves that go against its wider goals.

An article in China’s official news agency Xinhua noted that “both Lee and Hyun to reiterate their support for "peaceful reunification" in the long term.”

But an editorial in the South Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo argues South Korea must be cautious about a new reunification policy, and prepare for the reactions from the North, as well as China.

The biggest problem is China. Beijing in principle supports the reunification of the two Koreas, provided that they agree on it peacefully. But if the South starts announcing specific steps towards reunification starting next year, China could be tempted to reveal its real intentions. Given growing US – China competition in Northeast Asia and the current South Korea-China relationship, which is founded on business alone and lacks common diplomatic and strategic aims, the chances are that China will oppose the new doctrine and strengthen its support of the crumbling North Korean regime. A cool-headed judgment is needed whether this is a good time to call Beijing's bluff.

--- The original version mischaracterized the 1953 armistice.

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