Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2008

The Korean Peninsula: Is Kim Dae-jung's Pursuit of a Korean Confederation Realistic?

Linda Jakobson

January 1999

Finnish Institute for International Affairs


In the spring of 1999 Swiri -fever swept South Korea. Millions flocked to see the first domestic action film considered up to international standards. “Swiri,” a slick Hollywood-style spy thriller, revolves around the complex issue of Korean unification that lies at the heart of Korea's future. Since the inauguration of President Kim Dae-jung in February 1998, South Korea has debated unification more openly than ever before.

Though the film concerns a diehard North Korean secret agent trying to provoke a war between the two Koreas, who falls in love with a South Korean intelligence officer, serious themes underlie the melodrama. At the end of the film, South and North Korean intelligence officers battle each other in the back halls of a Seoul stadium during a World Cup soccer match.3 Neither the jubilant crowds nor the smiling representatives of ongoing normalization talks between South and North are aware of the hostilities. Did the scriptwriter want to remind his audience how easily war on the Korean Peninsula could break out, despite the optimistic public statements advocating Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine policy”? Or did he intend to insinuate that – in real life as in movies – Korean political leaders are not always aware of the military’s actions? In fact, it is unclear to what extent the South Korean military supports Kim Dae-jung’s comprehensive engagement. His policy explicitly rules out a military takeover of the North and promotes not only engagement but also peaceful coexistence.

Such questions lead to others, on which this paper will focus. How realistic is a confederation of two Korean nations, with two systems and two governments, as Kim Dae-jung envisions? Confederation presupposes the continued existence of the North Korean regime. But can the collapse of North Korea be avoided? To what extent do outsiders, specifically the United States and Korea’s neighbors – China, Japan and Russia – influence the direction of events on the Korean Peninsula?