President Lee Myung-bak in a speech on Sunday marking the 65th anniversary of Korea's liberation from Japanese rule proposed a three-staged method of reunification with North Korea and the introduction of a "unification tax" to prepare for the massive cost.
"Today, inter-Korean relations demand a new paradigm," Lee said. "The two of us need to overcome the current state of division and proceed with the goal of peaceful reunification." The comments mark a shift from policies aimed at maintaining stability to active steps toward reunification.
"We long for the common prosperity and peace of both the South and the North, which will lead to reunification, and this is the right way to achieve the genuine liberation of the nation," he said. He urged North Korea to face reality and make a choice for change.
The three-stage plan would start with a "peace community" that assures security on the peninsula including a denuclearized North, followed by the creation of an "economic community" developing the North's economy through exchanges, and eventually the full integration. His proposal of the "unification tax" was seen as a way of taking active steps toward those goals.
There have been two broad theories of reunification. One is the so-called Sunshine Policy of gradual reunification proposed by former President Kim Dae-jung and favored by progressives. Proponents of the Sunshine Policy believe sudden reunification stemming from regime collapse in North Korea or other unexpected causes would entail tremendous social and financial costs for South Korea. They therefore favor reunification further down the road after the two Koreas narrow their economic differences and acclimatize to each other's societies.
In contrast, conservatives say such an approach would only prolong North Korea's autocratic regime and warn that the South must prepare for a sudden regime collapse in the North. Some even say South Korea should pressure North Korea in order to trigger regime collapse.
Lee's speech leans to the conservative approach, as is evident from his mention of the "need to overcome the current state of division," the establishment of a "peace community" and the shouldering of reunification costs, apparently in preparation for sudden changes in North Korea.
Evidently concerned about conveying such a strong message, Cheong Wa Dae issued a customary supplementary gloss of the presidential statement explaining that the unification tax and other measures were not designed specifically with a potential North Korean regime collapse in mind.
Lee's speech is expected to lead to a major debate in South Korea over how to deal with the North. At a press conference in Washington D.C. in 2008, Lee said reunification in the name of democracy is the "ultimate goal." He added it is important for the North and South to coexist in peace. Since then the North has severed ties with the South and stepped up military provocations. One close aide to Lee said, "The fact that the president, who is fully aware of repercussions, has raised the issue again at the start of the second half of his term reflects his determination."