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The Korean reunification challenge

It has been a busy few months in the Korean Peninsula, not that it was ever quiet.

In May, liberal Moon Jae-in was elected President of South Korea on a platform of increased dialogue with Pyongyang before promptly suspending further deployment of a US missile intercept system.

A month later, detained American tourist and "enemy of the state" Otto Warmbier was released after more than a year in prison in North Korea, flown back to the in a coma to the United States where he died in hospital.

Then on US Independence Day on July 4, North Korea completed its first successful long-rang missile test with the potential capacity to strike the American mainland.

These events call to mind the song in The Sound of Music, where nuns scold Maria for her erratic behaviour: how do you solve a problem like North Korea?

I remember reading a passage once on the "paradox of communism". It suggests that to remain economically stable, a communist regime eventually must turn outward to the international community for help, be it trade or financial aid.

This props up the regime, but also leaves it open to increased channels of information from outside, the Achilles' heel of a totalitarian regime, and ultimately speeds its downfall. Herein lies the paradox: to ensure its survival it must look outward, which in turn provides the catalyst for change.

Will this apply to North Korea? To anyone looking in, the distant prospect of regime change in the North and reunification seems as far off as it has ever been. Expect to see more warheads and gunshots, rather than any sort of meaningful dialogue or attempts at reunification.

But, for experts on the region and many Koreans themselves, it is not and never will be a question of if. Rather, it is a question of when.

Seoul-based journalist Michael Breen writes in The New Koreans of the potential timescale for reunification and explains that comparing the situation to previous cases, such as Germany, would be wrong.

"We Germans were divided because of our sin", Mr Breen quotes a German official as saying. "The Koreans were divided because of their innocence."

Once pawns in a political chess game, the Koreans have long been divided both geographically and ideologically. The South is now a highly developed, democratic country, albeit with many challenges yet to overcome, while the North is arguably the last totalitarian regime left in the world.

Reunification, though, will have to be internally driven, pushed through organic channels after a period of reconciliation.

Many saw the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR as the immediate precursor to a similar state of affairs in Korea. This proved not to be the case, and so any timescale for reunification has to be viewed as hypothetical.

Mr Breen stresses that a period of reconciliation is needed first, and it could be lengthy.

"The next forty years are a period of maturing," he says, whereby the South further strengthens its economic and political advances and its place in the world. This, then, would be the moment for reconciliation, with the North comfortable in the knowledge that after joining, it would be met with civility and a role to play itself.

However, this depends on a sea change in the strategic thinking of North Korea, from prioritising the security of the leadership to focusing on the wellbeing of its people. For this to happen, the transformation will have to be led by someone other than Kim Jong-un or one of his disciples.

"There has to be a power shift in the North, a palace coup or the death of Kim," Mr Breen points out. "All you need is a leader who would say: the direction we have been going in has been wrong and we're going to change it."

Many will recall how the death from natural causes of the penultimate leader of the USSR, Konstantin Chernenko, paved the way for Mikhail Gorbachev, which brought the ultimate unravelling of the Communist system. Amid speculation about possible health problems besetting Kim, though he is only 33, a death by natural causes might allow for a change of path by the ruling elite.

The timescale is shaky at best, but one thing is certain: it will require a herculean effort from both sides, an abundance of dialogue and a failing heart or a dose of cyanide in North Korea's leader to ensure the country is eventually united once more. Watch this space.

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