Do we really want a unified Korean peninsula?

While it still seems beyond the realm of reality, there are conversations taking place in the midst of the Olympic Games which hint at the possibility of North and South Korea finding a path toward recombining into a single nation. As the first sign of such a possible future, many are pointing to the women’s hockey team, which melded players from both nations in their 8-0 shellacking at the hands of Switzerland. But as Time Magazine pointed out this weekend, even that was ripe with problems.

“Communication has been an issue,” says South Korean player Randi Griffin, who grew up in the United States but has Korean citizenship (she’s studying for a PhD in evolutionary anthropology at Duke). North Korea and South Korea use different hockey terms; the extra translations fritter away practice time. In their Olympic training, South Korean team played exhibition games against top U.S. college teams. North Korea didn’t benefit from such high-level prep.

“The North Korean players really haven’t had exposure to that before,” says Griffin. “This is the first time ever they’ve seen that much speed on the ice.”

The South Korean public hasn’t completely embraced hockey history. A man wearing a South Korea hockey jersey offered a sharp thumbs down when asked if he were happy about the team’s North Korean presence. Grace Koo, a South Korean citizen who attends Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, also disapproves of the combined Korean team.

“It’s very sad to see,” says Joo, 22. “The South Korean players trained so many years. The Olympics became very political. And I didn’t want that.”

The challenges of blending two hockey teams aren’t even a single grain of sand on the beach when compared to what it would take to merge those two nations which have been in an uninterrupted state of war for longer than most of the people watching these games have been alive. And as little as three weeks ago there was no change in the awful status quo. Yet now, barely a fortnight later, they’re talking about a merger?

Color me skeptical. Some wounds are just very deep, and even if they eventually heal, they leave some awful scars. The New York Times offered a decent retrospective of the history of sports unification on Friday which is worth a look. The two Koreas fielded a combined table tennis team back in 1991 and one of the players from that series talked about how peace would eventually come, not from politics, but from making “one friend at a time.”

It’s a pleasant thought, and I’m sure there are many possible friendships waiting in the wings. Also, many in South Korea no doubt wish that they didn’t constantly live under the threat of a hail of missiles sailing into their country from the North on a daily basis. Peace would definitely have its advantages.

But what would a unified Korea look like? If they were to share a central government, who would control Kim’s nuclear missiles and decide when they would be deployed? What would happen to their international relationships? I’m not just talking about the very different stance they hold toward the United States. Japan has a long history in that region which many Koreans have not forgotten. China doesn’t seem at all interested in a united Korea. They obviously like having a buffer zone between themselves and the more democratic, western society of the South. There are plenty of others on the list.

One final question is precisely how much of an economic drain would the North be on the South? South Korea has one of the most active, prosperous economies in that part of the world while the North is the epitome of a broken, stagnant black hole, lacking in all prosperity. Trying to bring conditions in the North up to the level enjoyed in the South could bankrupt them.

And who would this new Korean government side with… China and Russia or the West? As I said above, it still seems so unlikely as to be a fantasy, at least in our lifetimes. But if they are going to seriously begin talking about this, we may have opened a can of worms which could blow up in our faces.