Saying that "unification will happen," South Korean President Lee Myung-bak on Sunday proposed a three-step plan to unify the Korean peninsula and a new tax to help his country absorb the enormous costs of integration.
Unification talk, even hypothetical, is a delicate subject on the Korean peninsula, especially at a time when North Korea is dealing with the poor health of its leader, Kim Jong Il, and a rushed succession process for his son, Kim Jong Eun. Analysts said Lee's proposal will probably draw a sharp backlash from the North.
Lee is the first South Korean president to propose a tax to help with the costs of unification, and his remarks reflect the growing sentiment among South Koreans that they must plan for a North Korean collapse.
If North Korea collapses, South Korea would face a massive burden as refugees flood across the border, requiring hundreds of thousands of troops. The cost of unification, according to one study, would exceed $1 trillion.
Since the 1990s, the U.S. and South Korean governments have quietly discussed contingency plans for North Korea's collapse, but China — the North's closest ally — has refused to join in, reluctant to anger Kim.
Lee's plan, similar to proposals from previous South Korean leaders, calls for North Korea to abandon nuclear weapons plans. If North Korea meets that demand — and years of international persuasion have not succeeded — Lee's plan calls for a "peace community," improved economic cooperation and then the establishment of a "national community."
"Inter-Korean relations demand a new paradigm," Lee said, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency. "It is imperative that the two sides choose coexistence instead of confrontation, progress instead of stagnation."
Relations between the countries, which are still technically at war, have deteriorated during Lee's presidency, hitting a low point with the torpedo sinking of the Cheonan warship in March, in which 46 South Korean sailors died.
"Overall, I see a major contradiction in his proposal, proposing a unification tax while having burnt all the bridges with North Korea," said Moon Chung-in, a professor of political science at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea.