SEOUL - A senior South Korean official was forced to backpedal furiously Thursday after he revealed that Seoul was secretly planning for the possibility of "non-consensual" unification with North Korea.
Chung Chong-Wook, the vice chairman of the Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation, said he had used the "wrong words" during a breakfast forum on Tuesday.
At the event, Chung had said there were a "variety of road maps" for unification and that his committee had a special team "preparing for non-consensual unification".
In the event of the North being absorbed by the South, he also said there were plans for how to deal with the elite members of the Pyongyang regime.
While Seoul almost certainly has contingency plans for multiple scenarios, the only official policy goal is that of a gradual, step-by-step unification based on consensus.
North Korea repeatedly accuses the South, and its main ally the United States, of preparing and training for invasion, and Chung's remarks are the sort that Pyongyang would seize on as further evidence.
As some members of the ruling conservative Saenuri party called for Chung to resign, the presidential Blue House and Chung's committee issued statements insisting the South had no intention of forcing the unification of the divided peninsula.
And Chung himself came out with a 180 degree reversal on his previous remarks.
"There is nothing like a team within the committee that prepares for unification through absorption," he said Thursday.
North and South Korea came into being as separate states in 1948 and the 1950-53 Korean war sealed the division.
Reunification has been a stated priority for both Seoul and Pyongyang since then, and is enshrined in both their constitutions.
Professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul said Chung had clearly spoken out of turn about plans that certainly existed, but were never formally acknowledged.
"It's only normal that preparations should be made for any conceivable eventuality, including reunification through absorption," Yang told AFP.
"But there are things that should be kept confidential, as they only deepen North Korea's suspicion about the South's ultimate goals", he said.