Famine & Unification: The Case of Ireland and North Korea

June 19th, 2012

Marcus Noland’s recent comparison of the famines in Ireland in the 1840s and North Korea in the 1990s is spot-on — but perhaps not in the way he intended.  In that post he pointed out…

“The Irish Potato famine of the 1840s is one of history’s best remembered.  One of the odd things about the Irish case is that Ireland actually exported food during the famine as economic historian Joel Mokyr has demonstrated.  The potato, the island’s mono-crop, was very heavy in value or caloric terms due to its high water content.  The transportation network across Ireland was underdeveloped and presented an impediment to internal trade.  Moreover, incomes in western Ireland were relatively low. So cultivators on the more fertile east side of the island could earn more money by exporting their crop across the sea to Britain than by hauling the potatoes across the island to be sold to their poorer relations.”

However, in his post Noland failed to point out that in the 19th century Ireland did not have its own government; all decisions, economic and otherwise, were made in London. Millions of Irish people starved because London stuck to its free-market principles, and refused to help. Likewise, people in North Korea suffer from food shortages not of their own making, but imposed upon them by foreign powers which prevent North Korea doing normal trade with the outside world. The government in Pyongyang has appealed for and received outside aid, much to its own Juche chagrin.

But an Irish comparison with Korea nevertheless does exist..

When the UK was forced out of Ireland by a guerrilla war in the 1920s, it left behind a country partitioned into North and South. In 1932 the IRA, led by Eamon De Valera and which had fought to annul the partition treaty and reunite Ireland, came to a compromise with Dublin and formed a political party – Fianna Fail – which won a general election. This alarmed London, because it knew that Fianna Fail was committed to reuniting Ireland in an independent republic. If southern Ireland prospered it would attract not only the disaffected Catholics in the north to join a prosperous united Irish Republic, but also many Protestants, who resented being squashed by the British into a little statelet in the northeast corner of Ireland when previously they had been powerful in the whole island (The leaders of the United Irishmen who had led the fight for an Irish Republic in 1798 had all been Protestants, as had the leaders of the 1848 uprising).

The answer was the Economic War, sometimes called the Tariff War, of the 1930s.  The British Empire, the superpower of the time, blockaded, embargoed and out-tariffed southern Ireland in order to bring it to its knees economically and drive its citizens to flee abroad – sound familiar? It thereby reduced the appeal to the Irish people in the north of reunification – still sounding familiar?

An Irish model for unification? Maybe

A false comparison — or contrast – which is often made is that between the situation of divided Korea and divided Germany. It is said that the reunification of Germany was enormously costly for West Germany, and with the DPRK it would be even more costly for the ROK, as the economic gap between the two halves of Korea is much wider than that of the two Germany’s.  However, it is important to remember that unlike in Ireland, the two Germany’s never fought a civil war.  In short, unification between two old enemies is much more difficult than between two peoples who have traditionally been on the same side.  However, the example of Ireland suggests that this is not impossible.

In southern Ireland civil war enemies (The forces of the Irish Free State and the IRA under De Valera) stopped shooting each other, and agreed to compete peacefully for power as political parties in the Dublin parliament. Ever since, first one then the other has ruled over what is now known as the Republic of Ireland by appealing to the electorate. This is the theme of Bill Kissane’s book Explaining Irish Democracy. He cites other examples of civil war enemies (in Finland and in Spain) as having laid down the gun and agreed to compete peacefully for political power on the basis of shared nationality. Surely there’s a road here for Korea to follow?

But compounding the Korean problem is the presence of U.S. forces in the South. Under the current Armistice Agreement, the U.S. heads the United Nations forces in Korea and is bound to exercise operational control over all forces south of the DMZ — not North of it. Reunification would mean no further role for U.S. forces on the peninsula, because there would be nobody to defend and nobody to defend against. China, of course, would never allow U.S. troops to march up to its borders again. Nor would Russia. And Japan would wonder why it needed thousands of GIs occupying it so long after WWII.

In this sense, a better precedent for Korean unification than the German example might be the reunification of Austria. Austria, as part of the defeated Third Reich, was occupied by the allied forces in four military zones from 1945 to 1955. An agreement between the occupying forces was reached to withdraw completely from Austrian soil in 1955, on condition that Austria write into its constitution a guarantee of “everlasting neutrality.” As in the case of Finland, Moscow was quite happy with neutral states on its borders no matter what economic or political system they chose. Could Korea become another “Austria — or Finland –in the East?”

What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comment section below.

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About the Author

Paul White

Paul White compiles DPRK Business Monthly.