South Korean discourse on unification gained new energy earlier this year when President Park Geun-hye called unification a “jackpot” (daebak).
While unification has never been far from the hearts of many older South Koreans, polls in recent years have shown disinterest and even outright opposition to it among the younger generation. In particular, the young cite concern that Korean unification could be an economic nightmare for the peninsula.
Enter Chungang University Professor Emeritus Shinn Chang-min. His book, Unification is a Bonanza in Korean (the English version is called The Road to One Korea: Prosperity in Peace) was released in 2012 and, some argue, was a major influence on Park’s remark. While Shinn is modest about the influence of his book on official South Korean unification policy, he argues that his book lays out a well thought-out roadmap for how the two Koreas could become one again.
NK News sat down with Shinn to talk about his views of Park’s unification policy, South Korean-led unification, economic unification versus cultural and social unification, the role of defectors in unification, and even his views on the defection of Hwang Jang -yop, who is largely credited with crafting North Korea’s Juche philosophy and is the highest-ranking North Korean defector to date.
NK News: How would you evaluate South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s unification policy thus far?
‘…just working for peaceful coexistence means that even after 100 years, unification will not happen’
Shinn: I think she is doing an excellent job. I think that previous presidents, particularly presidents who people think have done a lot for unification, like Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun, have not worked for unification, but rather for peaceful coexistence. However, just working for peaceful coexistence means that even after 100 years, unification will not happen. The problem is that North Korean leaders will never let go of their power. If we don’t aim for unification, we will never reach unification and will always be stuck in this same situation.
Furthermore, if we go down the road led by the Lee Myung-bak administration, which ignored North Korea if it did something wrong, this will not bring about unification. Presidents like Kim Young-sam, who changed his policies all the time toward North Korea, will not bring about unification either. Park Geun-hye is the first president to have come out to educate and really move toward realizing unification.
NK News: How have South Korean views toward unification changed since Park Geun-hye became president?
The feelings South Koreans have had toward unification have undergone many changes since my book was published in 2012. Before, people would think of unification as a burden and that the country would fall into economic disaster. On the outside, they would say that unification is the “hope” of the nation, but personally would feel that unification is more trouble than its worth. At least half of the South Korean people believed that it was okay if unification just didn’t happen. However, after publishing the book, which showed that unification could actually be more of a benefit than a burden, many people’s viewpoints started to change, particularly among South Korean leaders. Of course, this trend really started picking up when President Park mentioned that unification would be a “bonanza” earlier this year.
NK News: Why do you believe that South Korea is best suited to lead the unification process?
Shinn: I argue in my book that South Koreans themselves have to lead the unification process. North Koreans are not qualified nor do they have the ability to bring about unification. The North Korean regime starves its people, which disqualifies it from leading the unification process. Koreans should not unify under such a regime. Most North Koreans live without proper access to food and even if they want to unify, they have no ability to do so. Moreover, there is no other nation or people who will unify Korea for us. We have to do it. Seeing that North Korea is neither qualified nor has the ability to unify, we must do it ourselves.
I’ve also written that when North Koreans know that they can reap great benefits from unification, they will think the same way. But now because North Korean brainwashes its people, they can’t see the benefits. All they have is feelings of animosity toward South Korea.
There may also be worries among North Koreans that South Koreans will try to use them. But this is absolutely not true.
‘The South needs to focus on ordinary North Koreans and tell them that we want the same thing, that we want to live well’
NK News: What do you think about President Park’s policy of Trustpolitik toward North Korea?
Shinn: I think it’s a good concept, but needs to be revised. It basically calls for building trust with the other side while telling the other side to trust us. But this is meaningless. The North is the kind of regime that if it sets its sights on something, it doesn’t give two thoughts to what kind of methods it must do to attain it. The Park administration is essentially saying that we’ll be trustworthy, so you should too; but do you think that will actually work? The Park administration is viewing the government and people as one entity. However, it should be following a two-track policy of perceiving the regime and its people as two separate entities.
The South needs to focus on ordinary North Koreans and tell them that we want the same thing, that we want to live well. We need to build trust not between the government, but between the people. Once this process starts, then North Koreans will also come to agree with South Koreans about unification. We need to make North Koreans feel the same sense of envy that East Germans did toward the higher living standards of West Germans.
NK News: In your book, you appear to place more importance on economic unification as opposed to cultural and social unification. You mention that such unification could take upwards of 60 years to accomplish, while economic unification could take around 10 years. Why do you place so much emphasis on economic unification?
Shinn: I believe that economic unification must occur first in order for cultural and social unification to occur. Just having cultural and social integration doesn’t mean unification will occur. Economic unification must happen first.
There have long been many people who have worked for unification in its religious and social aspects. This has been going on for 70 years, but unification hasn’t occurred. The practical side of unification must happen first before culture and social unification can happen. People must realize that there are real benefits coming from unification in order for them to support it.
I did a lecture sometime ago and there were three other professors who argued that unification is rather a political-military problem. But will unification happen this way? Military-wise you’d have to beat up the other guy, and this would cause damage on both sides. Unifying through force is a long-gone concept. And what about politically? We’ve tried that for last 70 years, but nothing has happened.
The real reason people have moved away from wanting unification is because of the potential economic costs. According to recent surveys, about half of the people surveyed think that unification will give them no benefits. But they just don’t know the reality.
NK News: You mention there are a number of lessons South Korea should learn from Germany’s unification. If you could choose just one, which would be the most important?
Shinn: Germany set a nationwide exchange rate after unification. That was a major mistake. They did it thinking they were helping the East Germans, but that led to a situation where East Germans suddenly got a lot of money. But what did they do with that money? They didn’t buy East German products, but products from West Germany of better quality. The Germans should have set exchange rates that were better suited for each locale.
NK News: You also argue in your book that South Korea’s land system is full of problems and should be shifted, in the long term, to one more like North Korea’s.
Shinn: One of the worst parts of the market economy that leads to market failures is real estate speculation. Fortunately, half of the peninsula (North Korea) has a system where the state is in control of the land, and this means that at least one factor in market failure could potentially be avoided. If that happens, the Korean Peninsula’s economy can become a model for the rest of the world.
Of course, the problem is, a lot of people think that when unification occurs, there’s going to a rush to buy land up north. Measures should be put into place to avoid this from happening.
Some people may ask what the difference is with Chinese socialism. The ultimate goal in the Chinese system is for the government to control the land within the political-economic system. But if we do that in Korea under the market economy, the goal will not be the government controlling the people, but making the society fairer by getting rid of a key factor in market failure. The problem is less “can we do this” than “will we do this.”
NK News: You argue that following unification, South Korean military officers should take leadership positions in the new military, while North Korean men should remain in lower ranks. Could you please elaborate?
‘Members of the military and leaders in North Korea have devoted their entire lives to the Juche philosophy and this will…make it difficult for them to shift their mindset immediately’
Shinn: North Koreans have been inundated with the Juche philosophy, but if unification comes this means a shift for them to a new world. Long story short, if North Korean officers continue to hold military power, no one knows what could happen.
If, for example, a part of the society wants to “return to the old days” and have military power, problems can occur. Members of the military and leaders in North Korea have devoted their entire lives to the Juche philosophy and this will, I believe, make it difficult for them to shift their mindset immediately.
The other reason I argue for this is my concern for the perspective of the South Korean military. They generally believe the North to be full of die-hard communists who cannot be talked with. In short, North Koreans are not partners in unification, but rather people to guard against. Many members of the South Korean military think this way, so they ultimately oppose real moves toward unification. I argue for them to take the lead in a unified Korean army in order to give them a role in unification.
NK News: What do you think about the roles of North Korean defectors in unification?
Shinn: My only hope for them is to just live and adapt well in South Korea, rather for them to have any specific role. How many defectors actually come down to the South because they believe it’s a better system? In fact, many of them left North Korea because of personal issues.
I don’t believe there should be too much expectation on the roles of defectors, because South Koreans can do it just fine. While they could have possibly some role, I want to ask what exactly they bring to the table? They are in fact people who know little about the market economy and liberal democracy. South Koreans commonly think that defectors look the same as us and that they escaped because they wanted to live in the South Korean system, but looking deeper one realizes that they have different ideas about the market economy and liberal democracy.
One role they could have is to show the North Koreans still in the country that they are living well. North Korean propaganda portrays defectors as suffering in South Korea. But defectors living here send money to their relatives up north, and this could show that South Korea lives well. I believe showing this to the North Koreans is important.
NK News: You argue that Hwang Jang-yop defected in 1998 in order to prevent the collapse of North Korea. Could you please elaborate on this?
Shinn: I believe Hwang was an emissary for the North Korean regime. In other words, he was someone who used his way of speaking to solve a major problem facing the country.
Hwang defected to South Korea in 1997. This was a time, you must remember, that North Korea was very weak, and if South Korea had decided to, it could have moved to collapse the country. But I believe that Hwang came down to South Korea and placed emphasis on North Korea’s strong military to avoid this situation from occurring.
I argue that Hwang made the decision himself to leave North Korea for South Korea. He believed that the North Korean regime, a regime he had helped maintain, would collapse at the time and that he had to contribute something. I believe that only he and Kim Jong Il knew about this.
‘Some parts of South Korean society believe that (Hwang) was persuaded to come, but would someone like that, the creator of the Juche philosophy no less, be persuaded to leave?’
What he told us when he came down was nothing really new. His reason for coming was focused on something else, I believe: how to avoid North Korea’s collapse. He had to criticize the regime a bit, of course, but would always end his sentences with the phrase, “That being said, we must not look down at North Korea’s military power.”
I met Hwang once after he came to Seoul. I wanted to confirm what kind of person he was: whether he was someone without any confidence or sense of himself. But when I met him I saw he was extremely confident in himself. He was someone who had been treated well by the regime his entire life.
Ultimately, he wanted to contribute something to the regime. At his age, what else could he have expected to do? Some parts of South Korean society believe that he was persuaded to come, but would someone like that, the creator of the Juche philosophy no less, be persuaded to leave? This is somewhat ridiculous in my mind.
NK News: You agree that the South Korean government should establish a “record preservation center” to record the “wrongdoing” by the North Korean government, but warn against the meting out of punishment to former officials. In other words, you argue South Korea should “forgive, but not forget.” Could you please expand on this?
Shinn: After unification happens, Kim Jong Un would have a difficult time living here in the Korean Peninsula. I would support him taking asylum abroad. As for other high-ranking officials, I would find ways so they could continue living here or allow them to leave if they want without punishing them.
The important thing is to make sure unification happens successfully. Priority should not be placed on punishing those in power. There are of course a lot of people in both Koreas who believe people on either side should be punished. However, I believe they’re wrong because it will create more harm than good. It will lead to, in short, a never-ending circle of violence and revenge.
As such, I believe we should record what those in power did wrong, but not move to punish them.
NK News: You note in your book that Korea not having unified has made the country weak and placed it in an unfavorable position, thus preventing it from following its own national and independent “line.” Would unification really equal more power for a unified Korea on the world stage?
Shinn: Many people look at Korea’s historical past and argue that geopolitically Korea has been a weak country between the maritime power of Japan and the continental power of China. When the maritime power has been strong, Korea has suffered, and when the continental power has been strong, Korea has suffered again. Even today, there are many people who still think in this framework.
However, while did Korea suffer because it was in the middle of all this, Korea’s suffering occurred when it was also quite weak. Now, however, we have developed economically to the extent that being at the center is not a negative thing, but rather something positive, a benefit. With its new economic prowess, Korea can now benefit from being in the center.
NK News: You argue that surrounding countries, particularly the US, should step back and play a cooperative role in a South Korean-led unification process. Please expand on this.
Shinn: I would like the U.S. to cooperate with us until we can achieve successful unification. The goal of a South Korean-led unification process is not to maintain the status quo or peaceful coexistence, but rather unification. During this process, the U.S. should try to understand our views.
Right now, the U.S. is focused on shutting off North Korea from the world because of its bad behavior. But if we intend to head toward unification, we can’t just close the country off. The U.S. government needs to understand this. South Koreans know full well the wrongdoing of the North Korean regime, but the U.S. focus on this and maintaining the status quo is counterproductive to the goal of unification.
I believe that the U.S. military needs to be stationed here to help protect our security. However, I would like to see the U.S. understand that to achieve unification a different way of approaching North Korea is needed.
Feature image: Republic of Korea, Flickr Creative Commons