Talking about the future is a risky business. The vast majority of prophets have been wrong, but this has not prevented people from predicting what is likely to happen if current trends continue. Perhaps such activities, despite being risky for individual reputations (we all love to make fun of a failed prophecy) are indeed necessary for any type of planning.
With all those provisos, let’s turn to the question of what is likely to happen on the Korean Peninsula in the next couple of decades. The official answer given by the South Korean elite and its public is well-known: Every good Korean is expected to believe that at some point in the future, North and South Korea will become one state.
What’s more, it is frequently stated that this glorious conclusion to the “Korean problem” will occur as a result of peaceful negotiations between the two Korean governments, implying that these two states will somehow negotiate a mutually accepted model for unification. Given the growing concern about the cost of unification, especially among younger South Koreans, it is often emphasized that this wonderful process will take decades and will not, therefore, incur too much of a tax bill to be paid by South Korean voters.
Such a model is completely, almost comically unrealistic.
The future indeed is a boundless expanse of possibilities – in theory. One can, for example, hope that Kim Jong Un will implement economic reforms (though without a large improvement in human rights) and become a semi-enlightened despot. One cannot also not rule out the possibility of the emergence of a pro-Chinese state north of the DMZ. It is even possible, though rather unlikely, that the North Korean regime will last more or less in its present form (with maybe a few cosmetic changes) for the next few decades. At the end of it all, unification remains possible and, indeed, highly likely. But, alas, this is not going to be the gradual, negotiated and slow unification of South Korea’s daydreams.
Let’s assume that Kim Jong Un and his senior advisors decide to ignore their best interests and their families’ wellbeing and enter into sincere negotiations about gradual unification. For the sake of our thought experiment, we can even ignore that there has never been such a negotiated unification settlement before in the history of the world. The only possible exception is the two Yemeni states, but this is hardly an auspicious precedent, since it included a bloody civil war between the former elites of North and South Yemen, followed by the emergence of a corrupt oligarchy and another civil war.
The North would remain more or less what it is now
Such a negotiated agreement between two Korean states would likely result in the creation of a loose confederation in which both countries maintained their own political and economic systems. In other words, liberal democracy and chaebol-dominated capitalism would persist in the South, while the North would maintain a hereditary quasi-monarchy with a growing, semi-spontaneous market economy, made possible by a great deal of corruption. Admittedly, the current level of political freedom would be maintained as well. If anything, the South is liable to become yet more democratic, because the National Security Law, the source of much notoriety, would have to be abolished – since it would be anachronistic and out of place in the new order. The North would remain more or less what it is now, a state with a completely controlled media whose only task is to extol the wisdom of the hereditary elite and ruling family, as well as the glorious exploits of the loyal North Korean working masses.
Even such a half-baked confederation would produce a dramatic increase in individual, social and economic exchanges between the two parts. Even the wildest stretch of the imagination does not allow this humble author to imagine that Kim Jong Un’s North Korea would allow its citizens to travel to the South as freely as, say, the East Germans, who were permitted to travel West in the 1970s and 1980s, when tens of thousands of East Germans traveled to the West legally every year. However, South Koreans’ trips are likely to become much more frequent and many North Korean families would likely be visited by their families in the South. The number of joint enterprises, currently limited to Kaesong, would also increase dramatically – at least, this is what the most cautious of proponents expect to happen.
What impact would this all have on the North Korean common people? This is not so difficult to answer: The impact is liable to be earth-shattering. The per capita income gap between the two states is at least 1:12, if one believes the optimists, and 1:40 if one believes the pessimists. To put that in perspective, the per capita income gap between the two Germanys in the late 1980s was merely 1:2 to 1:3. Even if we accept the 1:12 ratio, this is the largest gap between any two states in the world that share a land border. However, in this case the two states also share a national identity, common language and common culture.
One can argue that most North Koreans now understand that South Korea is very rich. It is true, but there is a great difference between vaguely understanding something and having such graphic images of neighbors’ prosperity flooding your daily life. As is usually the case, such pictures are liable to be exaggerated at first. An outsider in a rich country usually cannot immediately see the contradictions, problems and tensions that exist behind the sparking, glistening, glitzy facade. For the North Koreans, this picture of the South Korean prosperity would likely be seen as vivid proof of the complete failure of their leadership. The North Korean elite cannot even use the usual trick of putting the blame at the doors of their predecessors: This elite is hereditary, so the buck cannot be easily passed.
This raises the question: Why should we think that the North Korean commoners will just do what they’re told by their increasingly discredited elite? Why wouldn’t they rebel, blaming the people at the top for the gross inefficiency and misery that they have caused? This is especially likely when they are reminded, daily and in a spectacular way, of the sorry track record of the North Korean regime.
Of course, the North Korean elite does have some sources of hope. The elite itself remains, on the surface at least, remarkably united. The lack of a civil society and very strong social control makes the emergence of resistance difficult. However, under a hypothetical confederation regime, the unavoidable spread of South Korean capital and information will put the North Korean government in a tight spot, to put it mildly.
Realistically speaking, the only way to stop the Northern member of our confederation from tearing itself apart is the strengthening of domestic surveillance and repression. This policy, however, will face some serious challenges in a confederative state where individual acts of repression will certainly be easier to document.
Right now, no sane and unbiased person would be so stupid as to doubt that the North Korean state is very repressive. However, in most cases, its victims remain abstract statistics, faceless numbers, and it is always possible to express (un)reasonable doubt about the claims made by the media and many refugees. However, such attitudes will become untenable in a unified Korea when people will know the names and biographies of victims whose “subversive activities” will be “dealt with” by the North Korean secret police for the sake “state security.” Now, if a North Korean university professor is suspected of insufficient enthusiasm for the system, they will be gone without a trace very quickly. Even the memory of the unlucky victim would likely disappear, since such topics are best not discussed in North Korea. Under a confederation, though, information about such cases would leak South, and some victims would likely become cause célèbre. The predictable result: In the eyes of the South Korean public the image of the “Northern partners” will be seriously damaged.
Paradoxically, even if the North Korean government chooses to ease its grip on the population, this will probably not help its chances of survival. One should not forget that back in the late 1930s, when more than 1 million political prisoners were held in Stalin’s concentration camps, progressive Western intellectuals denied that such institutions could possibly exist under the benign rule of the Communist Party. In the late 1950s, when the number of political prisoners dropped 1,000 times (not a figure of speech, that is the number) over, the repressive nature of the Soviet Union suddenly became a common sense fact.
However, the change of the attitude was, paradoxically, brought about the truly dramatic relaxation of the Soviet domestic policies. Under Khrushchev and Brezhnev dissenters and political prisoners, let alone their family members, lived to tell their tales to foreign journalists – a luxury unthinkable under Stalin. As a result, the state repression in post-Stalin Russia was much easier to document, and the victims ceased to be abstract, doubtful statistics. Thus, Jean-Paul Sartre and similarly minded Western intellectuals had no choice but to switch their sycophantic adoration from Stalin, the Great Leader, to Mao, the Great Helmsmen.
The North Korean government will be left in a bind: to give in or to shoot
However, in the confederate Korea of our thought experiment, things might even take a more dramatic turn. Sooner or later, some people in North Korea will begin a strike or a rally. The North Korean government will be left in a bind: to give in or to shoot. For the Kim family and their close associates, political concessions will likely open a Pandora’s box into their past human rights abuses. Thus, they are much more likely to do what Deng Xiaoping did in Tiananmen back in 1989: shoot in order to keep situation stable and controllable. However, such a massacre, even on a relatively small scale, will mean the complete and immediate collapse of the confederation. Even the most diehard nationalist/leftist in South Korea is not going to openly argue in favour of a continuing union with a government is prepared to use deadly violence against seemingly peaceful protestors or strikers.
Fortunately or not, this is just a flight of fancy. North Korean decision makers are not so irrational as some believe: They understand the threats that South Korea’s success poses, and they will not voluntarily self-destruct through premature, naïve, voluntary, confederative unification.
So if unification is ever to come, the only way is if North Korea collapses or its government is replaced and then absorbed into the South. This is, indeed, bad news: Unification by absorption, as it is known, is likely to be very destructive, inflicting great damage to both Korean societies. This is the reason why many South Korean politicians love the familiar platitude that “unification by absorption is impossible.” What they really mean is that unification by absorption is not what anyone wants. They might be right about how repellent such scenarios are with the electorate, but things that are not wanted often do happen.
Thus, we should think honestly and cynically about the challenges that Korean society will face if the increasingly dreaded unification by absorption does suddenly occur – most likely following a grave political crisis and/or regime implosion in the North. Perhaps we should not bother arguing about the statistical probability of such a scenario, but unlike the glorious fantasies of South Korean policy wonks, this is indeed what may happen. So, we must have a sober look at the problems a unified Korean state will face – and these problems are, indeed, numerous.
Once again, it does not mean that the unification is the only scenario: there are also reasons to predict a future North Korea run by a pro-Chinese regime or by the good old Kim family (perhaps, implementing some market-oriented reforms while remaining very brutal and repressive). This does not also mean that the unification-by-absorption is a desirable scenario: As we will see, it is likely to be very costly and painful, and also wrought with geopolitical risks. However, it is real, so, instead of indulging the empty pipe dreams of the “gradual unification,” it makes more sense to have an honest look at the future, even if not all we see is good or encouraging.
Main image: KCNA
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