Like it or not, Korea realistically can only be reunified if South Korea absorbs the North. The Southern “triumph” is likely to be a rather mixed blessing for a number of social groups. One such group is the North Korean middle class. There are other groups, however, whose fate does not usually elicit much sympathy, but who nonetheless have the potential to create serious and lasting problems for post-unification Korean society. We are talking about regime officials, not least the numerous personnel of its armed forces and secret police.
This group is not so small as you might think, since North Korea is, essentially, a highly militarized police state. Indeed, North Korea has the dubious distinction of being the most militaristic place on earth and has developed a security bureaucracy that would make the Chinese blush (on a per capita basis). The North Korean military is now estimated to be around 1.2 million. The People’s Liberation Army in neighboring China, a country of 1.4 billion, is around 2.3 million men and women strong. This means that North Korea, a country of only 25 million people, has around 5 percent of its people under arms, while China only has around 0.2 percent of its vast population poised ready to ward off foreign barbarians should they choose to encroach upon the soil of the Middle kingdom.
Admittedly, the North Korean government does have a particular penchant for using its armed forces as essentially unpaid, poorly trained construction workers. Roughly half of the North Korean military conscripts spend their 10 or so years of obligatory service in such work battalions where they handle a sap much more frequently than a rifle.
However, North Korean also has a fair number of special forces and elite units. These people may not be trained in the fancy miracle weapons that the West so loves but which are so rare north of the DMZ, but rest assured, they are still good at good old-fashioned deadly low-tech combat. We are probably talking about 200-300,000 professional soldiers who spent from one decade to an entire adult life mastering the skills of cheap, low-tech manslaughter.
After unification, most of these people will discover that the new order is not welcoming. Some younger North Korean officers, with some luck, will be commissioned in the unified Korean army. But there will be a “peace dividend,” so even many South Korean officers will become superfluous without the menace of a Northern threat. Thus, it will be impossible to accommodate any significant number of North Korea’s professional killers into the new military force of the unified state.
Needless to say, this is bad news for social stability and security as well as for the common people of Seoul
These men (and, rarely, women) are essentially potential merchants of violence. They have virtually no skills of any value to the post-unification economy. Thus, a number of them at least, are likely to survive in the post-unification world by using the skills they have – and not to hunt animals for food. Needless to say, this is bad news for social stability and security as well as for the common people of Seoul, arguably the world’s least violent great city.
North Korea’s officials present a very different, though equally vast challenge. South Korean politics, academia and society in general has busied itself for decades with highly emotional discussions about Japanese collaborators, and their role in the emergence of the South Korean state and the subsequent “miracle on the Han River.” It seems that history will repeat itself, at least partially: Like in 1945, the opportunists are again best positioned to succeed after the end of the regime they served. As was the case in 1945, the post-unification government will have no choice but to employ a great number of the former collaborators.
The North Korean regime has been canny in the way that it has forcibly involved as many subjects as possible in its ideological activities, and required pretty much every adult to produce propaganda on daily basis. Of course, every person in the position of authority, however conditional, is expected to produce endless eulogies to the Kim family and the paradise they built for their people. Thus, even if the most lax and forgiving criteria are applied, virtually all North Korean officials, including managers at the state-owned enterprises can be described as pro-Kim collaborators.
Surprisingly, as I have argued before, there are reasons to expect that on average, in the post-unification Korea a Kim-era official is likely to fare much better than the average North Korean – in spite of all fear they currently have about their future. The North Korean officials constitute a semi-hereditary group that for half a century has enjoyed a near monopoly on high-level education and management skills. They and their well-trained, well-educated, socially adaptable children are the only people in North Korea who know how to run companies, and they are far more likely to have a good command of English and/or computer skills than even the average engineer, let alone a person from the street. Thus, we are likely to see a situation similar to that of South Korea in the late 1940s, where former pro-Japanese collaborationists, self-proclaimed admirers of the emperor and loyal cadres in the Japanese colonial administration quickly changed their tune, becoming card-carrying patriots for the Republic of Korea.
North Korean officials will be needed by the new administration, even if it operates under the full and complete control of Seoul. Unlike the military personnel, they have people necessary skills and valuable management experience. In the general scheme of things, they will be helpful in the post-unification situation, even though they will inherit some bad habits from the past (including the incurable propensity for bribe-taking). But what will the average North Korean, especially those who consider themselves victims of the regime, will think about the continuity of those in charge? How will turncoats influence North Korean politics, and how will they influence the perception of the past?
NO JUSTICE, NO PEACE?
And what about North Korean security officials, most of whom are directly implicated in human rights abuses? Theoretically, one can argue that they should pay for their hideous crimes, the suffering that they inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of North Koreans. Indeed, the scale of the human rights abuses in North Korea has few parallels in world history. However, in real life, such a triumph of justice is highly unlikely.
The major problem is the sheer scale of human rights abuses and the length of the regime’s history. Over the last 50 years, at any given moment, between 80,000 and 200,000 North Koreans were incarcerated in political prison camps. Many of them were put in prison for no crime whatsoever, they were just the family members of the real or alleged political criminal(s). Since many of them survived the incarceration and were eventually released (to remain discriminated against for the rest of their lives), the total number of former prison camp inmates currently living in North Korea may be in excess of half a million. If we also take into account those who have died in prison camps or after release, the number of the past victims will increase even more.
… one can assume that about half a million North Koreans are now enrolled as secret police informers
Such activities were supervised by a massive security bureaucracy, which included not only regular political police personnel (numbered in the many tens of thousands at any one time), but also a large number of secret informers. The reported norm is to have one informer per every 50 North Koreans, but in the socially problematic groups the penetration rate was much higher. At any rate, one can assume that about half a million North Koreans are now enrolled as secret police informers. Given the people who were discarded, the number might be even higher.
North Korea under the Kim family is such a society where a person approached by an informer faced an offer he (or she) could not refuse. Some of these secret informers were probably careful to ensure that they harmed no one, while others were probably very zealous in their attempts to destroy the lives of those around them, but the majority probably lie somewhere in between on this scale. There is no way to determine one’s guilt without a thorough investigation, and one cannot realistically investigate a half million cases.
Thus, it seems that only former secret police officers who are particularly brutal and/or notorious, or just particularly unlucky, will ultimately be punished, while informers will not face the music for what they did (or didn’t) do.
The number of abuses will be too vast to investigate and paying meaningful compensation to most of the victims will be financially impossible. Many of the victims are handicapped and incapable of work. For the victims of earlier campaigns, many of whom are dead by now, the fate of their children is important: Being branded the children of traitors, they spent all their lives doing hard physical labor in the countryside, and were bound to remain at the bottom of the social ladder for the rest of their lives.
One can easily imagine a story which, while hypothetical, is realistic enough and serves as a good example of ethical and political dimensions of the problem. Imagine that in the 1970s, two friends were talking over a bottle of homemade liquor. Slightly drunk, one of them said something dangerous, like “The South Korean economy seems to be growing rapidly,” or “In the Soviet Union, there are no rations, but people can buy pork at shops easily.” Another friend rushed to the secret police, reporting the dangerous deviations. Thus, one friend soon found himself in a prison camp, while another launched a successful career, retiring as, say, a district party secretary. Fast forward few decades, and in a post-unification Korea one can imagine a young brilliant girl, with (almost) fluent English and good computed skills, working as one of few local managers in a big South Korea company. In the same company there is a humble janitor, cleaning office toilets. The girl is the daughter of the party secretary who once was quick to inform, and the cleaner is the daughter of the unlucky and talkative guy, who back in the 1970s had a bit too much trust in his friend.
Needless to say, the survival of these people, the life-long perpetrators of human right abuses, the suffering of those who ever dared to challenge the system, as well as the constant rumors about former involvement with the secret police are liable to poison post-unification Korean social life for decades, further fueling a sense of incomplete justice amongst much of the population of the country, especially in the northern half.
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Featured Image: Trafic officer and biker - Pyongyang North Korea by Eric Lafforgue on 2010-05-02 18:36:20