Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final in Andrei Lankov’s series on unification scenarios. To see previous installments click here, here,here and here.
How is unification by absorption (the most likely endgame for North Korea) likely to be seen by the general North Korean public, the proverbial “men and women on the street”?
On the one hand, we should not forget unification by absorption can be brought about only by the collapse of the Kim family regime. Revolutions of this kind happen only when a significant majority of the politically active population actively want them to happen – otherwise, rebels would have no chance. Initially, therefore, a unified Korean government, born from a mixture of revolutionary and nationalist enthusiasm, is by default bound to enjoy a great deal of good will from its new northern subjects – at least, the majority of them.
It will help things that unification will likely bring a dramatic and almost instant improvement in living standards for the overwhelming majority of North Koreans, especially those who used to belong to the lowest social strata under the Kim dynasty – that is, above all, farmers and manual workers.
… there is little doubt that the average North Korean will get instant access to adequate supplies of food, and reasonable, if not perfect, healthcare
Even though South Korean levels of social benefits and pay will not become the norm in North Korea for years after unification, there is little doubt that the average North Korean will get instant access to adequate supplies of food, and reasonable, if not perfect, healthcare. Unification will also mean far more opportunities to earn a disposal income, which can be used to purchase goods which, at present, constitute much coveted status symbols in North Korea, like televisions, computers, motorbikes and even cheap cars.
In this regard, North Korea is seemingly different from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, where the transition to the market initially resulted in a significant decline in living standards and life expectancy. There are even some post-socialist states that, like Ukraine, even now, some 25 years after the Soviet collapse, have not yet managed to return to per capita GDP levels of the late Soviet era.
Another factor that is likely to be helpful is the fact that a great deal of the unavoidable “dirty work” that usually accompanies the post-socialist transition has already been done in North Korea, quietly and under the Kim family. For the average Bulgarian or Belarusian, the collapse of the socialist system could frequently mean years of unemployment, sudden loss of access to decent education and acceptable medical care. This is not going to be case in North Korea, because its people have already experienced the disintegration of the communist welfare state (which, admittedly, was very modest in North Korea, anyway), as well as deindustrialization and dramatic increase in income inequality. North Korean workers will not be shocked by the closure of their outdated factories, since they have not been dependent on their official wages for their survival for two decades.
THE NEW COLONIAL KOREA
Thus, at first glance, the fate of the North Korean majority, with the possible exception of the old party apparatchiks (and, as we have seen, many a construction engineer or history professor), can be painted in a relatively rosy hue, so they should be seen as enthusiastic supporters of the new order. However, like most rosy pictures, this one too is misleading, for a number of reasons.
Affluence and poverty are, essentially, relative categories. There is little doubt that in the first years that follow unification, the average North Korean assembly line worker or rice farmer will compare their new lives with what had been the norm under the Kim family – with such comparisons being decisively in favor of the new system. However, it is only a matter of time, perhaps merely a few years, before the focal point shifts to the contemporary South. North Koreans will begin comparing their lot not with their pre-unification past, but with South Korea’s present, and these comparisons are not going to be very favorable or seriously encouraging.
Indeed, if one reads South Korean publications about the supposed advantages and glories of the post-unification peninsula, one of the recurrent topics is the idea of North Korea being a source of cheap labor, whose existence will help to revive declining economic growth rates. These remarks clearly reek of colonialism, and do not bode well for the future relations between the two halves of the Korean state. Obviously, North Korean labor will not remain so cheap as such optimistic (and neo-colonial) visions seemingly suggest, but the huge gap in productivity between the two is not likely to disappear overnight, and the productivity difference guarantees a gap persisting for some time.
Even in Germany of today, almost 25 years since unification, the average household income in the eastern lands is about 75 percent of the Western level (the gap is partially compensated by cheaper prices in the East). The starting conditions in Germany of 1990 are much better than they are likely to be in Korea of the future. In other words, a decade or so after unification, North Korean workers are likely to receive 30-50 percent of what will be considered to be a normal salary in the South. The northern prices will be cheaper, too, but not to the level which will significantly reduce the gap.
Needless to say, North Koreans will soon come to regard themselves as underpaid and discriminated against. In some cases, this might well be discrimination, pure and simple, while in other cases, the difference in pay and promotion may well be a fair reflection of gross productivity differences. Be that as it may, North Koreans are not going to be happy about such a situation, so the discontent towards the “affluent and arrogant” Southerners is likely to start building up.
In the political world, the former North Korean elite is likely to be marginalized, being used largely in mid-ranking managerial positions. It might appear to be of little concern for the average North Korean, but this is probably not actually the case. Even the humble farmers will likely believe that their concerns are ignored or at least undervalued by arrogant Southerners who “control everything.”
Then, the former North Koreans will face a rather nebulous, but still important social and psychological issue: making sense of their pre-unification experiences and their old identity.
Objectively speaking, the history of North Korean state has been one of an ambitious social if brutal experiment that ended in a very ugly disaster. Essentially, the 70 years of the Kim Family’s rule have been the wasted years. The Kim family did not merely build one of the world’s most “perfect” Stalinist dictatorships, but also managed to transform into a basket case what once, in the 1940s, was the most advanced industrial economy of East Asia outside Japan. However, one should not expect that such a pessimistic, if honest, view of North Korea’s past, is going to be enthusiastically embraced by those North Koreans who bother to care about such matters.
JAPAN OR GERMANY?
Human beings – well, most of them – cannot normally admit that they, their parents and grandparents wasted their lives chasing impossible dreams and got pretty much everything wrong. In some cases, it is possible to make people admit that a certain period in their country’s history was a “shameful decade,” but one should not realistically count on the same attitude when it comes to dealing with a period that encompasses the lifespans of three, or even four generations. In this regard, the post-Nazi German experience, frequently cited and mistakenly seen as normal, is actually a massive exception to the general rule. The Germans are indeed all but unified in their disgust for the Nazi past, but we should not forget that de-Nazification was first forced upon the Germans by the victorious Allies under an occupation regime and then strengthened by the objective circumstances of the post-war European political and social environment.
It is not incidental that public opinion polls increasingly indicate that a notable minority of Russians see Stalin as a positive figure
Far more typical is the attitude of the Japanese. They cannot bring themselves, as a nation, to unconditionally condemn their colonial and imperial past. Another good example is post-Soviet Russia, where a significant majority of the population simply refuses to see the communist era, including even the murderous Stalin period, as something to feel ashamed of. It is not incidental that public opinion polls increasingly indicate that a notable minority of Russians see Stalin as a positive figure, while for the majority, he is a controversial figure with “good” and “bad” points, more or less equally distributed.
It is fashionable in the West to blame such attitudes on the policy of the Putin government. But being a Russian myself, I cannot agree with such a simplistic and misleading explanation. The rather natural disinclination to reject one’s past wholesale is far more important than government’s machinations. It is telling that recently the first reasonable free local elections in years, held in the Siberian city of Irkutsk, an opposition candidate combined sharp critique of Vladimir Putin with a promise to erect a monument to Joseph Stalin in his city, once one of the major centers of the Gulag. The candidate won.
Indeed, in post-unification North Korea, such a tendency to whitewash the past is likely to be even more pronounced. Actually, it is likely to be encouraged by the quick emergence of well-educated and articulate people, who did relatively well under the Kim family, but will see themselves as losers in the new order. Former professors of Juche philosophy, party propaganda specialists and, perhaps, unemployed missile engineers will be willing and capable of creating ideas that will make the past look far nicer and more acceptable for the average North Korean, perhaps even transforming the Kim era into a source of pride.
On the other side, the surviving regime victims and their descendants in North Korean have been deprived of access to education and hence are likely to be largely removed from the privileged ranks of the discourse producers. This is different from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where children and grandchildren of the Stalin-era prisoners constituted a remarkably significant part of the intellectual elite.
One should be reminded about the East German post-unification experience. According to a 2009 poll, cited by Spiegel, 57 percent of ex-East Germans were positive about East Germany. In a poll, 49 percent agreed with the following statement: “The GDR had more good sides than bad sides. There were some problems, but life was good there,” while 8 percent went even further and agreed with the statement: “The GDR had, for the most part, good sides. Life there was happier and better than in reunified Germany.”
Thus, one can even attempt to imagine the logic of such white-washing “self-conciliation ideology.” In a post-unification Korea, amidst the celebrations of the Unification’s 15th anniversary, an educated and rather unhappy North Korean can tell his supposedly arrogant South Korean interlocutor something like that:
“You say that our Great Leader Generalissimo Kim Il Sung was a dictator. But South Korea was a dictatorship, too, for many decades. So what’s the difference? Oh, the difference is that the people who ran the South were former Japanese collaborators, while our country was created and run by true patriots, heroes of the armed resistance to the Japs. Of course, we were or, rather, eventually became poorer than you, but we managed to keep our authentic Koreanness untarnished for decades. Perhaps we were poor because we were truly independent, and this definitely required nuclear weapons and missiles. Yes, Kim Il Sung and his successors sometimes put innocent people in jail, but that kind of thing happened in South Korea, too. And maybe, some of the people who were locked up were authentic South Korean and American spies, so they got what was coming to them. So stop being so patronizing, we Northerners have a lot to be proud of.”
… there will be people who will make up stories of North Korean resistance in an effort to show that average North Koreans were not active or passive collaborators of the Kim family system
The monologue above is not pure fantasy: Most of its elements one already can encounter in South and North Korean discourses of the country’s past. From the point of view of the objective historian (a creature I do not think has gone extinct yet), such claims constitute a curious mixture of fantasy and manipulation. Such a view deliberately overlooks the dramatic difference in the scale of the terror between the two Korean dictatorships, not to mention the massive difference in the economic efficiency of the two states. Other things are also at best half-truths, but they are still likely to be attractive for a significant number of post-unification North Koreans who will need a cure for their trauma and their wounded self-esteem.
There will be other ideas (or rather “ideological packages”) floating around, too. For example, there will be people who will make up stories of North Korean resistance in an effort to show that average North Koreans were not active or passive collaborators of the Kim family system but rather the victims of a bloody tyrant and his clique whose rule they always resented and were ever ready to challenge.
Nationalism will provide another possible cure of post-unification syndrome, with politicians on both sides of the former divide indulging in nationalist sentiments (possibly, though not certainly, directed against Japan, the perennial “evil other” of the Korean nationalists) as a means by which to create a new sense of shared destiny. Needless to say, this will all be rather unattractive for rational observers, but who cares?
Another problem, created by the seemingly inerasable Kim-era experience, is the ingrained ideas about how a society and economy should be properly run. North Koreans are likely to be amenable to rather primitive populism. The northerners will be a minority of voters, but they will still be a sizable minority. So, their voting patterns might have a noticeably adverse effect on the politics of post-unification Korea where the assorted populists are likely to become very popular.
The future is far from bright, therefore. But this is not reason enough to ignore the challenges that lie ahead. The tragedy of division is not going to end overnight with the day of unification. In order to handle such challenges like those outlined above, we must think about what is to come.
Editor’s note: This is the fifth and final in Andrei Lankov’s series on unification scenarios. To see previous installments click here, here, here and here. How is unification by absorption (the most likely endgame for North Korea) likely to be seen by the general North Korean public, the proverbial “men and women on the street”?On the one hand, we should not forget unification
Andrei Lankov is a Director at NK News and writes exclusively for the site as one of the world's leading authorities on North Korea. A graduate of Leningrad State University, he attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung University from 1984-5 - an experience you can read about here. In addition to his writing, he is also a Professor at Kookmin University.