Examining modern Korean political discourse, it’s difficult to find a word which has the positive connotations of “unification.”
All political forces in both Koreas never tire of professing their commitment to the great cause of “national unification,” and of accusing their opponents of lacking sufficient commitment to this lofty goal.
This unceasing rhetoric has significant impact on foreign observers, who have little time and inclination to immerse themselves deeply into Korean politics and ideology. Most of them, including foreign journalists, take these enthusiastic claims at the face value, and more or less believe that every Korean politician spends a significant part of their time worrying about how the Holy Grail of unification can be delivered to the people in the shortest possible time.
This illusion (and it is indeed an illusion) is further strengthened by a peculiar trend which exists in both Koreas, in which all activities related to dealing with the other Korean state are routinely described as “unification activities,” and relevant institutions are named accordingly.
In South Korea, one has the “Ministry of Unification” which is, essentially, a “Ministry of North Korean issues” (a specialized type of foreign ministry, if you like).
As people in the know are perfectly aware, the activities of the Ministry of Unification have little, if anything, to do with the professed goal of unification. This is not obvious to outsiders, however, and numerous research centers dealing with North Korean society and politics also bear names which include the “U-word.”
North Korea is not that different. Back in the 1980s, I was surprised to learn that North Korean intelligence operatives working inside South Korea are officially known as “unification workers.” It was officially assumed that their activities, at the end of the day, would be necessary to bring about the triumph of unification.
In real life, this rhetoric should not be taken too seriously
However, these claims are seriously misleading. The idea of unification has, indeed, become deeply embedded into the Korean ideology – or, to be more precise, rival Korean ideologies.
South Korea is a democracy where citizens are given a wide choice of ideological packages, varying from the radical left to the pro-market liberal right. Virtually all such ideological packages include nationalism, sometimes of an ethnic nature, as an integral and important part. All these packages, to some extent, must include the idea of unification as a supreme goal.
Being a highly authoritarian society, North Korea does not tolerate any deviation from the only true line. This sole official ideology includes nationalism as a very important, even major component, and naturally enough, also claims that unification should be the nation’s supreme goal.
However, in real life, this rhetoric should not be taken too seriously. Like it or not, few, if any, responsible Korean politicians see unification as something which can be achieved in the foreseeable future – and some of them even have doubts about whether unification is necessary at all.
The major problem the unification discourse faces is the massive economic disparity between the two Korean states.
In late 2018, the North Korean government published its official GDP estimates. According to the country’s own Institute of Economy, per capita nominal GDP in North Korea is $1214. Given that per capita GDP in South Korea is $30,000, the per capita GDP ratio between the two Korean states is close to a truly astonishing 1:25.
This yawning gap constitutes a major long-term threat to North Korea’s internal political stability. Indeed, the North Korean government works hard to keep the populace as ignorant as possible about the high living standards in the South.
This policy is by no means paranoid: the spread of knowledge about South Korea’s prosperity is potentially destabilizing, and might provoke regime collapse, or at least, serious political discontent inside North Korea. However, the same income gap makes unification talk grossly unrealistic.
Nowadays, mainstream unification discourse in South Korea suggests a gradual and negotiated unification, which will allegedly be achieved through talks between the leaders of North and South Korean states.
It is often implied that some kind of loose confederation of the two Koreas will be the first stage of this unification. However, neither the South or North Korean elites have the slightest inclination to begin serious discussions about such a project, which they see as essentially suicidal.
PROSPECTS FOR CONFEDERATION
Indeed, let’s examine what might happen if the North and South Korean elite agree to such a project.
First of all, under a hypothetical confederation, the North Korean population will in no time learn about South Korea’s prosperity – thanks to the unavoidable increase in exchanges and communication, as well as the relaxation of police surveillance. Once that happens North Korean commoners will begin dreaming of a speedy and full unification of the country under the South Korean system.
If fully exposed to uncensored knowledge of South Korean life, common North Koreans are likely to entertain the powerful illusion that in a unified state, South Korean style, they will more or less immediately come enjoy the same living standards as the lucky inhabitants of the southern part of the peninsula.
It is not going to happen, but this illusion is way too powerful to resist. In the late 1980s, one could see something like this in East Germany and, to some extent, in other countries of Eastern Europe.
A confederation arrangement is likely to be unsustainable
Around 1990, it was almost universally assumed by Eastern Europeans that once the Communist Party was removed from power, Poland or Russia would almost immediately enjoy living standards similar to those of, say, Germany or the United States.
Luckily, no serious politician in either Korea will ever consider such an option – even though this doesn’t prevent him or her from paying the obligatory lip service to the idea.
The reasons behind this are quite simple: all political forces which have some influence in present-day Korea are bound to lose out from a confederation.
The greatest losers are likely to be the current North Korean elite.
As we have said, even a confederation arrangement, so frequently talked of by the South Korea’s left-leaning nationalists, is likely to be unsustainable. Such a confederation will soon collapse and the North Korean elite will face an angry backlash.
The North Korean rulers have committed, arguably, the worst human rights abuses the world has seen in decades, and most of these abuses are likely to be exposed if police control and censorship are relaxed.
Countless people will emerge from prison camps with stories of torture, humiliation, unlawful imprisonment, and brutal violence. They, their families and friends, will demand revenge, and the former North Korean elite is likely to become their main target. It will not help that the political elite of the newly unified Korean state will badly need scapegoats.
The unification is likely to trigger a very painful and, perhaps, long transition period. The North Korean population will soon learn that in a unified state, they are not going to enjoy the living standards they saw in smuggled South Korean movies, and they will become frustrated by their poverty, even if absolute living standards will increase.
In this situation, politicians will need scapegoats to channel popular discontent towards them, and the recently deposed (and much hated) North Korean elite will conveniently fit the bill.
To a surprising degree, this threat is well understood and much feared in present-day North Korea. This fear of retribution (or scapegoating, if one prefers) alone might be enough to block any move towards confederation – but other major actors also have reasons to feel little enthusiasm about the “gradual unification” project.
Indeed, North Korean apparatchiks are not the only group likely to suffer in case of the country’s unification (and, once again, we are talking a hoped-for negotiated unification here).
The South Korean population – both elite and commoners – are going to suffer as well. In order to close the yawning economic gap between the two Korean states, South Korea will have to invest tremendous amounts of money into the northern regions of the newly-unified country.
Pretty much all industry, and virtually all infrastructure in North Korea, will have to be build anew from scratch, at a cost which is likely to run into the trillions of U.S. dollars.
Some of this money is likely to be provided by international organizations or commercial foreign investors, but, given the current international climate, one should not pin too much hope on outside help.
Almost certainly, a significant part of this will come from the pockets of the South Korean taxpayers, for whom unification will probably mean decades of working Chinese hours while paying Swedish taxes. This fact is increasingly understood by younger South Koreans.
Unification is likely to deliver a serious blow to the South Korean economy, and its recovery will take decades
The South Korean elite, too, has few reasons to be optimistic about prospects for unification. While both right and left sometimes promise their supporters that unification (achieved at some unspecified date, in some unspecified form) will become an “economic bonanza,” few serious economists, inside and outside Korea, take such statements as anything but empty and dishonest political rhetoric.
Unification is likely to deliver a serious blow to the South Korean economy, and its recovery will take decades, not years.
It is sometimes argued that North Korea has large amounts of natural resources, so unification will assist South Korea’s manufacturing industry. These expectations seem to be based, however, on gross overestimations. North Korea has some mineral resources, but these resources are by no means large enough to make a meaningful difference.
Equally groundless are claims that unification will provide South Korean businesses with access to cheap North Korean labor. Even pushing aside the clearly neo-imperialist and neo-colonial overtones of such claims, one can easily see that if North and South Korea become two parts of the same state, and if North Korean workers are subject to the same labor laws as their South Korean peers, their work is not going to be cheap.
Given their relatively poor training and low productivity, they might actually be more expensive than labor provided by South Korean workers.
RHETORIC OVER REALITY
It should come as little surprise that the unification idea produces little enthusiasm in both parts of the country. The common North Korean people constitute the only group which would really benefit if unification were achieved, but they are also the only group with no political clout whatsoever. Their opinions cannot be expressed, let alone influence decision-making.
One cannot help but wonder: if unification is likely to trigger an economic and social disaster, and if this fact is increasingly understood by the decision makers in both Korean states, why are Korean elites still so willing to loudly pay lip service to this idea?
The reason, as we have mentioned above, is quite simple: nationalism is inseparable from the unification dream. In a deeply nationalist society, no politician can afford to challenge one of the major official fictions, no matter what he or she actually thinks about it.
All this doesn’t mean, however, that unification is not possible. Unification is possible and indeed likely, but this is not going to be the nice, sweet and peaceful unification talked about by Korean politicians. The only possible realistic scenario is a revolutionary unification, somewhat similar to what happened in Germany in 1989, but much more bloody, violent, and dangerous.
It is not a nice prospect, to be frank, but it nonetheless remains a real possibility.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Joint Pyeongyang Press Corps
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