This essay addresses the anticipated political, economic and cultural complications of the unification of the North and South Koreas. I will address the regional and international concerns regarding economic ramifications and potential security issues that may arise during and after unification. I will also address issues concerning cultural differences between the two nations and the potential risks that will be involved pending reunification. For the purposes of this essay unification and reunification will be used synonymously as various sources annotated this phenomenon in various ways. No historical references will be made regarding unification of other nations as this situation has proved to be quite unique and complicated in nature. Additionally, no current or past policies will be discussed at length as these policies have proven to not have any effect on the peninsulas condition during and after unification. In short, the overall purpose of this essay is to examine the potentially positive, negative and volatile outcomes of North and South Korea’s reunification.
When considering complications of the possible reunification of North and South Korea one must consider the political, economic and cultural implications; as well as not ignore the inevitable strategic changes in North East Asia. From “The Promise and Perils of Korean Unification,” Martin Hart-Landsberg states, the U.S. media presents us with two choices when talking about reunification: we can choose between a fast absorption of North Korea by South Korea, similar to the German experience; or a gradual absorption of North Korea by South Korea, where the process happens slowly so that the North does not collapse and the overall costs of reunification are kept to a minimum (50). North Korea has little to no interest to entertain these choices as their defining imperative is no longer to present itself as an alternative model for Korean unification, but to arrest its internal decline and avoid extinction as a political, economic, and social system: state survival has superseded all other national goals (Pollack and Lee 1). Upon examination of Kim Jung-Il’s regime and its current status, Pollack and Lee find it evident that North Korea will experience all or a few of the following scenarios:
Economic and political atrophy;
Regime and/or state collapse;
Conflict or absorption. (XV)
Some would argue one or a few of these situations are already taking place, but the North Korean regime is strong in the sense of sustainment. Unfortunately there are no key signs that any of the above mentioned scenarios are imminent; therefore planning for such has become quite a daunting task. The only aspects of North and South Korea’s reunification that are certain are that the process will be costly and timely.
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While the world awaits the young and inexperienced son of Kim Jung-Il to take command of North Korea, South Korean pundits such that of Cha Kil-jin, Chairman of Hooam Future Institute, find that an upheaval would soon take place in North Korea (Yu). Cha states, “There is an old saying that wealth does not pass three generations, but Kim Jong-Il is seeking to transfer power to his son, an unprecedented attempt to monopolize power for three generations. An upheaval is inevitable” (Yu). Is a political uprising truly pending? Alternatively, will reunification be the result of conflict? Is reunification even an option? Some believe that the Korean Peninsula has entered a process of irreversible and fundamental change, which eventually will lead it to an end of confrontation and probably also some form of unification (Maull and Harnisch 30). Timelines for reunification are uncertain; however, it is certain that it will have significant negative effects on the South Korean economy, political instability and cause a drastic change in the Korean culture.
Assuming North Korea will fall under South Korea’s governmental structure, it is evident the political alignment of these two nations will be difficult. Regional relations with China and Japan are of major concern; international perspectives on unification also need to be taken into consideration, particularly with current presence of U.S. forces on peninsula today.
At first it is questionable as to how soon the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) will be demolished as it is anticipated that North Koreans will attempt to flee their region; however Unification will lead to the eventual dismantling of the DMZ on both sides of the demarcation line (Maull and Harnisch 33). The first critical issue and arguably the most important is Korea’s status in international regimes dealing with WMD or missile proliferation. As these two nations join, their nuclear program will need to be legally clarified, made subject to verification, or ideally abolished (Maull and Harnisch 33).
Next, the two nations will need to create a combined armed forces. A host of specific issues will have to be settled in the context of an eventual integration of the two armed forces into one, such as the terms of integration/dismissal, accountability/amnesty for specific offenses and human rights violations, and transitional arrangements (Maull and Harnisch 33). The North has been a rogue nation for some time with an established dictatorship with communist ideals, whereas the South has modeled their government alongside US officials into a democratic nation. There will be a major shift in geopolitical relations in the region as well as internationally. This will be problematic as military stability will be forces will be uncertain for some time; especially considering the anticipated reduction of U.S. military presence on peninsula as this process progresses. The demobilization of the Korean armed forces will require economic alternatives for a large number of soldiers; this issue thus is linked to broader efforts towards rehabilitating North Korea while keeping South Korea on a healthy growth track (Maull and Harnisch 33).
The history of both Korea’s that have been influenced by outside powers have long dominated developments on the peninsula in the past, and they will continue to do so: the United States and China in particular will no doubt be deeply involved in any future security arrangement in and for Korea (Maull and Harnisch 31). China would be influenced by the new environment in several significant ways. China has been a in a unique diplomatic position between North and South Korea and will lose their strong influence on peninsula due to unification, as it will no longer have an international role to play in managing inter-Korean differences (Liu 51).
Due to their reduced influence on the peninsula and assuming the South Korean government will be used as the model and facilitator of unification it is likely renewed conflicts between China and a reunified Korea over territorial issues that had earlier been successfully resolved by Zhou En-lai and Kim Il-Sung (Liu 52). South Korea has refused to recognize the territorial concessions that North Korea made to China in the past. The differences between Seoul and Beijing on this issue matter little so long as Korea remains divided but could become a major source of contention between them after unification (Katz). These territorial issues may emerge as an important diplomatic negotiation topic following Korean unification, and could become a subject of controversy if the two governments fail to control ultra-nationalist feelings and fail to adopt an attitude of realism, respect for history, and willingness to accept the status quo rather than pursuing narrow national interests (Liu 52).
Ultimately the major concern for China points to how the peninsula will stand in the international political arena. Many Chinese observers fear that the unification of Korea will be bad for Beijing since this will result in an even stronger Korea allied to the United States — and possibly U.S. troops — on its very border (Katz). China has been able to have a “red” nation, or at least anti-democratic, on a majority of its borders for some time now. Encroaching democratic ideals and nations on its borders will become quite an issue for them militarily and diplomatically. China does however call for “stability” on the Korean Peninsula while firmly supporting North Korea, its Korean War ally, both economically and militarily (Kirk). These conflicting words and actions are undoubtedly cause further confusion on peninsula. Some political pundits have even gone as far as anticipating a political upheaval in China which then would provide a true opportunity for North and South Korean to unify. Evidence of a coup d’état in China is as strong of this phenomenon to occur in North Korea. There is no argument that China does inflict enormous influence on North Korea and ultimately would not support a unification of the two nations (Yu). However, it is the understanding of region that if unification were to happen and China overreaches their territory in an attempt to occupy North Korea or colonize it, they would suffer huge consequences because the United States and its allies will use whatever means available to check their move (Yu).
Another political issue of concern is that post-reunification will foster a unified nationalist culture thereby leading to the resurfaced Korean-Japanese differences — many of which stem from Korean resentment of the Japanese occupation of Korea for several decades until the end of World War II (Katz). Ranging from historical artifacts, written history, territorial claims and humbled apologies these transgressions will need to take place for there to be true peace in the region. Recently, steps towards such a relationship has been initiated as the Japanese Prime Minister Kan said the South Korean people “were deprived of their country and culture, and their ethnic pride was deeply scarred by the colonial rule which was imposed against their will under political and military circumstances” (Kang). This is a huge step towards diplomacy for these two nations; however North Korea’s impression of Japan is not likely to be much different of that since post-colonial times due to their isolation and propagandistic government. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak stated, “The two countries are called upon to take concrete measures to forge a new relationship for another 100 years” (Kang). Although these exchanges will improve relations there is no telling what the new governmental structure will accept as a proper apology or alliance with Japan post unification of the two Koreas. Much of these words are as good as mud to Koreans as their perspectives change with each Prime Minister of Japan.
Lastly, it is arguable that the perspective of the South Korean government is not often used as a gauge for whether unification is desired on peninsula. President Lee Myung-bak stated that “inter-Korean relations demand a new paradigm,” in which “the two sides choose coexistence instead of confrontation, progress instead of stagnation;” however, less than 24 hours later, on Monday, he called for “training thoroughly” in joint exercises this week involving 55,000 South Korean and 30,000 American troops as a show of force in response to the sinking of the South Korean warship in March (Kirk). This type of dichotic comment reflects the uncertainty of the opinion of the South Korean people. They do want unification for their families, but tensions are and have been high in response to military attacks.
The games are sure to be all the more upsetting to North Korea since they’re beginning soon after two sets of air and naval exercises. South Korean ships and planes finished five days of exercises a week ago in the Yellow Sea, and late last month, US and South Korean ships and planes conducted still larger exercises on the opposite side of the Korean peninsula, off Korea’s East Coast. (Kirk)
Even though military action has thus far been silent between North and South Korea since the exercise, the show of military force has caused North Korea to make promises to respond with a “merciless counter-blow” (Kirk). While this situation provides to be quite complex in that South Korea needs to project themselves as a politically and militarily strong nation; however while there is a need to reveal a compassionate side regarding unification — it has proven to be quite impossible to balance these two ideals.
In conclusion the regional issues will be plentiful with both Japan and China while the integration of these two nations begins. Outside powers have long dominated developments on the peninsula in the past, and they will continue to do so: the United States and China in particular will no doubt be deeply involved in any future security arrangement in and for Korea (Maull and Harnisch 31). The Koreans themselves and outside powers will therefore eventually have to find solutions together; either through cooperation, or through competition, balancing or by force (Maull and Harnisch 31). Initial adjustments to political alignment will need to be made domestically within the unified Korea prior to their engagement with outside nations. Solidarity is going to be unified Korea’s initial political feat; without a strong government their progress will be negligible.
The economic effect this will have on both nations is quite remarkable and potentially the most telling that a unification is not the best option. South Korea’s emerging economy in the world market has strengthened over the years yet is not prepared to assume economic responsibility for North Korea. Despite the past projects between these two nations to alleviate the burden, North Korea would only be capable as a laboring workforce and would have to acquire new skill sets to be participants our present global economy. Initial stages of economic unification will cause a unified Korea to intrinsically have two separate workforces that will provide both low-wage manpower (North Korea) and conglomerate corporate level (South Korea) production.
It is assumed that the South Korean economy will be set as the model in the case of reunification, as they are equipped with machinery, infrastructure and have an educated workforce. This is largely because there is an assumption that the North will never have sufficient power to force meaningful negotiations and that there is nothing of value in the Northern experience (Hart-Landsberg 50). However because of the economic burden South Korea will have to bear post unification, their economy will unavoidably become stagnate. Therefore a need for a change in the South Korean political economy is imminent and the critical importance of a progressive reunification strategy for realizing this change (Hart-Landsberg 51). Reunification costs are of obvious concern for South Koreans as their current economic situation is not ideal.
Poverty rates have soared from approximately 9 percent in 1996 to 20 percent in 2006. The middle class is rapidly shrinking, falling from approximately 56 percent of all households in 1996 to 44 percent in 2006. And inequality has hit record levels: the top 20 percent income bracket earned 4.5 times more than the bottom 20 percent in 1996 and 7.1 times more in 2006. 52.6 percent of the respondents said that their current living standards are worse than six years ago, while only 9.9 percent felt their living conditions would improve. (Hart-Landsberg 55-6)
These statistics prove that South Koreans are not prepared to assume the economic burden that North Korea will cause them to incur. Workers in South Korea would find their wages frozen and the South Korean government will have to finance reunification costs by issuing high-revenue, miscellaneous bonds and through deficit spending (Liu 45). Additionally, South Korea will be dependent upon aid from allied nations; as this will be key and necessary in the initial stages of economic unification with North Korea.
Another area of concern is whether or not North Korea has the ability to provide an able and capable workforce. The first issue that will be prominent is the health of their workforce. The food crisis is simply a symptom of the failure of North Korea’s socialist central agricultural planning policies; it is widely recognized that the North Korean people would be unable to produce enough food to attain agricultural self-sufficiency (Liu 32). Now the South will be responsible for subsidizing their food production in order to ensure an able workforce. The technological gap between North and South Korea also provides another road block in their progress. Massive infrastructure and industrial overhaul will be necessary, as well as education, for the North to become an capable participant in today’s economy.
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Unification will provide economic strife for other countries as well, especially those in the region providing similar products on the world market. A united Korea will combine the South’s technical expertise with the low-wage manpower that will undoubtedly exist for many years in the former North and will prove to be a formidable competitor with China both for exports to other countries and for investment (Katz). This will indefinitely cause a problem for South Korea concerning their investment prospects. According to the Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry, about nine percent of ten companies manufacturing products in Korea have plans to invest in China in the future, as the country’s low production costs and the eager-to-please regulations make the market more attractive than Korea (Hart-Landsberg 55). With China incurring an economic hit from the North Korean workforce as they progress, it will be unlikely that the South Korean economy will be able to have the luxury of investment in the Chinese workforce. Ideally this would turn into a domestic investment towards the North Korean workforce; however as stated before their infrastructure and machinery will need to be update and created in order for this to actualize.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has made preparatory policy for these potential economic burdens through announcing his intentions of instating a Unification tax upon the South Korean citizens. However, the South Korean population is not readily accepting such a policy as they are having economic problems of their own. With a shrinking middle class, poverty on the rise and decreasing living conditions an additional tax translates to an even lower standard of living; however the unification tax is an inconvenient task the South Koreans will not be able to avoid in the future. In a report, titled ‘Modeling Korean Unification,’ written in 1999, Marcus Noland noted that between $300-600 billion over ten years would be needed to raise North Korean income levels to 60 percent of the South Korean average and to prevent mass migration of North Koreas into South Korea (Kang). Soon thereafter, the Rand Corporation projected in 2005 that up to $670 billion would be needed to double the gross
domestic product level of North Korea within five years in the wake of unification (Kang). The most current prediction from the Presidential Commission estimated that the cost of unification will be around $2.14 trillion, more than twice of South Korea’s GDP last year (Unification Tax). Clearly these statistics are projects, but it is evident that the costs of unification become steeper as time passes. The longer unification is delayed technology becomes more advanced which in turn will cause the market to become more competitive.
Some researchers argue that the costs may be less than the benefits of reunification, as the economic gap between North and South Korea will continue to grow the longer reunification is deferred. On the other hand, many South Korean scholars, as well as some U.S. State Department officials, argue that there is little evidence of an imminent North Korean collapse, particularly when one takes into account the unique characteristics and endurance of North Korean people, leadership, and society. (Liu 31)
Nonetheless, it is clear that the socio-economic rehabilitation and cooperation of both North and South Korea will be paramount during unification; ultimately providing an opportunity for stability for a unified Korea.
Culturally these two homogenous nations could not have grown farther apart than they have in the past 60 years. The initial obstacles would evolve around communication, specifically language. Due to the North Korea’s language reform and isolationist approach with the rest of the world the Korean language in the North has not had the opportunities to expand and progress like that of South Korea. Their lack of knowledge about technology and limited infrastructure will place a huge barrier between them South Koreans and what is more important their communication with the world will be hindered as well.
Policies driven by former leader Kim Il-Sung were efforts to alleviate North Korea’s post-colonial illiteracy epidemic and to re-establish the Korean language with a sense of patriotism as a symbolic vehicle for asserting national identity. In September of 1949, North Korea officially abrogated the use of Chinese characters in the Korean language (Yim 218). Kim Il-Sung insisted that only those words clearly understood by the masses be used. He advocated elimination of Chinese characters in the Korean language on the grounds that they were too difficult for the masses to learn (Yim 225). Additionally, Kim Il-Sung re-issued the Korean alphabet with forty characters vice the original twenty four characters to establish the “true” Korean alphabet. When in fact it was the same alphabet, he simply created “new” characters through labeling double consonants and diphthong vowels as characters. Even though these characters were already in use, he used the illiteracy of the masses as a way for him to again establish a sense of pride among the people. This also was an attempt to establish the Pyongyang dialect as the standard, over the Pyojun-e, which is the standard South Korean dialect (Yim 222). It has become apparent that it was more important to Kim Il-Sung that North Koreans felt as if they were preserving Korea’s unique linguistic characteristics instead of their linguistic progress (Yim 222).
In addition, more recently borrowed words from Japanese, Russian, and English were totally banished from public use. The nationalization movement went so far as to resurrect extinct Korean words, to the point were even scientific and technological terminologies were required to follow native Korean language patterns. (Yim 223)
The ramifications of language alone will be a severe catastrophe during unification of North and South Korea. Not only will the workforce be uneducated with modern ways and technology, but they will not be equipped with a vocabulary that will enable them to learn efficiently. Compulsory schooling will need to be evaluated and modified for North Koreans in order for this gap to be reduced; however it will take at least a generation or two to fully mend the damage that will be actualized.
Further discussing communication, the lack of infrastructure in North Korea will provide to be yet another hurdle in unification. South Korea has been deemed the cell phone capital of the world with the creation and production of the semi-conductor; however North Korea has yet to establish a widespread landline network. Albeit efforts were made to establish a cell phone network in North Korea, but efforts were ceased.
The service was banned after a mere six months, in May 2004, soon after a huge rail explosion ravaged the northwestern town of Ryongchon hours after Kim Jong-il’s train had passed through from China. Officially described as an accident, one rumor is that this was an assassination attempt triggered by a mobile phone. North Korea has seemed hostile to telecommunications more generally, confiscating mobile phones from foreign visitors upon arrival, and cracking down hard on people who use illicit phones through Chinese networks along the northern border. (Foreign 20)
Lacking a method of communication throughout the nation will provide many growing pains during unification, especially during the reconstruction period. Cell phones will likely be the initial bandage used until landline networks and internet can be established.
Aside from language and communication, another obvious cultural difference is apparent when examining North and South Korea side by side. The lack of infrastructure becomes evident when actualizing the statistics between North and South Korea’s oil consumption.
Although South Korea is the world’s fifth-largest importer of oil and the largest importer of liquefied natural gas, the North lies at the opposite extreme. The gulf between them is now a startling 230:1, meaning that the South imports more oil in two days than the North does in a year. On a per-head basis, each South Korean consumes over 100 times more oil than a Northerner. Obviously, an industrial economy can not be run on so little fuel. (Foreign 18)
North Korea is not privy on what it requires to be an industrial economy and will add import costs for South Korea as they will be responsible for providing energy for the North post-unification. The disparity in quality of life between the North and South will become evident with amenities like heating and cooling, power, running water and the like; amenities forward nations often overlook. It is anticipated that these difference will cause a major point of contention as the North Koreans may cry out with accusations of inequity, accusing Southerners of selfishness and snobbishness in treating North Koreans as second-class citizens compared to the relatively high standard of living in the South (Liu 44).
Ultimately the major cultural battle that will be faced during unification is combating North Korea’s lack of acknowledgement of South Korea as a legitimate nation. Their nationalism is quite astounding as they still claim to be the rightful representative of all Koreans (Scenarios 15).
For these reasons stated, reunification will be the antithesis of what the world know to be Korean culture. Giant leaps will need to be made by a nation that is essentially trapped in a time warp and at least a generation or two of adjustment for the antiquated ways of the North to fuse with the progressive South.
And for the time being, the world has no choice but to let North Korea determine their own fate and to ensure that their inner problems do not spill over across their borders (Yu). Since the two nations have established cultures that differ in terms of political ideology and economic systems the efforts that will need to be made in the future to recover true homogeneity will cause them to revert to common what common cultural practices and traditions that are remaining; however few there might be.
A key component of that strategy must be dialogue. We need to fight to create space for dialogue across the DMZ-bringing together from the North and South: unions, to discuss appropriate labor laws and forms of workplace organization; educators, to design a new educational curriculum for a democratic reunified country; environmentalists, to shape an economic growth strategy that is sustainable. (Hart-Landsberg 57).
China, Japan and the U.S. will be major players in establishing this dialogue; however these efforts have been in action for over 60 years and very little progress has been achieved.
Ideally the advances that South Korea has made over the years would ease North Korea’s transition into an global nation; however the economic sacrifices might be too daunting of a task for the South to survive. Unification may not be the ultimate solution; however a pressing world issue with the condition of North Korea still remains.
The leaders of the North are anxiously facing pressures resulting from their own structural economic failures, starkly ilustrated in comparison with Chinese prosperity through reform and South Korea’s economic miracle, yet they are unwilling to take steps that might threaten the current structure of their political system. (Liu 33)
As the world anxiously awaits a resolution, both North and South Korea will need to commitment in fostering true diplomatic relations between their governments. If unification is truly desired on peninsula then dialogue must continue with bipartisan and innovative solutions.
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