By Carlotta Rinaudo
“If we let Korea down, the Soviets will keep right on going and swallow up one place after another”, President Harry S. Truman, 1950.
As Truman spoke, North Korean forces were crossing the 38th parallel thereby invading the South, American troops were poised to intervene, and the Korean Peninsula was on the brink of becoming a first battleground of the nascent Cold War. Thus, in 1950 the Korean War began, and it has yet to conclude. While an armistice was agreed in 1953, no official peace treaty was ever signed, and the two Koreas have been divided by a demilitarized zone (DMZ) for almost 70 years. In this time their peoples have known very different lives and their societies have concurrently diverged, so that now, the peninsula is both governmentally and societally bifurcated.
North of the parallel we find a country pursuing its own variant of “Juche” Socialism, an ideology that promotes state control and economic self-reliance. However, Juche Socialism, in practice, has produced a very different reality. State control has transformed North Korea into a family-run kleptocracy, and the idea of economic self-reliance has instead made North Korea largely dependent on foreign aid. North Korean people have resorted to informal economics in order to survive, with women manufacturing goods in their homes and selling them in black markets. Furthermore, North Korea embraced the doctrine of “asymmetric escalation”, which sees the Kim family amassing stockpiles of nuclear weapons in order to protect their rule from exogenous pressure, including invasion and regime change. In contrast, South of the parallel, there is a highly-productive capitalist and democratic society, which has boomed into the 11th largest economy of the world, and is widely-known for its Samsung products, K-pop music, and pop-art lights.
Despite these drastic differences, the political elites of both countries advocate for the integration of the two Koreas. In 1972, President Kim Il Sung formulated the Three Charters of National Reunification, and The Arch of Reunification was erected in Pyongyang in 2001. In South Korea, a Ministry of Unification was established in 1969, with President Moon Jae-in pledging to achieve a reunification of the Korean Peninsula by 2045. Therefore, if unification is a possibility, what would be the implications?
The article aims to evaluate costs and benefits of a hypothetical reunification of the Korean Peninsula, assessing the case from a South Korean perspective. In a follow-up article, the same question will be tackled from a North Korean perspective.
The current situation on the Korean Peninsula can be compared to that of Germany during the Cold War: today’s North Korea and yesterday’s East Germany share a communist regime and an inefficient planned economy, while their counterparts adopted a democratic government and a market-based economy. Therefore, the German unification can provide valuable insights into the issues that the two countries would face should the Koreas become one again. It is exactly for this purpose that the German-Korean consultative body on unification issues was formed in 2010. What are, then, the implications at an economic, military, political and social level, if we draw from this German experience?
Many South Koreans fear that the process would simply be too expensive, with Seoul having to carry the burden.
In 2017, South Korea’s per capita GDP was $29,743, while North Korea’s was $1,214, the former being twenty-five times bigger than the latter. It would doubtless be a long process for the two to converge. Similarly, today the Eastern part of Germany still lags behind its Western counterpart, with salaries being only 84% of those in the West, and Germans often migrating from East to West as most of the major companies are headquartered there. Today German citizens still pay the so-called “Soli”, a controversial solidarity tax that is invested by the German government to fill the gap between West and East.
Despite these concerns, experts suggest that long-term economic benefits of a Korean unification will outweigh its costs, just as it has in Germany, first of all by creating a single market of 75 million people. North Korean citizens would be liberated from starvation and malnutrition, while South Korea would benefit from a significant injection of cheap labor in the economic system, but also from a huge amount of natural resources like coal, iron ore, and rare earth materials, which abounds in the Northern half of the Peninsula.
At a geo-economic level, North Korea’s geographical position has always isolated South Korea from import and exports via land. With a united Korean Peninsula, this would no longer be the case: Seoul could finally connect with the rest of the world via rail, with goods being shipped from Busan to Europe, whilst also integrating Pyongyang in global supply chains. Meanwhile, it could enable the construction of pipelines that transport natural gas from Russia to Seoul.
Nonetheless, the denuclearisation and demilitarisation of North Korea still pose a challenge.
East Germany was a base for Soviet nuclear weapons, but it did not have arsenals of its own. Similarly, at the point of unification, the 175,000 soldiers of the East German Soviet National People’s Army either left the army, or simply joined the military force of West Germany by swapping their uniforms.
In terms of military capabilities, North Korea is a different case. It has an army of 1,2 million, a stockpile of various missiles, chemical and biological weapons, and more than 60 nuclear warheads. It is one of the world’s largest conventional military forces, and the question of how to deal with it still remains largely unanswered.
In addition, how to ensure that the political elites that violated the rights of the North Korean people will be held accountable? What will happen to the Kim family? How to build a future where the North Korean people are equally represented in the government and other spheres? Germany still has a long way to go in this sense: while some “Eastern Germans” have become top political leaders, such as Chancellor Angela Merkel and former President Joachim Gauck, very few of the business leaders of big German companies were born on the Eastern side of the Berlin wall.
Finally, integration will come with social consequences.
Although the injection of cheap labor might be advantageous to big companies, it could also reduce the salaries of South Korean workers, or even replace them, generating further discontent among a society that, like the Japanese one, already suffers from a high level of old-age poverty.
In addition, North Koreans might struggle to fit in the capitalist world of South Korea.
Thae Yong-ho, one of the most famous North Korean defectors, once declared that for North Koreans in the South “the first difficulty (…) is that they don’t know how to choose”, because “in North Korea there is no opportunity to choose.”
After a period of timid and cordial relations, tensions between North and South Korea recently escalated again, with North Korea blowing up the inter-Korean liaison office and executing a South Korean official last September.
Although a Korean unification often appears like an impossibility, the issue should nonetheless remain open to discussion and the search for new solutions, especially regarding economic balance, North Korea’s huge military capabilities, the Kim family, and the integration of North Korean citizens.
Unification is a process, not an end-state: in Germany it has not concluded yet – in the Korean Peninsula, it might take even longer.
Carlotta is a MA candidate in International Affairs at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London. After completing her BA in Interpreting and Translation, she moved to the Middle East and developed a strong interest in the MENA region, North Korea, Cybersecurity, and the implications of the rise of China. Carlotta has written on a number of Italian publications on the Hong Kong protests and other forms of political unrest.