By Carlotta Rinaudo
When asked her opinion about Korean reunification, North Korean waitress Song Jin A replied that the North and South are one blood, and that Korean compatriots should all live together, ‘cuddled in Kim Jong-un’s arms.’
Such proclamations are regular fixtures of comments made to foreign journalists on the streets of Pyongyang, where citizens repeatedly emphasize their longing for reunification, often referring to Koreans south of the 38th parallel as “brothers and sisters.” Similarly, the political elites of both countries continue to publicly advocate for the integration of the two Koreas.
Despite these declared desires, reunification nonetheless remains seemingly impossible. On each side, a plethora of factors seem to complicate reconciliation, and currently both parties face domestic contexts that render ambitions of reunification untenable. As I have argued previously, the South Korean elite is preoccupied with the hypothetical unions’ economic costs, the issue of demilitarizing and denuclearizing the North, and what place the Kim family and its officials should have in a unified Korea. Face-to-face with these obstacles, elite actors within North Korea also have their own concerns about unification. And it is to these which I will now turn.
It should first be noted that North Korea would enter the union as a weaker partner, which would reduce its ability to influence the decision-making process. For this reason, North Korean elite officials fear that reunification will be to their social, economic, and political disadvantage: they fear the intrusion of the United States in Korean affairs, the suppression of the North Korean ideology, and of losing their personal authority.
North Korean leaders depict Japan and the US as the imperialist forces responsible for the division of the Korean Peninsula. Their rhetoric maintains, not entirely without basis, that the US transformed South Korea into a colony governed by a puppet regime. Indeed, since the Cold War era South Korea has undergone an Americanization process that saw the country adopting an American style democracy while embracing many of the American ways of living, and allowing a strong American military presence on its soil.
Although over recent years the Kim regime has displayed some tolerance towards the American presence in the South, Kim Jong-un has continued to request these troops be significantly reduced. As a precondition of reunification, North Korean officials may demand US forces be expelled from the Korean Peninsula, or request their re-organization and reduction. The US is unlikely to support such deal, as its South Korean bases offer a key strategic point in countering perceived Chinese threats in the South China Sea.
Consequently, South Korea’s government, for whom the US is a main military ally, may also oppose the proposals.
As discussed in my previous article, in 2017 South Korea’s per capita GDP was twenty-five times larger than that of North Korea. This prompts North Korean leaders to fear that, should reunification occur, the South may economically overshadow the North, threatening the survival of the North Korean ideology. To avoid this scenario, in 1980 former North Korean leader Kim Il Sung said that the North and the South should instead unify under a form of confederation, branded the Democratic Federal Republic of Koryo – where the word Koryo recalls the ancient Koryo Kingdom under which the whole Korea was unified until 1392. The Democratic Federal Republic of Koryo is a “one country, two systems” model, much like what China and Hong Kong used to be. It consists of a unified nation that maintains two separate systems of government, allowing the coexistence of different ideologies: the Juche Socialism of the North, and the Capitalist system of the South. To ensure such coexistence, there would be a supreme national assembly with the same number of representatives from both sides. An equal share of representation would avoid a “big fish eats small fish” scenario, reducing the risk of the North Korean ideology being swallowed by a stronger South Korean counterpart.
The North Korean elite benefits from a hereditary class system known as Songbun, which divides people into three main social classes: the core, the wavering, and the hostile. The families that have been loyal to the Kim dynasty represent the core class, a ruling cadre that includes high-ranking military officials, senior bureaucrats, businessmen and diplomats. They enjoy material affluence and enjoy a system where they regularly accept bribes from the rest of the population in exchange of favors. This elite is afraid that, should reunification occur, their privileges might be taken away or, even worse, that they might be punished for their complicity in the Kim regime.
As such, these elites may attempt to sabotage any unification process that threatens their power. Northern military generals might mount an insurgency against a unification government before the military units are disarmed and disbanded, or else they could organize clandestinely using underground stores of weapons.
This scenario has happened before. When American forces invaded Iraq, many members of the Ba’ath party lost their privileges. They therefore organized an insurgency of former regime allies, which would eventually pave the way for the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq. Consequently, North Korean elites are unlikely to collaborate in the reunification process unless they are assured that their advantageous social position won’t be undermined.
Nonetheless, a significant part of the elite is increasingly unhappy with Kim Jong-un. North Korea’s state-controlled economy has proved largely unable to raise the living standards of its population, and the country is currently crippled by countless economic sanctions which banned the export of North Korean coal, iron ore and textiles, a major source of revenue for Pyongyang. In a speech to the Workers Party Congress in January 2021, Kim Jong-un surprisingly admitted that his efforts to rebuild the economy have failed. Should a new North Korean leader take over, he or she could be one of those entrepreneurs who operate outside of the inefficient North Korean economy. In this scenario, such leadership could push North Korea towards a China-like reformation period, as happened under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. This would partially open North Korea to a market-based economy, thus beginning to bridge the ideological gap between North and South and perhaps facilitating a reunification process.
In sum, many factors stand in the way of a Korean reconciliation. On one side, the elites of Pyongyang are unlikely to support the reunification process unless certain conditions are met: American forces are expelled or reduced from the Peninsula, the North Korean ideology is preserved, and they can maintain their socioeconomic privileges. On the other side, South Korean leaders are unlikely to accept a US withdrawal from the Peninsula, while also questioning the role of the North Korean elites under a unified Korea.
However, it should be noted that predicting the conditions of a national unification is no easy task, especially when it involves tracing social forces within a state system as opaque as North Korea.
Carlotta is a MA candidate in International Affairs at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.