What Would Korean Reunification Look Like?

The Arch of Reunification in Pyongyang (Wikimedia Commons)

by John Feffer

Korean reunification is, for the most part, an ideal rather than a concrete plan. But that hasn’t always been the case.

In the 1950s, reunification was a military goal: the forced absorption of one side by the other. Neither side was able to achieve that goal.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when the two Koreas were rather similar in political structure, economic development, and cultural attitudes, reunification was a possible political project, as the two Koreas discussed ways to create a joint representative body. Those negotiations broke down largely because it was difficult to find a solution that satisfied two entities of such different population sizes.

By the time of the “sunshine policy” of the early 2000s, reunification had become a slow-motion economic project whereby initiatives like the Kumgangsan tours and the Kaesong Industrial Zone were designed to gradually reduce the enormous gap between South Korean wealth and North Korean underdevelopment. Ten years of conservative rule in South Korea – plus some intransigence and missteps by the North – whittled away the sunshine policy until there was nothing left.

Today, after the PyeongChang Winter Olympics and the third inter-Korean summit, the two countries have come the closest to reconciliation in years. Yet the political, economic, and social gap between the two countries remains immense – larger than ever before. On top of that, the military, political, and economic attempts at reunification in the past failed to achieve their goals.

So, aside from being an ideal, what might Korean reunification actually look like at this point?

The military option is, fortunately, off the table. Nor is anyone talking at this point about joint political bodies. It’s hard to imagine the democratic parliament in the south meshing in any significant way with the central committee of the north.

However, it’s possible for the two Koreas to establish quasi-political institutions to manage non-controversial projects in a technocratic way. So, for instance, a joint North-South body could administer various efforts to knit together the peninsula. Transportation officials from both sides could meet to discuss the north-south railroad and how it connects to the outside world. Joint commissions could address air traffic control, shipping, and fishing rights (a point of perennial conflict).

Perhaps the most useful joint projects would revolve around the environment – how to reduce the carbon footprint of the peninsula as a whole and put both countries on a solid footing of renewable energy. Having lost some of its industrial capacity in the wake of the economic collapse of the 1990s, North Korea is in a position to leapfrog over dirty technologies into a greener future. Since South Korea is still wedded to some of the same older technologies, such as coal-fired power plants, the two Koreas could make this jump together.

Of course, much of this political cooperation veers into the economic sphere. At the moment, the Moon Jae-in administration is looking into ways of promoting economic cooperation with the North that doesn’t violate the existing sanctions regime. Given the restrictions on technology and financial transfers, that cooperation will necessarily be limited.

Ultimately, however, reunification will need to focus on the same kind of slow-motion economic engagement that characterized the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun years. North Korea has a lot to offer in addition to its natural resources. Its labor force is educated and skilled. The IT sector is advanced. With the help of external training, it has even developed a managerial elite in the financial sector.

Indeed, North Korea has been poised to move more rapidly in a capitalist direction for some time. The only thing it has been lacking is capital. Markets have spread at a local level. Free trade zones have been in place for more than two decades. To be sure, Pyongyang is not interested in the full-scale globalization that Seoul has embraced. Nor is it willing to open up the economy quite so liberally as Beijing has done. But Kim Jong Un appears willing to embark on a controlled transition to state capitalism.

Sanctions are not the key factor behind North Korea’s economic underdevelopment. But sanctions are currently the key obstacle in North Korea’s path to economic transformation. Once those have been reduced or eliminated, South Korea can marshal the resources for more thoroughgoing economic cooperation.

Some in South Korea worry that even slow-motion reunification will be a drain on the budget. They point to the huge amount of money – several trillion dollars – that West Germany allocated to narrow the economic gap with East Germany during reunification in the early 1990s. They worry that because the gap between North and South Korea is even larger then the cost of reunification on the peninsula will be larger too.

In general, those concerns are legitimate. But western Germany in fact benefitted economically from reunification. Eastern Germans, during and after reunification, spent their money on West German products, from food to electronics. Virtually all of the contracts for infrastructure development in eastern Germany went to western German firms – for building roads, upgrading rail, transforming hospitals and schools, and so on. In this way, reunification was an incredible deficit-spending stimulus for the German economy.

Ideally, Korean reunification will proceed differently. It will take place over a longer period of time, involve North Koreans in a more equal capacity, and create new kinds of institutions for the peninsula rather than simply involve the absorption of North into South. The difficulties that so many North Korean defectors have experienced in South Korea today—and they number only around 30,000—speaks to the inability of South Korean society to “swallow” the North as West Germany essentially absorbed East Germany.

Ultimately, Korean reunification won’t look much like anything in the Korean past or anything that has taken place in other countries. The two Koreas are on the verge of entering uncharted territory. To go from ideal to concrete plan, both sides are going to have to sit down and hammer out some pragmatic, win-win solutions.

Reprinted, with permission, from Hankyoreh.

John Feffer

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is also the author, most recently, of Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe's Broken Dreams (Zed Books). He is also the author of the dystopian Splinterlands trilogy (Dispatch Books). He is a former Open Society fellow, PanTech fellow, and Scoville fellow, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and many other publications.


One Comment

  1. John Feffer writes, “The military option is, fortunately, off the table.” Up to May 22 anyway, but you can bet that detailed planning is well along. Whether Kim can play Trump to delay US military action is the big question. Bolton/Pompeo are probably figuring they can get US military action either in DPRK or in Iran. North Korean nuclear missiles are claimed to be a threat to the US homeland requiring early action, but the lobby for regime change NOW in Iran, through covert/cyber and then military action, is far stronger. Which one will win? Anybody betting on two wars?

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