A very interesting article about South Korea’s stance towards unification with it’s Northern brother.
No sunshine yet over North Korea
By Andrei Lankov
For half a century, the worst fear of the South Korean government and people alike was that one day they would be conquered by their Northern brethren. In summer 1950 they saw how easily the North Korean tanks rolled into the streets of their cities, and the persistent fear of a new Korean War was the single most important factor in South Korean politics from the 1950s until the 1980s.
But now a very different kind of fear reigns supreme in Seoul. The South Koreans are not afraid of military defeat, which they know would be very unlikely. They fear their own victory instead. North Korea is in deep crisis, and its collapse seems to be a real possibility. But nobody in the affluent South wants unification – at least, an immediate and complete unification – with the impoverished North.
It was the German experience that became a wake-up call over a decade ago. Economists’ calculations indicate that if North Korea collapses, the reconstruction of the impoverished country will become an almost unthinkable burden for the affluent South. The estimates vary greatly, but everybody agrees that the amount of necessary investment will be truly astronomical.
The situation in Korea is much worse than was the case in Germany. The per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in East Germany was only one-third of that of the capitalist West, and some 80% of all Germans lived in the capitalist part of the country. In Korea, per capita GDP in the North is at least 10 times smaller than in the South, and the South Korean population is merely 65% of the total. Apart from economic issues, there are also social and political problems – so painful indeed that few people even dare to raise them.
Thus, a new dream plan gradually developed known as the “Sunshine Policy”. Now the South Korean policy planners hope to steer Pyongyang toward Chinese-style reforms. It is believed that such reforms will create economic growth, and thus eventually the gap between the two Korean states will diminish. Such peaceful transformation will probably take a few decades. In the meantime, the South Korean government is ready to keep its northern neighbor afloat with large amounts of aid: direct and indirect, open and clandestine. It is also ready to ignore provocations and, of course, not to attract excessive attention to the human-rights abuses and police terror in the North, still one the world’s most repressive and brutal regimes. All this is done to prevent a sudden collapse of North Korea and thus ensure that South Koreans will continue to enjoy their hard-earned prosperity.
The South Koreans are not ready to sacrifice their shiny new cars and regular vacations in Southeast Asia for the sake of their starving brethren. This might sound judgmental, but their position is easy to understand. Whatever the official line, for the average South Korean the North has long been another foreign country, whose problems and concerns are quite alien to those living in the South.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun has made a number of statements, assuring everybody (perhaps, even himself) that North Korea is not going to collapse. “Even if there is a certain situation in North Korea, I think there is an internal organizational ability to manage the situation,” Roh said in Germany a year ago. And in Poland in December: “Some have said that North Korea will collapse. But I believe there is almost no such possibility.”
The peaceful transformation envisioned by the Sunshine Policy might appear to be a dream scenario, at least to a South Korean taxpayer. (The estimated 200,000 inmates of the North Korean prison camps or the millions of starving North Korean commoners might have a dramatically different view on this subject). But there is one serious problem with this scenario: it is not realistic. It is based on the implicit assumption that the common North Koreans somehow will be willing to spend a few decades patiently and obediently waiting for the time when beneficial reforms will help to reduce the gap between the two Korean economies, so unification can be achieved in a manner most pleasant and comfortable for the South Korean taxpayers.
The examples of China and Vietnam are often cited as proof that a gradual reform without an “implosion” – a nice euphemism for a democratic revolution – is possible. But the experiences of these two countries are not applicable to North Korea. It is often overlooked that the existence of an economically affluent and politically free South Korea makes the Korean situation completely different.
In China and Vietnam, the affluence of the capitalist West is well known, but it is not seen by the populace as relevant to the problems of their own countries (apart from the quite nebulous argument that “democracy brings prosperity”). After all, the current Western prosperity can always be explained away in Marxian-cum-nationalist terms as a product of sinister imperialist policies and a result of the brutal exploitation of the non-Western world and its resources. Due to the existence of South Korea, however, the situation in North Korea is different.
From its inception, North Korea has gone to great lengths to present itself as a paradise while South Korea has been depicted as a “living hell”, where penniless students sell their blood to pay for textbooks and sadistic Yankees drive their tanks over Korean girls just for pleasure. The year one textbook presents North Korea’s children with an enlightening picture: “A school principal in South Korea beats and drives from school a child who cannot pay his monthly fee on time.” In high school, North Korean children learn that “South Korea is swamped with 7 million unemployed. Countless people stand in queues in front of employment centers, but not even a small number of jobs is forthcoming. The factories are closing one after another, and in such a situation even people who have work do not know when they will be ousted from their position.” Needless to say, these stories are inventions. Primary education in South Korea is free, and the number of unemployed people did not even remotely approach 7 million. (South Korea actually has one of the lowest unemployment levels among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, about 2-4%.)
These lies, however, were necessary since North Korea always presented itself as another part of the same state, as another government of one Korea. Its claims on legitimacy and the right to govern were based on its alleged ability to deliver a better material life for its people. (In 1962 North Korea’s founding father Kim Il-sung famously promised to deliver “a house with a tiled roof, soup with meat and silken clothes” for every North Korean.) This Marxian emphasis on material and economic success is what has made the myth of North Korean prosperity and South Korean poverty so indispensable to the regime’s survival. It is not for nothing that the North Korean bank notes bear the inscription, “We do not envy anybody in the world.”
The North Korean leaders understood the importance of strict information control or, rather, a self-imposed information blockade. Historically, all communist countries have tried to cut their populace off from unauthorized information from overseas, but few, if any, went to the extremes that North Korea has. Radio sets sold in North Korean shops have no free tuning and can be used only for receiving the official Pyongyang channels. (Even in Stalin’s Russia short-wave sets were readily available to the public.) Foreign media, including the periodicals of supposedly “fraternal” countries, have not been publicly available in North Korea since the early 1960s. All foreign publications, with the exception of purely technical materials, are kept in special departments within major libraries, available only to those individuals who have the requisite security clearance. Until the recent breakdown of control on the border with China, only a handful of North Koreans had any overseas experience.
The market reforms and foreign investment that have been anticipated and encouraged by the “Sunshiners”, as proponents of the Sunshine Policy are known, are almost certain to be economically beneficial, but they will have an unavoidable side-effect: a further deterioration of the carefully constructed system of information control.
Is it possible to check the spread of subversive information while still promoting economic reforms? Perhaps, but only to some extent, and only if reforms remain limited in scale. However, minor reforms are not sufficient to bring about a serious transformation of the North Korean economy. In the longer run, large-scale foreign investment will be necessary to sustain growth, and when this point is reached, contacts between North Koreans and outsiders (overwhelmingly South Koreans) will become unavoidable.
Sunshine Policy believers tacitly assume that a reformed North Korean regime will still be able to suppress open dissent, while the majority of the population will be kept docile by increased living standards, augmented by a slow yet steady improvement in their political rights – essentially, the situation that existed in China and Vietnam in the 1980s and 1990s. However, as it has been stressed above, the sheer existence of South Korea makes such a scenario implausible. Knowledge of the prosperous South will present the North Korean public with the belief (possibly naive, and certainly exaggerated) that their problems would find an easy solution through unification and the wholesale adoption of the South Korean social, economic and cultural system.
It is doubtful that the North Korean population, especially its better-educated sector, would agree to live indefinitely in a less affluent and more restrictive version of South Korea when a German-style unification could present them with a much easier path to instant success and prosperity. Will they agree to endure a decade or two of destitution followed by a couple of decades of poverty if they see another, better off Korea just across the border? Will they agree to tolerate a highly repressive regime run, at all probability, either by scions of the ruling Kim clan or by people who once were Kim’s henchmen? Will they be persuaded that such sacrifices are necessary to ensure “economic stability” in South Korea – or, in other words, to provide their brethren with chances to enjoy sunbathing in Thailand and a new Hyundai Sonata once every few years? Probably not.
One can easily imagine how discontent about the North Korean system, as well as information about the almost unbelievable South Korean prosperity, will first spread through the relatively well-heeled North Korean groups who are allowed to interact with South Koreans and foreigners or have better access to the foreign media and entertainment, and then filter down to the wider social strata. Once people come to the conclusion that they have no reason to be afraid of the usual crackdown, followed by the slaughter of real or alleged rebels and their entire families, they are more likely to react in East German style than the supporters of the Sunshine Policy are willing to consider. And this will be the end of South Koreans’ dream of the North’s peaceful and painless evolution. Of course, the current South Korean government is dead set against German-style unification. But what will they do if a large-scale popular movement erupts in the North demanding immediate unification?
It is a great irony that the expectations of a peaceful evolution are especially popular among the Korean left, whose supporters always portray themselves as staunch believers in the role of the “people’s masses”, known in their parlance as minjung. According to their view of history, the proud and active minjung were the major agent of change in South Korea. But when it comes to the North, the same people suddenly change their tune and equate North Korea with its officialdom, completely overlooking the fact that common North Koreans might have their own opinions about the future of their country and might indeed have an influence on its future. Fortunately or not, a vast majority of North Koreans are not members of the elite, and they are not terribly interested in scenarios that will keep real estate prices high in Seoul while forcing them to survive on 400 grams of maize a day.
Dr Andrei Lankov is a lecturer in the faculty of Asian Studies, China and Korea Center, Australian National University. He graduated from Leningrad State University with a PhD in Far Eastern history and China, with emphasis on Korea, and his thesis focused on factionalism in the Yi Dynasty. He has published books and articles on Korea and North Asia. He is currently on leave, teaching at Kookmin University, Seoul.