When we utter the word Korea, it most often indicates the country on the southern half of the Korean peninsula. The Republic of Korea (ROK) or South Korea is a highly developed and extremely homogeneous democracy, which is most famous for its high-tech companies such as Samsung, its cuisine such as bibimbap or kimchi and its very lively music scene (K-pop). Less often, but equally correct, Korea stands for the more obscure country above the 38th parallel line on the Korean peninsula. The Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea is a developing country under the authoritarian rule of the Kim dynasty, which is well-known for its nuclear weapon tests and human rights violations.1 Indeed, comparing the two sides of the peninsula to each other makes for a fairly peculiar examination. (Featured image © Wikimedia Commons)
The current state of affairs has been in place for over more than sixty years and relations between the two Koreas have been quite rocky. This stalemate is common, however, knowing that both parties are formally still at war with each other.2 Though exceedingly unlikely against this factual background, the main focus of this article is put on examining whether a reunification between the ROK and the RDPK is a feasible task to undertake for both leaderships, populations and supporters of each regime.
Korean History in a Nutshell
The Korean peninsula as a unity has undergone and survived many rules and dynasties throughout the ages. From early times onward, China had installed an East Asian tributary system in which all adjacent countries should acknowledge the Middle Kingdom’s suzerainty. Having long shared strong political and cultural bonds, Korea took up the position of model tributary state within this Confucian East Asian world order. A unified Korea came to life in the year 668, when the Silla dynasty unified the three kingdoms that were located on the Korean peninsula.3 Interstate relationships with China entered a golden age under the leadership of Yi Song-gye, founder of the Korean Yi dynasty (1392-1910), who transformed Korean society into a truly Confucian society.4
The military rise of Japan at the late 19th century eventually put an end to the Yi dynasty and transformed the Korean peninsula into a Japanese protectorate in 1910. Japanese governor-generals ruled with an iron fist in a velvet glove, while gradually increasing their harshness and discriminatory policies against Korean citizens. Besides actively promoting Japanese standards, the colonial rulers also invested deeply in economic development and critical infrastructure of Korea. Particularly during WWII, colonial rule turned to mass mobilization and forced assimilation of Korean citizens.5
As Japan’s surrender in WWII became unavoidable, the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) came to an agreement to split up the Korean peninsula in two halves from the 38th parallel line and temporarily occupy these territories.6 With the outbreak of the Cold War however, an US-led government was installed in the Southern half, while a pro Soviet Union government came to rise in 1948. The fact that this situation was hardly maintainable became clear in June 1950, when North Korean soldiers backed by Chinese and Soviet troops invaded South Korea. Supported by US and UN forces, the South Korean army withstood the attacks from the North and the Korean War ended up in peace talks in 1953. Yet, the only outcome of these peace negotiations was an armistice between the two parties, in which a demilitarized zone (DMZ) was established on both sides of the 38th parallel line.7
From here on out, two vastly different regimes surfaced on both halves of the Korean peninsula: an authoritarian communist state under leadership of the Kim family and a liberal democratic state under leadership of elected presidents.8 While initially North Korea was economically better off than its Southern counterpart, the situation started to shift due to American and Japanese technological innovation and investment in South Korea. Disgruntled by this disparity, to showcase its national power and to safeguard its survival in a globalizing world, North Korea secretly started its own nuclear weapon program in an effort to counterbalance its most powerful enemy, the United States. By means of nuclear missile tests in 2006, 2009, 2013 and allegedly 2016, Pyongyang has drawn worldwide attention to its nukes.9 Currently, a highly developed liberal democratic South Korea under the leadership of female president Park Gye-heun and a developing communist authoritarian North Korea under the all-seeing eye of Kim Jong-un occupy each side of the 38th parallel line.
Cost Benefit Analysis of Reunification
A Korean reunification would entail many variables (humanitarian relief, relocation issues, infrastructure investment,…) that policy makers have to take into account. However, even before examining these variables, it is of utmost importance to discern various scenarios of a possible future reunification. In general, experts have laid out three possible scenarios. First, the DRPK’s military starts an all-out war with South Korea and its allies. Second, North Korean citizens start a revolution against its government. Third, Pyongyang succumbs under the weight of economic and social forces and will be assimilated by Seoul. As experts regard the third scenario as the most plausible one, the cost and benefit analysis is solely based on this hypothesis. Moreover, the other two scenarios would by far encompass more costs and risks related to a possible Korean reunification.10
South Korea’s finance ministry reported that reunification would consume seven percent of its current GDP ($80 billion) every year for a minimum of ten years. A report of an advisory body appointed in 2011 by previous ROK President Lee Myung-bak far exceeded this initial analysis, concluding that at least $2 trillion in total was necessary to ensure a smooth reunification.11 In addition, an article in The Economist warned that most of these costs will be burdened upon South Korean taxpayers for decades.12
On the precondition of securing the regime’s nuclear weaponry and peacefully demobilizing its army, benefits of a reunification are to be expected on multiple levels.
First of all, South Korea could cut down on its defense spending, which takes up 2.5 percent of its GDP (around $30 billion a year). The ROK has allocated many resources to defend the DMZ, keep its military updated and to gather intelligence, all to counter a possible North Korean attack. The country could also put an end to its universal conscription, as all young South Korean men are obliged to fulfill a two year military service. In addition, the necessity of US troops stationed in South Korea will disappear, along with the yearly fee of $1 billion the ROK pays to the USA for these troops.13
Second, an abundance of economic opportunities would present itself. Seoul possesses almost no mineral resources and therefore imports 97 percent of its natural resource needs. On the other hand, North Korea holds vast mineral deposits (even of rare-earth minerals), but cannot easily extract these resources due to a lack of adequate technology.14 Moreover, the ROK would no longer be an island economy and could drastically cut in transportation prices. For instance, long-held plans of importing energy through gas pipe lines from the Russian city of Vladivostok could finally be carried out.15 Ultimately, reunification would bring about an expanded domestic market and numerous trade benefits.
Benefits would also be reaped on a societal level. First of all, the end of universal conscription would undoubtedly lead to an earlier entrance of young workers into the workforce. Second, as North Korea’s population of 25 million (of which 18 million workers) would be added to the population of 50 million (of which 36 million workers), the economy would be stimulated by an exceedingly great degree. Most North Korean citizens are low-wage workers, which most certainly fill in a gap in the high-tech economy of South Korea, without turning to Southeast Asian or other low-wage workers that are not easy to integrate into the homogenous Korean society. Even more interesting is the influx of a population with a higher birth rate as a counter to South Korea’s rapidly aging society.16
In conclusion, the Korean unification would involve tremendous costs in the short run, but would certainly produce favorable results in the long run. Not only would Korea’s economy be boosted greatly, nor would its aging society only be countered to a certain degree, but its political power in the region and on the international stage would also increase significantly.
Political Will on All Sides
Splitting the Korean peninsula on the 38th parallel line has created several drawbacks, of which splitting Korean families into a South Korean and North Korean part is one amongst many. Starting in 1985, brief reunions of war-separated relatives were organized between both parties. Even today, aged Korean citizens wholeheartedly look forward to the meetings with their cross border family members. South Korea has strongly voiced its concern on this topic over the past years, but political will at both sides of the 38th parallel line is indispensable in order to arrange family reunions.17
Indeed, this political will or momentum on both sides is crucial to ever put a Korean reunification into practice. Inter-Korean relations have remained rocky throughout the last sixty years, without any grand signs signaling this situation will change anytime soon. Initially in the 1970s and the 1980s, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung declared his wish to unify with South Korea in order to establish the Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo. However, this wish has slowly but surely changed into a policy of co-existence, out of the fear that the stronger capitalist economy of South Korea would overtake North Korea’s socialist administration. Whether or not Pyongyang currently contemplates the idea of unifying Korea by force of arms, it most definitely hackles reunification with Seoul while US troops are still stationed on its territory.18
In contrast, current South Korean president Park has already repeatedly expressed her interest in a reunification of the Korean peninsula. In January 2014 Park stated that a Korean unification would bring forth an “economic bonanza”.19 To further highlight her policy agenda, she even established the Presidential Committee for Unification Preparation (PCUP) in December 2014. This committee’s mission consists of exploring the complexities, challenges, and ultimate opportunities of the unification process.20 In order to successfully implement this policy, the Korea Institute for National Unification on inter-Korean relations has compiled a National Community Unification Formula. This comprehensive manual lays out the way to unification in three steps over a long time period. Starting by reconciliation and close cooperation between both sides, a Korean commonwealth would come about with two co-existing political systems and governments. Finally, the last step would be a unified Korea based on a new constitution and with general democratic elections.21
Another key task of the PCUP board is to find common ground on the topic of Korean reunification between different societal groups in South Korea. Convincing the general population that reunification is a highly rewarding endeavor represents an arduous task for the South Korean government. The costs that accompany reunification in the short run, particularly social and financial burdens on their everyday life, lead to anxiety amongst most citizens. According to PCUP’s vice-chair Chung Chong-Wook, left, right, progressive and conservative forces hold clearly conflicting positions on the issue of reunification.22
Even more challenging a task is persuading South Korea’s younger generations, as they do not feel any kind of kinship with their northern neighbors. A public opinion poll conducted in February 2015 by independent think tank ASAN Institute for Policy Studies illustrates that differing political systems, different economic levels, and different values between the two countries result in a perceived distance by younger generations.23 The fact that this perceived gap will only widen in the future urges policy makers to hasten their attempts at acquiring these generations’ support.
Besides wooing domestic groups on the issue, the importance of drawing the goodwill of external powers into the matter cannot be overlooked. The government-funded Korean Institute for National Unification is convinced that China, North Korea’s main ally, is an indispensable player in the reunification process. Therefore President Park has made several attempts to charm China, for instance by appearing at China’s military display.24 Stability on the Northern half of the Korean peninsula and its socialist administration is in China’s best interest, which explains why the Asian superpower has limited interest in a change of the status quo.
The US needs to be heavily involved too if reunification plans were to succeed. An article from the New York Times voiced its opinion that progress could possibly be made if Washington were to normalize its relations with Pyongyang by recognizing the legitimacy of its government.25 However, nuclear weapon tests and a record of disdaining international law by North Korea make this course of action highly unlikely. Just as during the Six-Party Talks, other players, like Russia or Japan, could also be called on to further raise support for a reunification of both halves on the Korean peninsula.26
It remains highly doubtful however to expect any rapid shifts towards proactive reunification from both the South Korean population and external actors. The situation has been static over the past six decades, so plans of a Korean reunification presumably won’t materialize any time soon. Not to mention, inter-Korean negotiations over family reunions already show a high degree of complexity. Even if the South Korean leadership would play an exquisite chess game and convince all players on the board to give the green light, these plans would still require huge costs and time to be finalized. In conclusion, many benefits could indeed accompany the unification of the Korean peninsula, but the political will to do so needs to be present at all sides of the spectrum.