Pondering Korean reunification

Very positive news came out of Beijing today, where representatives from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or North Korea, agreed to halt development of its nuclear program.  As one who lives close to the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) in Seoul, I was very excited to learn that there was a major breakthrough in the Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.  Congratulations to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and Envoy to the talks, Christopher Hill, and his team for a job well done.  There is still much work to be done, and the North Koreans have to follow through with what they have agreed to do.  Nevertheless, this is the most positive breakthrough since the 1994 Agreed Framework.  Perhaps as significant as the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear program, the agreement also offers mutual security assurances and paves the way for normalized relations between the U.S. and North Korea.
This news is an excellent prelude to today’s blog topic, Korean reunification.  I want to share with you what I think Korea will be like following reunification, assuming that Korea reunites according to what many Koreans believe will happen.  Last month, the Korea Times released survey results indicating that 31 of 34 Korea experts believe that the Korean Peninsula will be politically reunited within 10-20 years.  Many South Koreans believe that the two Koreas will reunite peacefully and that the South Korean political system will serve as the foundation of the government of a united Korea (as opposed to North Korean communism and juche, an ideology of self reliance).  A large number of South Korean also think that reunification will is unlikely so long as Kim Jong Il rules North Korea.  A internal coup d’etat overthrowing the Dear Leader is unlikely to happen.  The 64-year-old leader (his exact age is unclear) could remain in power for quite some time, because many communist leaders have been blessed with very long lifespans.  Many South Koreans assume that once a new leader emerges in North Korea, quite possibly one of Kim Jong Il’s sons or a prominent member of the Korean Worker’s Party, North Korea will be ready for reunification.  I question this logic.  It does not necessarily follow that North Korea will be ready for detente and reunification once a new leader is in place.  Still, let’s assume that the Korean experts are right and that Korea will be reunited within the next 20 years.  What will Korea be like after it reunifies?
  1. Korea will be a major military power.  With an estimated troop strength of 1.1 million in North Korea and 650,000 in South Korea, not to mention substantial weapons capabilities, a united Korea would instantly become one of the world’s strongest military powers.  Although Korea may dismantle some of its military might following reunification, it will likely choose to retain most soldiers and employ them in rebuilding Korea.  Reducing troop strength in the near term would add to the country’s unemployed ranks, contributing to instability.
  2. Anti-Americanism will increase in Korea.  One third of Koreans in the united Korea will have lived their entire lives in North Korea, immersed in an anti-American environment.  Coupled with anti-Americanism south of the DMZ, a unified Korea is likely to be more anti-American than South Korea is presently.  Recent protests in Incheon calling for the removal of a statue of American General Douglas MacArthur, who led the famous landing at Incheon during the Korean War, highlights the reality that anti-Americanism exists in South Korea.  Reuniting with North Korea will likely magnify this sentiment.  It could also be inflamed if Korea and the U.S. fail to work out an adequate arrangement on military cooperation (e.g. withdrawing U.S. troops or retaining U.S. military bases in Korea).
  3. Northern and southern Koreans will have difficulty reintegrating into a single culture.  North and South Koreans have been separated by the DMZ since 1953, over 52 years ago.  As time passes, more and more Koreans who lived before the Korean War will pass away.  By the year 2025, virtually no one living on the Korean Peninsula will remember what living in a unified Korea was like.  North Korean and South Korean culture and language have diverged dramatically since the war, and reunification will be even more difficult for Korea than it was in Germany in 1989.  For example, the Korean language in South Korea features over 5,000 common "loan words" (words borrowed primarily from English), while North Korean Korean substitutes these words with indigenous Korean words.  Religion, especially Christianity and Buddhism, are central to South Korean life, whereas North Korea is an officially atheist country where the Great Leader, Kim Sung Il, and the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, are virtually deified.  These fundamental cultural differences will make cultural reintegration extremely difficult in the new Korea.  It will likely create mutual resentment between northern and southern Koreans that rivals the resentment Wessies (western Germans) and Ossies (eastern Germans) now feel.
  4. Tourism will fluorish.  The unique reunification of two very different countries will be a boom to Korean tourism.  Because travel in North Korea has been so restricted and the country is so isolated, tourism to North Korea will explode once the country reunites and travel is unrestricted.  The same phenomenon which occurred in Eastern Europe following the fall of the Iron Curtain will occur in united  Korea.  Koreans will travel north and south to see what they now only read in books or see on TV, and foreigners will converge on North Korea to see the "Hermit Kingdom" for themselves. 
  5. A "Gold Rush" mentality will emerge.  The economic disparities between the north and south fuel a rush to develop the north.  In 2004, South Korean per-capita income (est. $19,400) was 14 times that of North Korea.  The disparity will continue to grow so long as the Peninsula remains divided.  The opening of North Korea will present great development opportunities for South Koreans, but it will also lead to potential turf wars.  For example, once the DMZ is dismantled, it will create a giant, undeveloped swath of land cutting across the entire Peninsula.  The DMZ will likely be a major battleground between those who want to move on from the past and develop it, and those who want to preserve its legacy, perhaps as a national park.  North Korea’s urban areas, particularly Pyongyang, Nampo, and Kaesong, will become hot real estate markets, creating sticker shock for former North Koreans.  It is likely that the unified Korean government will retain tight control over development in the former North Korea in order to smooth the reunification process.  Still, there will be a rush from the south to develop the north.
  6. Reunification will come at a big price.  Reunification will be extremely expensive.  A 1999 report by Korean reunification expert Marcus Noland indicated that either $300-$600 billion would be needed to raise North Korean living standards up to 60% of South Korean standards, or 90% of North Koreans would need to move south and integrate into former South Korea.  The World Bank estimates that full economic reunification will cost $2-$3 TRILLION.  Considering that South Korea’s 2004 gross domestic product was $924.1 billion (the 12th largest economy in the world), that is a staggering sum to pay.  Korea will go through significant growing pains as it reintegrates into a single economy.
  7. However, the world will provide South Korea with substantial economic aid.  Unlike Germany, Korea will likely not need to pay fully to economically reintegrate because of the immense burden it must bear.  Tragedies such as Tsunami relief show that the United Nations, World Bank, and individual nations have been instrumental in assisting nations in development efforts (donor nations contributed over $1.8 billion in Tsunami relief).  Successful Korean reintegration is critical to geopolitical stability.  I believe that the UN and the world will be far more generous in helping the two Koreas reunite economically.
  1. Joon

    Actually, both north and south have military power to defend from each other. A constitutional service which would like be aggressively downsized if the two nations unite. The "anti-americanism" was increased by Korean political influence during the election with the help of few bad apples in the U.S. Military. Furthermore, efforts to cover up made the situation worse. If the two nations unite, U.S. presence will reduce and decrease the amount of tension as well. And lastly, I doubt UN would help a country with 11th highest GDP… Anyway, good post on the blog… ^^

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