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     Nov 15, 2007
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Working through Korean unification blues
By Andrei Lankov

For six decades, the myth of unification as Korea's supreme goal has been enshrined in the official mythology of both nations. The lip service to this myth is still paid by virtually all political forces in both Koreas, but the actual policy of both Pyongyang and Seoul nowadays is clearly based on a very different set of assumptions and hopes: both sides try to avoid situations which might lead to unification.

There are good reasons for this quiet change of policy. The gap between the Koreas is too great; depending on which calculations

you believe the per capita gross domestic product in the South is between 15 and 40 times higher than that of the North. Perhaps, nowhere in the world one can find two neighboring countries whose income levels would be so vastly different - and in this case the two countries happen to speak the same language.

The North Korean rulers know perfectly well that in a unified country they would be unable to keep their privileges, and also are likely to be held responsible for decades of gross human-rights abuses and economic mismanagement. South Koreans are no more willing to unify with their impoverished brethren - unification of Germany where the initial situation was much better, became an ordeal, so the unification of Korea would clearly become a disaster.

Therefore, South Korean politicians are doing everything possible to support the dictatorship in Pyongyang, assuming that "stability" in the North is necessary for South Korean economic prosperity. Sufficient to say that some 40% of all grain consumed in North Korea is either received from the South or produced with the help of the mineral fertilizer shipped by Seoul free of charge.

This policy is usually explained as a way to "create the environment for Chinese-style reforms". This indeed might be its long-term goal, but for all practical reasons the major immediate outcome of massive South Korean aid is a continuous survival of the Pyongyang dictatorship. The statement that a "German scenario is unacceptable" has become a mantra of Seoul politicians.

However, over the past decades, Kim Jong-il's regime has not shown the slightest inclination to reform itself. Obviously, the Pyongyang elite believes that the Chinese model, so enthusiastically extolled by the good-wishers from Seoul, is not acceptable for them. Perhaps they are correct in their fears. The existence of a rich and free South, always presented as another part of the same nation, makes the situation in Korea quite different from that of China or Vietnam.

Chinese-style reforms, if undertaken by Pyongyang, are bound to produce a certain openness of the country and certain relaxation of political control. As a result, the North Korean populace will soon learn about South Korean prosperity and will be less afraid of the regime's repressive machine. It's questionable to what extent the North Koreans would be willing to obey a government whose track record has been so bad after they see an attractive alternative of the South.

Hence, North Korean leaders have made a rational decision: to keep stability and their own privileges, in recent years they have used foreign aid to roll back the changes which happened in the mid-1990s. Instead of reforms, they now do everything possible to limit or ban private economic activity and reassert their control over society.

Despite the government's resistance to reform, the North Korean system is gradually crumbling from below, and this slow-motion disintegration might turn into an uncontrollable collapse in any moment. A sudden death of even a serious illness of Kim Jong-il is almost certain to trigger a serious crisis. If this happens, all bets are off, but it seems that a collapse of the system, Romanian or East German style, is one of the most likely outcomes.

This is what people in the South fear most. Indeed, unification might indeed spell economic and social disaster for the rich South. There are different estimates of the "unification costs", the amount of money that would be necessary to close the yawning gap between the two Korean economies. The most recent estimate was made public last October. A report prepared by a committee at the South Korean National Assembly states that if unification happened in 2015, it would cost US$858 million to raise North Korean per capita income to half of the South Korean level. This is guesswork, of course, but everybody agrees that the amount of money necessary for reconstruction of the impoverished North could ultimately be counted in trillions of US dollars.

The "unification cost" is a hot topic, but many problems are of a social nature and have nothing to do with money issues. For decades, North Korea has remained one of the world's most isolated regimes whose rulers once perfected Stalinism to the level undreamt of by Joseph Stalin himself. The population, with the exception of a tiny elite, has very vague and distorted ideas about the outside world.

North Korea is a well-educated society, but the technology and science they teach at the colleges is of 1950s vintage. The average North Korean engineer has never used a computer. Society has been conditioned to perceive the total distribution of goods and services as the norm, and experts seem to agree that the average North Korean defector in the South has serious problems when it comes to making consumer or career decisions for oneself (no such decisions are necessary or even possible under the North Korean system).

So, it is easy to see why South Koreans are so afraid of unification. However, history does not flow in accordance with human desires. If the North Korean state collapses, South Koreans will have few choices but to prepare themselves for unification at time and under circumstances which they would not be too happy about.

As the East European revolutions of 1989-1990 (or, for that matter, of nearly all popular revolutions) have demonstrated, once changes begin, nobody can control the pace and direction of events. Now it is time to think what should be done if an emergency happens and the North Korean regime follows the fate of nearly all regimes which once were its models and aspirations - Albania, Romania and the Soviet Union itself. When a crisis starts unrolling, it doesn't leave much time for rational thinking.

Alas, any open media discussion of this subject remains taboo in the South. There are fears that such discussions might annoy the

Continued 1 2

North Korea opens up its mountain (Nov 9, '07)

Koreas have something to cheer about (Oct 6, '07)

1. Why Iran is dying for a fight

2. 'Pain has become the remedy'

3. Death by the light of a silverly moon

4. It's getting hard to find bad guys

5. In Iraq, the silence of the

6. Iraq: Call an air strike

7. Testing time for Japan's US ties

8. US loses wattage to China in Iraq

(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Nov 13, 2007)


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