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The Peninsula

Uh, Unification, What’s That?

Published February 16, 2012
Category: Inter-Korean

By Chad 0Carroll

The death Kim Jong-il has rekindled debates about the prospects for Korean unification following a period of relatively little public discussion on the matter in South Korean circles.  As a result of the difficulties that Kim Jong-un is anticipated to encounter in cementing his hold on power in coming months, some analysts have suggested that reunification may now be one step closer.  But on the other hand, some believe that North Korea is showing signs of stability under Kim Jong un, whose government appears “stable, dynamic, and here to stay.”  The two analyses offer dramatically different implications for the longtime goal of unification, especially in light of changing national attitudes and circumstances, both sides of the DMZ.

For South Korea, unification costs have been estimated from between a few hundred billion to one trillion dollars, with the larger numbers reflective of a rapid-style model for unification.   These are significant numbers and play a large part in understanding why just 35 percent of 19 to 40 year olds see the goal as an important contemporary political issue in South Korea.  Faced with an uncertain global economic outlook, it is easy to understand why younger generations, so detached from the people of the North, might want to postpone unification as long as possible.  To some degree, it appears the government shares the same opinion, with Deputy Unification Minister Kim Chun Sig recently explaining, “We don’t want the North to collapse. Our plan calls for: first creating peace, then cooperation, then a confederation, then unity.”  However, even creating peace as a first step towards achieving unification seems a long way off in the current environment.  And the longer the first steps of reunification are delayed, the more the financial costs will likely be for South Korea when it eventually happens.

But what if circumstances soon emerge that put the idea of imminent reunification centre stage in South Korea?  The death of Kim Jong-il certainly provided a stark reminder that an unpredictable neighbor lies just 30 miles from Seoul.  And as the downfall of the German Democratic Republic in 1989 showed, unification from collapse can come unexpectedly and move extremely quickly.  If the Pyongyang government were to collapse in the short-to-medium term, then how would South Korea deal with what could be a rapidly moving and extremely costly unification process? Minister Kim recently explained, “That is also a very sensitive question. Let’s put it this way: Perhaps the North Koreans could remain in their homeland, yes? And we will help them.”

If South Korea is to either slowly integrate North Korea, or “help” the North Korean people remain in their homeland post-collapse, then it is going to need money – and lots of it. The idea of 23 million people added to the Seoul’s current portfolio of responsibility will require significant support.  Perhaps in anticipation of this problem, Lee Myung-bak announced his “Vision 3000” process upon entering office, with the goal of raising North Korean per capita income to $3,000 in exchange for denuclearization.  Had it been agreed to it would have helped reduce income differences between the two countries and reduced Seoul’s immediate fiscal burden in any future unification process.  But given the importance North Korea places on its nuclear arsenal, observers correctly predicted that Pyongyang was always going to reject the “Vision 3000” proposal.

More pragmatic ideas have since emerged, though.  In 2010 President Lee touted the introduction of a reunification tax to help cover potential costs, and the following year Unification Minister Yu Woo-Ik suggested the creation of a voluntary “unification jar” to bank an extra $50 billion to help cover the transition.  But while Seoul is currently working out the details for Lee’s unification tax, recent leaks to The Korea Times have suggested that it might only raise $11 billion, well short of the $1 trillion some predict unification will cost.   And although Yu Woo Ik’s plan to create a “unification jar” aims to raise nearly five times more money than the tax, it now lies at an impasse – with discussions stopped due to opposition from the Democratic United Party.  These efforts to address the financial aspect of unification should be welcomed, but they must be built upon – and quickly. After all, if a collapse situation does emerge, then it seems that South Korea is not currently in an optimum financial position to deal with the problem.

But it is not just a financial concern, for social and cultural differences between North and South Korea continue to grow at a rapid pace. North Koreans remain cut off from the rest of the world, for the most part used to a lifestyle that would be better matched to 1970s – not 21st century – South Korea. Already there are significant differences between the Korean language spoken on both sides of the border, and the longer the nation remains divided, the more substantial these and other societal differences become.  While Andrei Lankov has accepted that unification is at least “possible” in the next few years, he still contends that it is far more likely to take place several decades from now.  If this is the case and the various differences between the two Koreas continue to grow, might the distinction between the two Korean identities become so strong that unification one day becomes an irrelevant goal for the people of both states?

A recent survey by the Peace Research Institute asked respondents in the ROK whether or not they still viewed North Koreans as sharing the same state and ethnicity. Some 44.1% said that they were beginning to view the DPRK as a separate state, while 30.2% said that instead of viewing North Korans as their ethnic brethren, they now saw them as just foreign as Chinese people.  These statistics corroborate with other analyses that suggest ambivalence from the South Korean public can easily shift for or against the goal of unification, dependent on the contemporary political climate.  While the leadership of South Korea continues to tout unification as a lofty national goal, it appears that beneath the surface, many South Koreans are actually losing their appetite to publically call for meaningful action in this area.  The take home point from all of this is that the longer the status quo remains, the stronger this ambivalence is likely to become.  And the stronger the feelings become, the more chance there is that some day a South Korean politician will emerge who publically opposes unification – something that could prove to be a real turning point in the unification discourse.  Consequently, if Lankov’s prediction that it could take several decades until the Pyongyang government collapses proves correct, then it would not be inconceivable to imagine Southern yearning for unification to have become so intangible by then that the two states remain divided forever.

Just as time may be changing opinions in the South, it is quite plausible that the same effect is replicating itself in the North, too.  While we do know that unification does remain a goal in the state’s official propaganda, little is known about what the general population really thinks.  Recent KBS interviews with defectors paint a mixed picture.  On the one hand, interest in unification remains high in North Korea, with 97 of 102 defectors saying they really want unification.  On the other hand, there seem to be mixed opinions on the prospects for unification – 27 defectors thought it would happen within 10 years, 6 within 20 years, and 23 within 30 years.  Tellingly, 46 defectors said they thought unification would never happen.  What explains the fact that 46 defectors think unification is so unlikely?

North Korea’s isolation is undoubtedly on the decrease, with information about daily life in South Korea penetrating the North more than ever before.  But with little to go on, North Korean perceptions are often framed through the bizarre combination of vehemently anti-ROK propaganda and the distorted reality of South Korea’s mega-hit soap operas and dramas.  Quite how this impacts North Korea’s yearning for unification is hard to judge, but it is quite conceivable that South Korea might feel just as alien to the average North Korean as does North Korea to the average South Korean citizen.  And the more Korean culture continues to grow apart, the more this sense of difference will increase from a North Korean perspective.  Might this explain why 46 defectors living in South Korea think that unification is now something that looks likely to never happen?

With projected costs continuing to rise, the cultures of the two Koreas growing further apart, and an increasingly apathetic South Korean public (possibly in North Korea, too), the longevity of the Pyongyang government will have a significant impact on the prospects for Korean reunification.  If there is a collapse of the DPRK political system in the short to medium term, huge resources and commitment will  need to be allocated by the South to ensure a smooth integration process.   And if a collapse doesn’t happen and North Korea remains in its current form for decades, then the prospects for unification will be come dimmer and dimmer if South Korean politicians do not put more effort into educating their younger generations about the benefits and advantages the process can offer.

 Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Skinnylawyer’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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