Korea was divided by the Allies following WWII in what was meant to be a temporary measure. It has previously been governed by Japan as part of their empire and Korean antipathy towards Japan continues to this day. The division of the peninsula effectively became permanent with the initiation of the Korean war in 1950. North Korea invaded the South in an act which would ultimately see forces from the USA, the UN, the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union all stationed on Korean soil. Although the fighting stopped with the signing of a ceasefire in 1953 although the countries remain technically at war. In the South, it is illegal to even recognise the Northern regime as legitimate or to praise its leaders.
Historically Korea was referred to as ‘the Hermit Kingdom’ owing to its exclusion of foreigners and all things foreign. The North continues this tradition with a state founded on the concept of Juche, which roughly translates as ‘self-reliance’ and rejects the interference of other nations in their affairs. In reality the North is a communist dictatorship under the hereditary rule of Kim Jong Un.
In 1972 the first steps at reunification were taken – much to the surprise of the rest of the world – when the two parties issued a joint communique which stated that a peaceful reunification of the country was a long terms goal for both of them. However, there was little meaningful progress until 1990 when the prime ministers of the two countries met. In 2000 a joint agreement was finally announced.
Different presidents of South Korea have taken very different approaches to the North with the current resident of the Blue House, Lee Myung-Bak, taking a more hawkish approach than that represented by the Sunshine Policy of his predecessor Rho Moo-Hyun.
In recent years the North has tended to alternate between sabre rattling and open hostility. Attacks on ships and even territory belonging to the South have been widely seen as brinkmanship in negotiations for aid.
Both countries have huge standing armies, although in the case of the North, this should not be interpreted as a sign of economic growth. In 1953 Korea was the poorest country in the world. The South is now the eleventh largest economy in the world while the North is heavily dependent on aid. Although the cost of reunifying the country is difficult to calculate as many figures given for the North are known to be inaccurate, experts agree that it would be considerable; possibly prohibitive.
The geo-political challenges are also considerable as the US is a staunch supporter of the South and China remains the strongest ally of the North.
Because of the sheer scale of the task, it is important for proposition to be very clear on who This House refers to. In this instance it is defined as an international coalition, including South Korea, spearheaded by both China and the US.
North Korea is virtually the definition of a rogue state. It remains technically at war with the South and frequently this manifests itself in acts of aggression. In any other situation the regime bombing of Yeonpyeong island would have been considered an act of war and met with a military response. The regime’s relentless pursuit of nuclear weaponry poses a very real threat. The regime has tested missiles at least capable of reaching Tokyo and Seoul and has indicated a desire to be able to reach Washington, James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is worried that they will be able to hit the west coast within a few years. It seems reasonable to assume that, with the limited resources of the state being spent on these two goals, rather than feeding the people, the regime will ultimately succeed in their ambitions. Waiting until they can actually bomb North America or Europe would make Kim Jong-Un or his successor far too secure. Although it seems unlikely that he would ever mount an attack with conventional weapons, access to an appropriate delivery system and a nuclear warhead would make his removal by military means virtually impossible. Removing him from office before this happens is essential for the security of the region and the world.
North Korea may well be a dangerous state with an unstable leader but neither the regime nor the nation is suicidal. There may be a large military but it simply lacks the resources to mount an invasion.
The occasional demonstrations of military prowess have far more to do with negotiations about aid than they have to do with a genuine military threat to the South.
It is inconceivable that North Korea would take any significant military action without the agreement of Beijing and it is inconceivable that any military action would achieve more than a gnat bite from the point of view of either the American or Chinese military. Although Kim Jong-Il may be a master of sabre-rattling as a form of brinkmanship it is staggeringly unlikely that the sabre would ever be unsheathed.
It is worth noting that the idea that Pyongyang would commit financial suicide by attacking their main form of financial support – South Korea – is relatively ridiculous. The shifting relationship between the two Koreas has more to do with the varying level of political machismo in Seoul than it has to do with the realities of the possibility of military intervention or confrontation.
Although the regime in Pyongyang has expressed an interest in a reunified country, progress has been painfully slow. It took twelve years to get from initial contact to the first meeting. It seems likely that any suggestion of reunification is more a negotiating ploy than emblematic of any serious commitment.
If reunification is to be achieved, it will happen in spite of the current leadership in the North rather than because of it.
The continued separation of the two Koreas is, in many ways, an accident of history. They were only divided in 1945 for administrative convenience. If the Soviet and American leaderships had been able to develop a more sensible agreement then the two would never have been separated in the first place.
This means that for the sake of administrative convenience sixty years ago, four thousand years of history has been torn apart.
From the perspective of Korean culture and the Confucian beliefs that underpin it the nations should be reunited. It is clearly in the interests of the citizens in the North, whether they are aware of the fact or not. It is an idea that speaks to natural justice but is obstructed by the fact that one half of the country is run as the private fiefdom of one family. The only realistic way it will happen is through military intervention to compel the North and remove Kim Jong-Un and his cronies.
There is no appetite for, and little interest in, the outside world in the North. Those reunions that have been organised have been established by the South. As far as the citizens of the North are concerned they are living in a utopia that is the envy of the world. There is little evidence that North Koreans are clamouring for reunification, although there is some appetite for it in the South, it is diminishing as the generations that remember a united country die and the younger generations take a look at the cost of doing so.
It is also highly questionable what either party would get from the union. The North would gain little except mass unemployment as they are simply not equipped for a 21st century economy and the south would get all of the social unease that usually accompanies mass unemployment. Talk of a shared culture and heritage is all very well but simply doesn’t pay the bills in is a fairly dubious claim at best – the languages are now unrecognizable to each other and the last sixty years have eradicated anything but the most romanticised views of an ancient and honorable past that never existed.
Neither party brings any noticeable natural resources to the deal and the skill sets of each society are now so vastly different as to be mutually exclusive. There simply is no economic advantage.
Politically the merger would look set to cause disaster, the last thing that the South’s new and somewhat fragile democracy needs is the sudden addition of millions of unemployed citizens with no history of participating in a democratic process. It would confer second-class status on those from the North for generations to come and be more likely to create a situation that looks like Israel/Palestine than one that looks like Germany.
There is grinding poverty in the North as well as brutal repression and all the other trapping of a military dictatorship. The only alternative future for the North is of a failed state going economically and socially in the opposite direction from the rest of Eastern Asia but now armed with nuclear weapons.
The security threat this poses to the region is terrifying.
However, it seems unlikely that the regime has any intention of surrendering their absolute power and the people are unlikely to remove him however bad things get, North Koreans do not have access to the tools such as mobile phones and the internet that made the Arab Spring possible. Instead the people will continue to be fed a diet of propaganda and not much else.
As well as the security implications there is a simple issue of morality, in any other situation where the actions of a government were impoverishing a people to, quite literally, the point of starvation, the world would feel moved to act.
It is as clearly in the interests of North Koreans not to starve to death by the hundreds of thousands as it is in the interests of the South not to see similar numbers irradiated by a bomb on Seoul.
Although the famines in North Korea are now an annual fixture and are routinely exacerbated by the regimes whimsical refusals to accept food aid, it is difficult to see how the situation would be improved by what would probably be a long and protracted war followed by permanent unemployment.
South Korea has no welfare state to speak of and retired people live off the income of the working ‘middle’ generation.
Mostly the situation works well but it does assume that at least somebody in the household is capable of getting a job at some point.
Per capita incomes are approximately five per cent of those to the South.
Although it is possible to make a moral argument that the world has a responsibility to avert another famine in the North, they certainly do not have the moral authority to impose, asked and unwanted, a solution that runs the very real risk of making things worse for citizens on both sides of the 38th parallel.
It is questionable as to whether the South has the right to meddle in its neighbours affairs for the rest of the world, en masse, to take it upon itself to do so is as lacking in moral authority as it is in economic credibility.
Estimates of the cost of reunification vary wildly but one thing is clear, they’re all very large. One recent estimate put it at $5 trillion – or $40,000 per capita for South Koreans for 30 years.
The economy of the North is virtually non-existent, it was never that healthy even when Moscow was propping it up, in 1992 it collapsed completely. Now only the military has any money at all. A whole series on unfinished and unnecessary vanity projects are the only thing resembling an infrastructure and roads and factories would simply need to be built from scratch.
Although it is tempting to make the comparison with the reunification of Germany, the two situations are very different. Incomes in the East were about one third to one half of those in the West and the population was about a quarter that of its more populous neighbour.
The population of the North is about half of the South and incomes are at about 5 per cent.
The Republic of Koreas simply could not pay the bills and so the burden would fall on other nations, presumably China and the US.
Such a commitment would seem unlikely, it would be fantastically unpopular in the United States and unlikely to be supported for more than a couple of years. In the case of China, since they have shown little interest in developing many of their own backward, rural provinces it seems unlikely that they would commit to someone else’s.
China has an enormous interest in not having an unstable nuclear power on its doorstep. It also has an interest in Pyongyang doing nothing to upset the region’s relationship with the West. That in and of itself should be enough for China to at least increase the trade and support it gives to North Korea. China is already investing in North Korea, such as at the port of Rason, it would want to protect these investments, Chinese firms main criticism of operating in North Korea is the business environment something that unification would improve.
The same can be said for Japan and the other Asian Tigers. Rates of growth in North Eastern Asia have been spectacular in recent years and do not look set to diminish in the long term.
It is also worth noting that the estimates for the costs of reunification vary and $5trillion is on the upper end. Also that is the cost for getting the North to where the South is now. It took the South 60 years. North Korea would be following the same path as part of a larger and richer nation and could as a result do it faster. The North has land for development that is desperately lacking in the south and a large pool of cheap labour whose living standards would be increased dramatically by the association. Even just accepting the food aid sent by the international community would be huge progress on the current situation.
Clearly North Korea is not going to solve all of its problems over night but simply not getting much worse every year would be a start.
The absence of a civil society in North Korea makes it very difficult to know if there is a great upwelling of dissent in the country but there is certainly very little in the way of evidence of it. For the same reason, there is no obvious government in waiting, there is nothing that could take over from the triad of party, army and state that currently runs the country except and imported elite from the South.
As a result an uninvited military intervention the people of North Korea would end up, in effect being ruled by a ruling elite that they don’t know.
The influence of the regime is everywhere in the North and an occupying force would need to attempt a process similar to the disastrous de-Ba’athification actions in Iraq. The results do not seem likely to be any different.
Replacing a heavily armed rogue state with a similarly heavily armed failed state would not seem to represent much in the way of progress.
A rogue state can, at least, be mostly constrained by China, a border region that is part of a united Korea in name only offers no such opportunities for persuasion and coercion. Instead it would represent a ‘badlands’ causing difficulties for all around it on a daily basis with rampant crime taking the place of economic activity.
There are certainly difficulties in seeing how an independent North Korea could be reasonably expected to joined the global community of nations. However, that is not the case here. There are still ties between the North and South, of blood and kindred if nothing else, two potent forces in Korean culture and Confucian thought.
The situation is different from Iraq and the lessons of the De-Ba’athication process appear to have been learnt; that middle ranking, and often senior, apparatchiks do not necessarily have a loyalty to the former regime. De-Ba’athication was much more extensive than its equivalent in post-communist Europe where generally only those over a certain level were excluded while after World War II very few Japanese were excluded from the bureaucracy. It seems unlikely that the mistake would be repeated.
The closest analogy to where the North is now is not the oft-cited East Germany but South Korea’s own prodigious economic growth. On the basis of which there should be huge optimism at the prospect of reunification.
Reunification looks almost inevitable as the state quietly implodes. The leadership in North Korea are not fools, they see the economic data and know that change is needed. There is even talk of not accepting Kim Jong Un’s designated successor.
As a result reunification can take place after a long period of decline which leaves the country needing even more effort and money to rebuild or following decisive action.
There is every reason to suspect that there is genuine dissatisfaction in the North and certainly the accounts and actions of defectors would suggest this to be the case.
There is one very obvious historical example which speaks to attempts to unite Korea by force: the 1950-53 war. It seems unlikely that even the most ardent supporter of reunification south of the border would be keen to repeat that fiasco which had at least 910,000 battle deaths and total death toll up to 3.5million.
In addition, the younger generations have much less interest in the proposal than their parents and grandparents did.
As a result the grand coalition would run the very real risk of one of the component parts actively opposed to the proposal and the other half at the very least unhappy about it.
The assumption that the North Korean army will simply roll over or melt away is reminiscent of the ideas about swift victories in Iraq and Afghanistan and so it seems unlikely that the US public would be too keen to sign up for a second Korean War.
Ultimately to work this proposal needs the support of the peoples of North and South Korea as well as those of, at least, the US and China. There is precious little evidence that any of those things are true.
Although the younger generation in South Korea doesn’t have the hunger for reunification of their parents and grandparents, very few are hostile to the prospect per se, they are only concerned about the cost.
It seems unlikely that this would in any way reflect the ‘50-53 war which was a battle between the US, the Soviet Union and China and just happened to be hosted on the peninsula and to its huge cost.
One of the advantages of involving China is that it would be the clearest possible demonstration to the South Korean people that the superpower was committed to the long process of rebuilding their mutual neighbour.
This answers several of the possible objections. China gets the benefits of security and South Korea gets an important ally in the process of rebuilding the North.
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