Working through Korean unification blues

Asia Times
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 North, undermining inter-Korean detente. The Korean nationalist left, now (barely) in power, still believes that the Chinese solution is possible and “progressive”, and also perceives any talks about regime collapse in the North as a reminder of the official anti-communism of the past. The right is slightly more realistic, but it seems that its supporters are not too eager to discuss the difficulties such a turn of events could bring about.

It will be a simplification to think that South Koreans are completely unprepared for such an eventuality. Seoul government agencies do not like to talk about it, but it is clear that somewhere in government there are secret files with short-term contingency plans, to be put in motion in case of a power collapse in the North. However, these plans deal with immediate consequences of the crisis, especially with handling of refugees, and not with the long-term strategy of reconstruction, and this strategy is actually the hardest part of the task.

The major task is to smooth the transition, to make the shock of unification less painful and more manageable. It seems that one of the possible solutions is a confederation. The idea of confederation has been suggested many times before, but in most cases it was assumed that the two existing Korean regimes would somehow agree to join a confederative state. Needless to say, one has to be very naive to believe that the North Korean rulers could somehow co-exist with South Korea, which even in its worst times was a relatively mild dictatorship committed to a market economy (and become a liberal democracy two decades ago).

Such confederation is plainly impossible. However, in this case we mean a different type of state union, a provisional confederation, whose sole and clearly stated task would be to lay the foundations for a truly unified state and to cushion the more disastrous effects of North Korea’s transformation.

Such a confederation will become possible only when and if the North Korean regime changes dramatically, and a new leadership in Pyongyang will have no reasons to fear the influence of the democratic and capitalist South. In other words, only a post-Kim government can be realistically expected to agree to such a provisional confederation. It does not really matter how this government will come to power, whether through a popular revolution, a coup or something else. As long as this government (most unlikely, bowing to pressure from below) would be genuinely willing to unite with the South, it might become a partner at these negotiations and a participant of the confederation regime.

The confederation regime should make North Korea a democracy, one that introduces political freedoms and basic political rights. There should be an explicit statement about the length of the provisional confederation regime, and 10 to 15 years seems to be ideal. A longer period might alienate common North Koreans who will probably see it as an attempt to keep them from fully enjoying the South Korean lifestyle while using them as “cheap labor”. On the other hand, a shorter period might not be sufficient for any serious transformations.

One of the tasks of such a provisional system will be to control cross-border movement. South Koreans are now haunted by nightmarish pictures of millions of North Koreans flooding Seoul and other major cities, where they will push the South Korean poor from unskilled jobs or resort to robbery and theft. Such threats are real, and the confederation will make it relatively easy to maintain a visa system of some kind, with a clearly stated (and reasonable) schedule of gradual relaxation. For example, it might be stated that for the first five years all trips between the two parts of the new Korea will require a visa, and North Koreans will not be allowed to take jobs or long-time residency in the South. In the following five years these restrictions could be relaxed and then finally lifted.

South Korean fears of a North Korean crime wave might be well-founded – notoriously tough North Korean commandos indeed make ideal mafia enforcers. However, the North Koreans also should be protected from the less scrupulous of their new-found brethren – for example, from South Korean real estate speculators. In the case of uncontrolled unification, South Korean dealers will rush to buy valuable property in the North, a task which will not be too difficult in a country where $10 a month is seen as a good income.

South Korean dealers vividly remember what happened in Kangnam, former paddy fields which were turned into a posh neighborhood in southern Seoul. In some parts of Kangnam land prices increased more than a thousandsfold within a decade or so, making a lucky investor super-rich, and there are good reasons to believe that the price of land in Pyongyang or Kaesong could sky-rocket as well.

However, it is easy to predict the resentment of those North Koreans who will lose their dwellings for what would initially appear to be a fortune, but soon will come to be seen as small change. If real estate speculations are left uncontrolled, in a few years entire North Korean cities could become the property of South Korean dealers – with predictable consequences for relations between northerners and southerners. Hence, the provisional confederation regime, while encouraging other kinds of investment, should strictly control or even ban the purchase of arable land and housing in the North by South Koreans.

Another painful issue is that of land reform, distributing the land of state-run agricultural cooperatives among individual farmers. One of the major challenges would be claims of land owners who lost their property during the North Korean radical land reform of 1946. A majority of the dispossessed landlords fled to the South in 1945-1953 when some 1.5 million inhabitants of the North crossed the border between the two Koreas. Their descendants now live in the South and, as both anecdotal evidence and some research testify, carefully kept the old land titles. It is just a minor exaggeration to say that an arable plot in the North usually has an aspiring landlord residing in Seoul. These claims remain technically valid since the Republic of Korea has never recognized the North Korean land reform of 1946.

For generations, the North Koreans have been told by their government that the collapse of the communist regime will bring back the nasty landowners who have been laying in wait in the South. If in this particular case the propaganda statements are correct, this would produce a very serious negative impression on North Koreans, further increasing their alienation and disappointment.

Under protection of the confederation regime, a land property system could be redesigned, or rather created from scratch. The recognition of the 1946 land reform and its results is a necessary first step. To placate former owners, some partial compensation might be paid, even though the present author is not certain whether grandchildren of former landlords, usually rich and successful men and women, are really in dire need of such compensation.

As the next step, the cooperative property should be distributed among its members, preferably among the people who are really present in their villages (perhaps, a free rent system might be the first step). At any rate, by the end of the confederation period, land and real estate in North Korean should be safely privatized, with North Korean residents (and, perhaps, recent defectors) being major or even sole participants in this process.

One of the more controversial parts of the package might be a general amnesty for all crimes committed under the Kim family regime. This is especially necessary because the fear of persecution seems to be one of the reasons which keeps the North Korean elite, including its lower ranks, united around the inefficient and brutal regime. They believe that collapse of the Kims’ rule will mean not only the bend of their privileges (which actually are quite small – only a handful of top officials enjoy a really opulent lifestyle in North Korea), but they are more afraid of judicial persecution and even mob violence.

It is not incidental that North Korean officials and guides in Pyongyang ask one foreign visitor after another about the fate of former East German bureaucrats. Indeed, despite considerable liberalization in recent years, the regime remains exceptionally brutal, and its officials have no illusions about this. Unfortunately, this fear of persecution has kept the murderous regime going for the past decade or so and led to many more deaths.

One might argue that such unconditional amnesties to all Koreans is probably “unethical”. Perhaps, but let’s face it: the sheer scale of the crimes committed makes any serious and fair investigation impossible. About half million people have been in prison during those decades, and many more exiled, and nobody will be capable of investigating all these cases carefully and impartially. A great number of people have been directly or indirectly involved with the human-rights abuses, and again, it is impossible to investigate a few hundred thousand former officials who by the nature of their job might have been responsible for some criminal actions. Hence, only partial, selective symbolical (and therefore largely politically motivated) justice can be served at best.

A general amnesty would solve two problems: first, it will make former North Korean bureaucrats less willing to resist changes; second, it would diminish the scale of intrigue and manipulations, since people would not be fighting to avoid the fate of arbitrarily chosen scapegoats. It should become part of the law, and to be taken seriously the amnesty should be made as straightforward and unequivocal as possible.

Of course, amnesty does not mean complete forgiveness. There might be restrictions for former party and secret police officials to occupy certain positions in a post-Kim Korea (a policy pioneered by Eastern Europe). It might be a good idea to create non-judiciary commissions to investigate former abuses, like it was done in post-apartheid South Africa. This commission might lead to truly awful discoveries, but the promise of amnesty should be kept even if it will become clear that North Korean prison camps were not much different from Adolf Hitler’s Auschwitz or Pol Pot’s Tuol Sleng in Cambodia.

The confederation treaty also should include some legal measures which will make certain that North Koreans will not remain the source of “cheap labor”, to be used (and abused) by South Korean businesses.

For example, the military of the two Koreas should be integrated first, and there should be large quotas reserved for former North Korean servicemen in the united army. Politically, the North Korean military might become a hotspot of social discontent: the 1.2 million-strong North Korean armed forces probably lack the skills necessary for modern warfare, but this force consists of professionals who have not known anything except the barracks life and intense nationalist indoctrination. If former military officers are given commissions in the post-unification forces, their skills and zeal will find a good and useful outlet. Otherwise, the very same people are likely to join the ranks of organized crime.

It is also important to provide large admission quotas for North Korean youngsters at major South Korean universities. Korean society is both hierarchical and meritocratic, and being a graduate of a major Seoul school is a necessary condition of entry for nearly all important jobs. It is not incidental that the entire life of a middle-class South Korean family is often designed to facilitate exam preparations for the children.

Unfortunately, for decades to come even the most gifted North Koreans will be unable to compete on equal terms with much better prepared South Korean students, and this means that they can realistically hope to get only to lower-level universities, usually in the North. Both actual and perceived quality of education in those schools will remain relatively low for decades, and this will ensure that North Koreans, even with “new” college-level education, will be permanently relegated to subaltern positions. Hence, affirmative actions are necessary, even if such measures are certain to provoke an hysterical outcry from Seoul and Busan parents.

The confederation regime will help to solve another important problem – that of the North Korean middle class. As East Europe demonstrated, a majority of active supporters of democracy and reform has come from local-educated urban groups, a close analogue of the Western “middle class”. The same is likely to happen in Korea.

However, the same people will become very vulnerable after unification. Who will hire an engineer who has not seen a computer? What can be taught by a social science teacher who spent his or her college years memorizing Kim Il-sung’s genealogical tree and the “Dear Leader’s” asinine pronouncement on everything, from rice planting to nuclear physics? Who will visit a former North Korean doctor whose medicine is essentially on the 1950s level?

During the confederation regime, special efforts could be made to re-educate those people, at least partially, preparing them for a new environment while still allowing them to continue their professional work in the North. Most of them will be unable to adjust, unfortunately, but at least the 10 or 15 years leniency will give a chance to the lucky and determined few, and will also provide others with time to find other ways to make a living.

The confederation model does have serious shortcomings. For example, there are good reasons to believe that the new North Korean political elite will consist largely of Kim-era officials (or their children) who will retain their old habits, including that of corruption and inefficiency. A Northern democratic government would be prone to populist decisions, based on pressure from below, and North Koreans are likely to have particularly naive views on how their society and economy can and should operate, so some mistakes introduced via popular vote might become ruinous and costly.

But no ideal solution is possible. One should not harbor too many illusions. The recovery of North Korea will be prolonged and painful. Even if unification happens tomorrow, the difference between the two Koreas will remain palpable until 2050, if not longer. Tensions, misunderstanding and even outright hostility between northerners and southerners are bound to continue for a long time.

There are no easy and simple solutions. But the current state of affairs cannot continue indefinitely, and it is time to think how unavoidable problems can be mollified. The current policy of Seoul administrations merely helps to postpone the problems created by Korea’s division, and the disastrous choices made by the North half of the country. But sooner or later, Korea and the entire world will have to face these problems – and solve them.


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