The Problems With One Korea

Heartwarming though it may have been to see Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s “dear leader,” unexpectedly arriving at the airport this week to greet Kim Dae-jung, his South Korean counterpart, diplomatic gossip has it that this was not so much a show of new-style hospitality, but rather of old-style paranoia: The northern Kim was afraid that the southern Kim might make an unscripted speech if he weren’t there to head that possibility off.

Nor, apparently, was the absence of South Korean flags at this outwardly brotherly meeting an accident. For the past half-century, the southern flag has been a completely forbidden symbol in the North: To display it there would, from the northern point of view, be the rough equivalent of the German government publicly flying the swastika. In fact, for all the emotional talk of “one nation” and friendship (see Kim Dae-jung’s homecoming speech for a flavor of it), the Koreas are still much further apart than were, say, the two Germanys. Over the past several decades, there have been precious few secret diplomatic exchanges, no family reunification programs, no telephone or rail connections, not even any spy swaps. Instead of selling their dissidents to the South in exchange for hard currency, as East Germany once sold its dissidents to the West, the North Koreans have preferred to lock them up, along with their wives and children, in some of the world’s most ghoulish labor camps.

But however distant actual unification may now be, the subject is now in the air, and you’ll hear more about it. For a comprehensive guide to security and military aspects, and for various unification scenarios, see the Rand Corp.’s recent report on reunifying the Korean peninsula. Or, based on what happened to the two Germanys and to Hong Kong—as well as what did not happen to Romania and Moldova, which have not reunited—I can offer this quick list of some of the coming economic and political debates:

1) A single currency? Migration prevention will be one of the central issues for the reuniting Koreans: preventing the northerners from all moving South, that is, and populating the slums. The Germans attempted to head off this problem in part by converting the worthless East Germany currency at a one-to-one rate against the deutsche mark, temporarily enriching East Germans enough so that they stayed put. Not only was this expensive, it also, in the long run, backfired: Since East Germans had to be paid the West German minimum wage, it also meant that they were being paid, relative to their productivity, far too much. As a result, East Germany stagnated and West Germany was never able to take proper advantage of what should have been a boom in cheap labor. Instead, West German companies continue to produce things in places like South Korea. If borders are opened, South Korea will have to make a decision about its currency immediately.

2) Border controls? Another option is to leave border controls in place, at least temporarily. This is the solution that the Chinese have chosen: Of course, not only do they want to keep poor Chinese peasants out of Hong Kong, they also want to keep Hong Kong’s freer-wheeling inhabitants in. In the case of the Germanys, this would have been politically impossible: After all, Berliners began physically destroying the Wall (and selling bits of it to tourists) on the first night that easterners began walking through it. North Koreans might just be cowed enough to accept continued border controls, but will South Korean students, notoriously fond of violent street demonstrations, stand for it?

3) Two classes of Koreans? If the Koreas do decide to depart from the German model—if, that is, the South is allowed to take advantage of the cheap labor of the North—reunification will also produce two distinct and very unequal classes of Koreans. As this is already the case, some might not mind. Others will. While it is hard to imagine anybody wanting to return to the current state of affairs—recent visitors to Pyongyang report seeing locals surreptitiously harvesting grass out of parks in order to make grass soup—it is conceivable that, if plans are not made to head it off, a serious anti-unification political movement could develop in the North, complicating politics in the future.

4) Whose symbols? Both the East Germans (by choice) and the Hong Kong Chinese (by force of an old British treaty) completely gave up their identity as nations. That is, they gave up their separate governments, athletic teams, flags, songs, and history, agreeing to accept new versions of all of the above from West Germany and China, respectively. While some, particularly in East Germany, found this process harsh and disorienting, most consider it to have been an absolutely necessary prerequisite to the formation of a new nation. North Korea has already indicated its reluctance to give up its identity, so if the regime doesn’t collapse altogether, a compromise may be necessary, perhaps along the example of South Africa, which invented a whole new flag to match its new, post-apartheid identity—if, that is, South Koreans can bear including symbolic elements of the Stalinist hermit state in their own songs and flags.

5) What future for the nomenclature? A related issue is the fate of North Korea’s ruling elite, who, if unification is to proceed without unpleasant surprises, will have to be persuaded to accept it. This—I promised to mention Moldova—is precisely what didn’t happen there: The Moldovan elite could never see the point of losing their power and influence in a reunited Romania, hence the reunification of Romania never took place. On the other hand, South Koreans will be loath to buy off a group of corrupt, evil men who have literally forced their countrymen to die of starvation. There are ways around this, of course: It is possible to promise the North Korean leadership various things—a role in the new state, immunization from prosecution, and so on—and then break the promises later on. Many East European countries have also gone the route of economic enfranchisement, effectively handing factories and property over to the people who were in charge of them before in exchange for their political power. This keeps the old men quiet, but it also converts a corrupt, totalitarian elite into a corrupt capitalist elite, which is not necessarily much better.

6) An example for others? The end of North Korea, if it were to come about, might even have consequences in another, very different part of the world. Three-quarters of a century after the Bolshevik revolution, there would be but a single, genuinely Marxist state left on the planet. China and Vietnam still pay lip service, but only Fidel Castro would be actively pursuing the ideals that have helped impoverish so much of the world. Would this make him feel lonely? Empowered? Aggressive? Perhaps we should start planning for the reunification of Cuba and Miami.