Korean Reunification: Can it Ever Become a Reality?

in Asia/World by

The Cold war divided the entire world. Even in those states that weren’t torn apart by conflict, ideological differences split families and communities. International politics was split into two camps: Communist and Capitalist. Since the Cold War ended in the 90s, many of the countries that had previously been divided have been reunited. Germany and Vietnam being prime examples of this. But one pre-cold war state remains divided and has dominated newspaper headlines in recent years: Korea.

The division of Korea began in 1945, when the newly independent state (free from Japanese rule for the first time in 35 years) was split between a communist north and capitalist south. As relations between the USSR and USA deteriorated, so did the plan for reunification. Free elections were only held in the south of the country, with the north becoming a communist dictatorship under Kim Il-Sung. This situation was not a recipe for lasting peace, and true to form the Korean War broke out in June 1950 when the North began it’s invasion of the south. The frontline moved back and forth from one end of the peninsula to the other, until finally settling at the original 38th Parallel after the intervention of the USA, UK, China and the USSR.

This situation has continued until the present day. The North remains an authoritarian dictatorship, but its ideological position has shifted slightly. No longer a communist regime (portraits of Marx and Lenin were recently removed from Kim Il-sung square), their ideology has become something more like hyper-nationalism. The North’s ideas centre on the philosophy of Juche (self-reliance), total devotion to Kim Jong-Il, and worship of the late Kim Il-sung. Quality of the life in the North is truly some of the worst in Asia –if not the world-. Conditions in North Korean ‘re-education centres’ are comparable to those of Nazi death camps, and the population is kept in line through relentless indoctrination and terror. The evils of the North Korean regime could make up their own article, and perhaps I will write it one day.

The South however is a completely different story. After the end of the war, it grew exponentially, becoming a technological superpower and economic powerhouse. Seoul is the fifth largest city in Asia, and has the third highest quality of life. The differences between the North and the South are vast, and make the process of reunification much more complicated.

In a hypothetical scenario, where the government of the North is toppled and the country consents to be absorbed by the South (China does nothing for some reason), this would be the largest problem. The South would be doubling in area and adding 25 million people, for whom it has to provide aid and infrastructure. The reunification of Germany lead to the West taking an economic hit, and in that case there was not much difference between the wealth of the two regions. In Korea, the wealth gap between the two states is vast, and the economic hit that the South would have to take would be correspondingly huge. North Korea barely even has functioning electricity grid (even Pyongyang suffers frequent and extended blackouts). A huge programme of rebuilding would be necessary to heal the trauma of 70 years under a brutal and incompetent regime.

The North Korean people could do little to aid in this rebuilding, and it is questionable as to whether the south would really want to take the hit. But economics is not the only problem. In the hypothetical scenario, the government has been deposed. However the likelihood of this happening peacefully is unfortunately very slim. There would be extensive violence, destruction and death before Kim Jong-Il is finally expelled, and this would be an even greater cost for the south. Unfortunately even this scenario is unlikely – the populace is so indoctrinated that a violent revolution is almost impossible, and the regime in the North would never consent to reunification on the South’s terms. But even if the Northern and Southern governments consented to reunification, there is one more obstacle in the way.

The relationship between North Korea and their former Chinese allies is tense to say the least. After China began their own sanctions against the country over its nuclear programme, the North changed its attitude towards China to: ‘Hated Enemy’. The two countries aren’t exactly the best of friends anymore. Despite this, a Korean reunification is something that China cannot permit. If successful, the united Korea would be a serious power in the region, and an ally of the USA and Japan – a direct opponent to Chinese interests. Though China isn’t exactly comfortable with the situation as it stands, it is far less comfortable with the prospect of reunification. On top of this, violence in the peninsula could lead of a refugee crisis in northern China, and could even result in American troops being stationed on the Chinese border – something that China would find unacceptable.

Despite all these hurdles however, there are still those who believe reunification is possible. Before it’s reunification, Vietnam was in a very similar situation to Korea. The income per capita of the South was much higher than that of the North, and within the south a western-influenced middle class was beginning to appear. In fact, the economic disparity between the two states could be comparable to that in modern day Korea. Despite these problems, today Vietnam is a relatively peaceful and prosperous nation.

In 2011, a group of South Korean lawmakers proposed the introduction of a ‘reunification tax’ to cover the costs of reunification. This proposal was not so popular at the time, but as the possibility of reunification increases, the debate over measures to prepare becomes more and more important.

Korea has been divided for roughly 70 years, but had previously been united for more than a millennium. The dream of a reunited, democratic Korea is one shared by millions, and hopefully a dream that will one day become a reality. But at this point in time, there seems to be a long way to go –and a lot to overcome- before that goal can be reached.

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