Can We Unify Korea?

North Korea is in trouble. Kim Jong-Un, the world’s youngest and arguably most inexperienced world leader, now helms a country that faces an increasingly uncertain future. Militarily, the Korean People’s Army is large but chronically underequipped, forced to rely on aging Soviet-era weapons in the face of American and South Korean technological superiority. Economically, the country is a disaster, the victim of a fantastically dysfunctional central planning system that has stunted its industrial development and left its people poorly paid and starving. Diplomatically, North Korea faces the long term prospect of total isolation, with even China openly reconsidering its ongoing support for the regime.[1] Even if the North’s latest attempt at extortion pays off and Pyongyang gets the aid and nuclear arsenal it desires, this may only delay the inevitable. As it stands, North Korea is a bellicose and unstable rogue state whose ability to sustain itself for the foreseeable future is in question. With that said, the exact means by which Kim’s regime could be brought to an end are still uncertain. While military action seems the most likely option given the current climate, a diplomatic solution is not off the table and a peaceful exit for the current regime could still be reached as North Korea’s prospects worsen. However, speculation on that issue in turn invites another, perhaps more crucial question about the future of Korea. Assuming Kim’s regime is likely to fail in the long term, how realistic is the idea of a unified Korea?

Image courtesy of Jan Vacula, © 2008, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Jan Vacula, © 2008, some rights reserved.

The idea of unifying the Korean peninsula is often met with an understandable level of skepticism. One point that is often brought up is the purported incompatibility of the two country’s economies. As was mentioned, the North Korean economy is a technologically backward mess with agriculture that teeters near subsistence levels. In contrast, South Korea has one of the most dynamic, high tech economies in the world, surpassing the North economically in every measurable sense. To give an idea of the scale of the disparity, South Korea’s current GDP per capita is $32,400 next to North Korea’s estimated $1800, meaning the North’s per capita GDP is about 5% that of the South’s (compared to East Germany’s 40% to the West’s).[2]  Given this disparity, such a merger would likely be even more complex than the famously difficult economic unification of East and West Germany, as not only would we be merging two different systems, but also two fantastically disparate standards of living. Thus, it becomes easy to speculate that Seoul may secretly not want to bear the enormous burdens of reconstruction and instead pass on reunification.

However, this assessment runs into several problems. First of all, comparisons to German unification, while seemingly apt, are irrelevant to the Korean case. The cost of German reunification was great, but the size of those costs were tied more to Bonn’s political decision to immediately equalize wages and entitlements between East and West rather than any intrinsic economic disparity.[3] More importantly, there are actually a number of long term economic benefits to reuniting the two countries. North Korea is a country with an underdeveloped infrastructure, a young and low-cost workforce, and a glut of unexploited mineral resources. Placed against South Korea’s well-developed industries, declining birthrate, and insatiable hunger for raw materials to feed its economy, this would be a match made in heaven. Indeed, given time, such a merger could even transform Korea into one of the world’s largest economies, perhaps even surpassing Japan.[4] In short, while there would certainly be a number of costs to economic unification, the benefits of developing North Korea would likely outweigh such concerns and in the long term be a boon to Korea’s growing status as an economic powerhouse.

The concern that China would object to unification is likewise unfounded. While it is true that China would be cautious at the prospect of North Korea’s fall, it would be a mistake to think that they are diametrically opposed to the idea of a unified Korea. China may still see the North as an asset to some extent, but that viewpoint is fading very quickly. Thus far, China has been extraordinarily helpful in aiding the United States in its efforts to contain North Korea’s current bellicosity, to the point that it could be argued that China’s moves here represent a broader long term shift away from North Korea in favor of the more prosperous South. Indeed, if WikiLeaks is to be believed, then China is probably ready for a united Korea now, as leaked diplomatic cables showed Chinese officials openly expressing a desire for a unified Korea under Seoul due to their frustrations with the North.[5] For China, a unified Korea means the removal of US troops from the peninsula and an opportunity for Beijing to improve its relationship with Seoul, while also getting rid of an unpredictable nuclear-armed neighbour. Thus, in practice, China is unlikely to meaningfully object to Korean reunification.

With all that said about the means of unifying Korea, in the end, none of this matters. Even if Korean unification were as difficult as is portrayed, then such objections would still fall short in the face of political will. At the end of the day, Koreans on both sides of the DMZ are still taught that they are one people. They share the same culture, the same ethnicity, the same history, and (for the most part) the same language. Any post-North Korea scenario that does not involve reunification would be an unacceptable outcome to the Korean people and even if economics and international politics flew in the face of that (which they wouldn’t), then Korean nationalism would likely carry the day. We may not know how this situation will resolve itself or how long North Korea can continue to hold out. However, what we can say for certain is that a post-North Korea Korean Peninsula would be a united Korean Peninsula and that in the long run; such a move would benefit everyone… unless of course you’re Kim Jong-un.

[1] Celia Hatton. “Is China Ready to Abandon North Korea?” BBC News April 12, 2013.

[2] Adam Taylor. “A Crazy Comparison of Life in North Korea and South Korea.” Business Insider. April 8, 2013.

[3] Charles Wolf Jr. “The Cost of Reuniting Korea.” Forbes. March 15, 2010.

[4] Jonathan Thatcher. “United Korea could pass Japan: Goldman Sachs.” Reuters. September 21, 2009.

[5] Simon Tisdall. “WikiLeaks row: China wants Korean reunification, officials confirm.” The Guardian. November 30, 2010.

One Reply to “Can We Unify Korea?”

  1. China would turn NK into a pro-Beijing puppet state before allowing a pro-US Korea on its northeastern border, so no, long term, NK will never unify if Korea remains fervently pro-US orbit.

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