By May 2015 North Korea’s leader had executed or disposed of every pallbearer at his father’s funeral bar himself. His uncle had been fed to attack-dogs, while his Defence Chief was brutally executed with an anti-aircraft gun in front of hundreds of spectators. Kim Jung Un had started the year with an excessive and extravagant demonstration of absolute power and apparent internal control. President Park Geun-hye, on the other hand, seemed to be adamant to continue the trends of 2014, to the surprise of Asian political commentators; instead, he was hailed for his commitment of revitalizing the cause of Korean reunification. Following on from her New Year’s address, the President made reunification the focus of her speech in Dresden in March, describing the situation as an “economic jackpot.” [i] The chasm between the two Koreas was far from being bridged and the optimism and excitement within the South was shattered by last month’s cross-border bombing. Each side prepped for a war accompanied by brinkmanship propaganda; but unlike most events on the Peninsula, it was followed by tense cross-border shelling. The entire event demonstrated the North’s determination to carry out small scale attacks on South Korean military personnel. Perhaps the events of last month tell a far more concerning story of the North and a tale of reunification that had not previously been comprehended. The question in light of this summer’s events has rather become ‘what kind of reunification, if inevitable, will there be on the Peninsula and is it one that South Korea desires’?
The United States, has long thought reunification on the Peninsula inevitable. The means by which it would occur have long been debated, but the American military has been playing out both defensive and offensive plans for the Peninsula since the Sixties. It is not the majority-held belief that reunification will come through an external military conflict, rather economic collapse or social discontent leading to regime change is more widely prophesied. With the North Korean regime showing signs of weakness, the focus of the timescale debate for reunification has become one of how long North Korea can survive. North Korea’s seemingly eternal longevity, despite great peril and difficulty, can be attributed to a somewhat weary but stable alliance with China and Russia. Much of the required foreign currency income for the regime’s survival seems to be entering the country through this relationship. Russia has most recently been accused by the Asan Institute for Policy Studies of using slave labourers from the North in exchange for part of the foreign currency income the government depends on. Foreign currency can only sustain the collapsing and ancient North Korean economy for so long. Recently, the “May 30th Measures” tell of a North Korea requiring an economic boost but also of one that is willing to risk the influence of capitalist ideology – although the extent of this risk is severely limited given state influence and control over the measures.[ii] Even in spite of these exchanges, such alliances seem to be on a natural decline. China has a sharply refocused foreign policy in Asia in which North Korea plays little part and Russia has her focus firmly in Europe with a shifting interest to the Middle East in foreign policy terms. Despite the influence of outside allies and the continuation of foreign power military exercises, the greatest threat to Kim’s Korea emanates from his own policy. The cull of top officials and high-ranking party members has done more for North Korean instability than any US action on the Peninsula in the last decade. It is increasingly plausible that the next official may not await his own funeral but rather, with the correct support base, attempt a coup.[iii] Such a situation is certainly not inevitable in the short term, but the North will surely not survive permanently.
The moment and reality of reunification on the Peninsula is a subject of intensive and varied discussion The complexities of such a transition are not the focus for this article; rather, it is suggested that thought needs to be given as to whether a reunified Korea provides the opportunity for South Korea to further flourish in conjunction with its Northern neighbour. The traditional arguments here are not complex: the Peninsula has the potential to become an economic powerhouse within Asia, and untapped human capital, as well as natural resources in the North, could provide significant income for the unified Korean people. Commentators are excited by the concept of a unified Korean economy: “according to a 2009 report by Goldman Sachs, within 30 to 40 years, the Peninsula, if reunified, could overtake France, Germany, and even Japan in terms of GDP.” [iv] The cost of the process of reunification must be outweighed by this potential growth, and currently the South Korean government and people are unconvinced by such predictions.
There are three key points to note about the doubts concerning the benefits of Korean reunification. Firstly, the short term costs both economically and socially place huge strain upon the South. The costs are enormous and the timeframe very lengthy of setting up an international trading economy in the North. Germany is still burdened, socially and economically, from the gulf in education between East and West Germans, “gross domestic product per head in the east in 2013 was still only 66 per cent of that in western Germany.”[v] Such a situation will persist on the Peninsula probably for some sixty years before there is a new generation of integrated Koreans, only here it will be more severe from the more intense ideological rift between those living either side of the border due to the greater economic disparity on the Peninsula. Secondly, the people of the South think of a reunified Korea as no different from the current state of the South. The reality is far more complex. American influence over the Peninsula from a military perspective could provide huge difficulties for the reunified country. America would no doubt be seeking a military presence north of the DMZ to bring aircraft closer to China and complete a triangular presence in Asia, connecting North Korea to Guam and Japan. Finally, regional allies such as Russia and China, although increasingly intolerant of the current regime, would not stand for a reunified Korea, at least not as currently envisaged by the South Korean and western policymakers. A reunified Korea would become a country of huge economic and military contention for China, America, Japan, Russia and, to a lesser extent, European nations as foreign policy goals clash in a newly established area of competition.
President Park was not mistaken in declaring that a reunified Korea presents an ultimate economic jackpot for the country. The glaring omission of such a statement was its failure to address the social strife and regional and international conflict that could develop from a reunified Korea. The speech was arguable a political tool, a boost to fading public opinion. Were it not for the fact that the end of the North Korean regime is inevitable, the South Korean government would have to be more cautious in addressing the issue of reunifying Korea. The only façade then, is the image of the South Korean government genuinely pursuing reunification. This regrettable notion was explained to me over the summer by a South Korean “as just another way for us to look better than them.” Korea may very well not to be permanently geographically divided, but social divisions and regional conflicts will so deeply challenge the unified Peninsula that South Korea may never win the “Ultimate Jackpot.”