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article imageOp-Ed: Reunification with the South An Ignored Solution for North Korea?

By Mark Kersten     Jun 16, 2009 in World
Why the issue of North and South Korea reunifying is so rarely broached provides insight into the underlying complexities of the current stand-off and how it is likely to be resolved.
Tensions continue to rise over North Korea's most recent dabbling into nuclear armament. North Korea has renounced the armistice that ended the Korean War and has tested two nuclear bombs. Many suspect it will test a third. Setting the stage for Kim Jong-Il to transfer power to his youngest son, the peninsula has been immersed in a reckless crisis. The United Nations Security Council approved a tough sanctions regime against North Korea and rhetoric has been sharp and provocative from both sides. All parties are speaking like war is imminent.
Yet lost in the North Korean situation, whose escalations in tension have been a long-term feature of the region, is a discussion about the “end game”, namely the reunification of South and North Korea. The media reports on the nuclear tests, weapons inspectors and UN sanctions, but rarely, if ever, does it discuss unification. Why this issue is so rarely broached provides insight into the underlying complexities of the current stand-off and how it is likely to be resolved.
In the aftermath of WWII the once united Korean peninsula was divided along the 39th parallel. Following the Korean War, which resulted in the deaths of millions of civilians and hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides, in 1953 an armistice was signed and a demilitarized zone (DMZ) established. A peace agreement was never established and to this day, the peace between North and South has been maintained through the truce. The North Korean military looks over and defends the northern areas of the DMZ while American, UN and South Korean troops monitor the southern areas. Very few have entered the area in the past 50 years and when they have skirmishes are the norm.
Since the partition of Korea, the socio-economic and political paths of the South and North Korea could scarcely have been more divergent. South Korea has embraced market capitalism and democracy. Considered one of the Asian Tigers, as of 2008 it boasted a GDP of $947 billion, ranking it 15th in the world and the 36th largest per-capita GDP. Its cities are cosmopolitan temples of wealth and prosperity and its education system is one of the highest ranking in the world.
North Korea, on the other hand, has secluded itself from the rest of the world. Observers often describe it as the “last of the world's Stalinist states.” Since its creation North Korea has only had two leaders, neither elected and both authoritarian. The nation has been ravaged by natural disasters and brutal famines. The last famine, from 1995 – 1998 killed an estimated 2.5 to 3 million people. While numbers are difficult to ascertain, estimates indicate that in 2007 its gross GDP ranked 89th in the world and its per-capita GDP 156th. While its leaders sit in opulent palaces, the regime does not have many of the basic necessities to support its own population.
Despite their separation and drastically divergent economic, political and social paths, the belief remains amongst many Koreans that to unite is Korea's destiny. It is often said that reunification is “inevitable and desirable.” But how costly would unification be?
While it is impossible to calculate and validate an accurate estimate, The World Bank has maintained that reunification of the Koreas would cost upwards of $2-3 trillion dollars, or some 5-6 times the yearly GDP of South Korea, to whom much of the cost would surely fall. Marcus Noland, a leading expert in the field of Korean reunification has noted that it would take some $300-600 billion dollars just to bring the income levels of North Koreans to 60% of that enjoyed by South Koreans.
Some are perhaps perplexed at how reunification could cost so much. Consider what would occur if the DMZ zone was opened and the two Koreas became one again. Even in a situation without violence the costs would be extraordinary. Most of the 24 million North Koreans would likely begin to mobilize and migrate into South Korea in search of food and care. The result would be among the greatest of humanitarian challenges ever faced by the world. Millions of impoverished, malnourished and suffering men, women and children would have to be fed, clothed, and many would surely need medical attention.
This is only the immediate potential cost of reunification. North Koreans would have to be “acclimatized” to their new realities. Job training and support for those would could not be employed, continued access to healthcare, childcare and social assistance, education and housing costs, and rehabilitation of the thousands of political prisoners. These are among only some of the medium- and long-term costs.
Confounding this situation is the inability to make concrete plans in the event that North Korea, as a state, collapses. The international community has been doing little to ensure the freedom from oppression in the authoritarian nation. Instead there has been a game of deterrence played by the major international players. Deals are struck with North Korea that provide it with resources that continue to sustain it and its people to survive in exchange for promises that it dismantles its nuclear programme.
A Globe and Mail analysis
described the diplomacy regarding North Korea:
“For nearly two decades, successive presidents, first Bill Clinton, then George W. Bush and now Barack Obama, have tried threats and promises, and various flavours of diplomacy. Two decades of North Korean duplicity has resulted in the international community looking foolish, Beijing being deeply embarrassed by its wayward client, Washington looking weak and one of the world's least-understood and most dangerous states getting a small arsenal of nuclear weapons.”
Between 1995 and 2005 the US provided some $1 billion dollars in foreign aid to North Korea, in the form of energy and food aid. Offers have been constantly made to exchange co-operation for aid. This may be an indication as to why North Korea is provoking the world, not coincidentally just months into a new, and to many promising, President's tenure.
All of this is nothing to say about the condition of the people in North Korea. Indeed, it seems many frame the North Korean question within the context of the success and failures of decisions made by Presidents and the international community and not the well-being of the North Korean people. While some may choose to debate the morality of a nation spending its wealth on a nuclear arsenal rather than on the prosperity and health of its own people, it is a reality this world has known to be true for years. As a result, media discuss the potential leadership consequences of a weakly worded statement by Obama to North Korea, the level of patience that China has for their communist counterparts or the strength of sanctions.
But perhaps part of the debate should consider the fate of North Korea not only when the regime feels bold enough to grab headlines with nuclear blasts and bold rhetoric. Perhaps the international community should reconsider its approach to North Korean provocations and look for a longer, lasting solution rather than continued trade-offs between aid and co-operation, which may simply ensure that the pattern of provocations continues.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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