[58 Anniversary] What Will Become of N. Koreans After Unification?
By Andrei Lankov
Korea Times Columnist
Since the foundation of the South Korean state in 1948, the rhetoric of unification has occupied a prominent place in its official vocabulary. Unification with the North was always presented as the great national goal, which any government should pursue at any cost.
For decades, this rhetoric was taken seriously and believed by a majority. Nevertheless, in the Cold War era unification appeared very unlikely.
Some people on the right still thought about overthrowing the North Korean regime while some extreme leftists would not mind to see its power extended to the South.
The extreme left had very peculiar ideas about Kim Il-sung's ``people's paradise.''
A confederation was discussed as well. But everybody understood that none of these plans was likely to be implemented any time soon. The borders of the Cold War camps had to remain frozen.
Only after the end of the Cold War did unification cease to be the stuff of pipedreams and became a probability.
It was also increasingly clear that destitute North was not in position to be an equal partner in the unification process, so unification could be achieved only on the South Korean conditions ― pretty much like unification of Germany.
However, these prospects do not produce much enthusiasm among the South Korean public.
Actually, the increasing unease about unification has been palpable since the early 1990s.
Few Koreans would dare to say openly that they do not want unification, since such a bold statement would go against the powerful set of beliefs and would be seen as sacrilegious by both the left and right. However, it is permissible to say that unification should not be done in a hurry, and it will be much better if this great event happens few decades down the road.
The current unease about unification is largely driven by worries about economic consequences and financial costs. The German experience is widely known and much discussed in Korea, and news from Germany do not sound encouraging.
Of course, German-style unification is by no means the only possibility. Another option is a voluntarily confederation of two states, long a favorite pipedream of the Korean left.
Alas, this much discussed idea seems impossible due to many reasons, above all ― the great attractiveness of the Southern model to the impoverished Northern populace.
Yet another option - less desirable but far more probable than ``confederation utopia'' is an emergence of a pro-Chinese puppet regime in the North. Nonetheless, the German scenario still remains a very likely (perhaps, most likely) outcome.
However, such scenario is likely to produce manifold difficulties, and not of a purely economic nature. The two Koreas have become very different, and the North is not merely poor, but also a very peculiar place.
In a sense, the North has been frozen in time, living in the world of the 1950s or, at best, the 1960s.
Sudden exposure to the modern world will become a shock, and most North Koreans are not equipped to deal with the new reality of the 21st century. They will adjust, to be sure, but slowly and not without pain.
One of first things to worry about is the fate of what can be described as North Korean middle class, North Korean professionals.
The experience of East Europe (or, for that matter, South Korea of the 1970s and 1980s) showed that these people ― engineers, managers, teachers ― tend to be most ardent supporters of democracy and reform.
If a popular movement will develop in the North, they will play a major role there, too. But what will happen to them after their victory?
Imagine a North Korean engineer who will aspire to keep his job in a unified country. This is a natural aspiration, to be sure, but a typical North Korean engineer has never used a computer ― unless he or she worked in the military industry or some other privileged companies.
Can such a person be employed by a modern factory? Obviously, not. Can he or she be re-educated? Perhaps, yes, but it will take years and cost a large amount of money which will be in short supply in post-unification Korea.
And what about, say, a medical doctor? The North Korean doctors work hard, making wonders with limited resources they have, but the medicine they studied is, essentially, the Soviet medicine of the 1950s' vintage.
Will these doctors find patients when truly modern medicine becomes available? And will their qualifications be recognized?
Teachers, including university lecturers will face the same problem, too. Some teachers of science and math will probably do well.
North Korea is not hopeless in those areas. However, pretty much everybody trained in humanities or social science will find that his and her skills are useless. Who will need a history teacher who has not heard of King Sejong but can recite the genealogy of Kim Jong-il?
I would like to be clear. Unification will dramatically improve the living standards of all people in the North.
The above-mentioned teachers and doctors often go to bed hungry nowadays, and a used bike is a luxury item for them. This will change. However, they will soon get used to the new prosperity, and this is when they start feel nostalgic about their lost social standing. A respected doctor is bound to be unhappy and resentful when she becomes a toilet cleaner or an unskilled factory worker even if her income increases greatly.
Of course, worries about cross-border movements play a major role in the unease the South Koreans feel about unification.
They are haunted by nightmarish pictures of millions of North Korean refugees flooding Seoul and other major cities, where they will push the South Korean poor from unskilled jobs or even resort to robbery and theft.
Such threats might be real, and this is largely the poor and unskilled Southerners who will be affected by the influx of the North Korean ultra-cheap labor. Indeed, even Seoul sits just 40 km away from the border, and people can virtually walk from Pyongyang to Seoul in a few days.
The over-sized North Korean military will present another important challenge. The 1.2 million-strong North Korean armed forces probably lack the skills necessary for modern warfare, and most soldiers can be described as farmers in uniform.
However, this force also includes a large number of professionals who have not known anything except the barracks life, intense nationalist indoctrination and training in low-tech but efficient ways of close combat.
If former military officers' skills and zeal will not find an outlet, many of them are likely to join the ranks of organized crime.
And what will you do with officials of the current regime? The fear of persecution seems to be one of the reasons, which keep the North Korean elite, including its lower ranks, united around the inefficient and brutal regime.
They believe that collapse of the Kims' rule will mean not only the end of their privileges, but they are more afraid of judicial persecution and even mob violence.
Taking into consideration the scale of length of human rights abuses, no thorough investigation of their crimes is possible.
After all, a few hundred thousand people are, in varying degree, responsible for the great social disaster, which has been the Kims' regime. Therefore, only a fraction of a few people, essentially scapegoats, can realistically be investigated. Still, this means that in the post-unification Korea a large number of former tortures and executioners will remain a part of society.
And what about their victims? Some half a million current and former prison camp inmates are to be found in the North. Most of those people are handicapped physically and mentally. Some of them will recover completely, but the vast majority will be unable to make a decent living. These people should be given compensation, but this again comes to the financial questions, and money will be in a very short supply in the post-unification decades.
Not only prison camp inmates, but even average North Koreans will have serious health issues. One and half decades of malnutrition already have their toll on the population: younger North Koreans are remarkably shorter that their South Korean peers (the height difference is estimated at 7-8 cm, and it is increasing rapidly). The North Koreans are also quite weak, and many people who spent their childhood or youth during the Great famine of 1996-99 will be haunted by medical complications for the rest of their lives.
The list of potentially explosive problems can go forever. Does it mean that unification is not desirable and should be avoided or postponed indefinitely, as some people have begun to argue?
Probably, not. Alternatives to unification are worse, sometimes much worse, if judged from a long-term point of view. However, these issues should be approached and discussed.
Unfortunately, until recently such debate has been rare almost absent. The South Korean government and military do have operational plans to deal with the increasing probability of the North Korean collapse, but these plans largely concentrate on short-term crisis management, not on long-term preparations for future challenges.
Perhaps, the recent rumors about Kim's health problems will have their impact and remind that in a long run the current situation is not sustainable. It's time to start thinking about the future, honestly and frankly.