On April 27th, 2018, the eyes of the world were on the demilitarised zone at Panmunjom. The leaders of the two Koreas held a historic meeting – the first of its kind since the Korean War ended 65 years ago. With outstretched hands, Kim Jong Un and Moon Jae In opened a new chapter of bilateral relations between former foes. Less than 30 years have passed since the Berlin Wall collapsed and East and West Germany reunified. Now, proponents of Korean reunification believe the same might be achieved today. With bilateral talks yielding a peace treaty and a final end to the Korean War, talks of reunification between the two Koreas have moved beyond the realm of fantasy fiction to a possible, albeit far distant reality. But what would a reunified Korea look like? For all practicality, the challenges facing the two Koreas are significantly greater than what a divided Germany faced at the end of the Cold War.
Proponents of Korean reunification cite the cultural and ethnic homogeneity of the two Koreas. After all, it is far easier to forge national identity with a common ethnic and cultural heritage. However, there are reasons to counter this premise. Nearly seven decades of separation has led to a vast linguistic divide between North and South Korea. Despite sharing the same Korean language, much of the South’s standard of Hanja vocabulary has been heavily influenced by the West, while the North retains a more traditional standard of Hanja. In many cases, modern terms like “the internet”, which came into existent at the turn of the millennium, are virtually non-existent in Northern vocabulary. North Koreans also have a distinct accent that distinguishes them from the South. This makes the spoken language of the two Koreas nearly unintelligible to either side. So vast is the linguistic divide that researchers had to develop a language translation apps like Univoca to assist North Korean defectors living in the South.
Despite sharing the same Confucianist heritage, political ideology and culture also plays a significant role in influencing the culture of the two Koreas. South Korean culture has been subject to outside influences for over six decades, from that of free market capitalism, Christianity, Liberal Democracy, and the cosmopolitan values propagated by globalisation. North Korea has been politically and socially isolated since its inception. The “Juche” ideology of the Korean Workers’ Party has permeated every aspect of North Korean society. Emphasising self-reliance, isolation, ethnic nationalism, and a general suspicion of outside forces (especially the West), North Korean society would be more averse to outside interaction relative to the South.
Contrary to popular belief, Communist regimes differ widely in practical application despite their shared Marxist origins. The German Democratic Republic (East Germany) was arguably far less authoritarian than the Stalinist North Korean regime. East Germany maintained active international ties with the other Warsaw pact members and Socialist–leaning countries. Politically, East Germany was far less isolated and could draw on support from the Communist side of the Iron Curtain. East Germany’s international ties with the Soviet Union meant that it couldn’t escape the effect of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the 1980s. Amid popular uprisings against Communist regimes resulting from Gorbachev’s liberalisation, East Germany was one of several dominos to fall. North Korea’s isolation in contrast, helped it weather the storm of anti-Communist uprisings of the 1980s and early 90s. Simply put, North Koreans couldn’t rebel if they weren’t even aware of events taking place in the outside world.
History also plays a role: Germany was divided for a considerably shorter period relative to Korea, making the cultural divisions between the two Germanys comparatively less institutionalised. It is also worth noting that Germany prior to division had been a single nation since 1871 while Korea before the Cold War had been under Japanese occupation, during which Korean culture and national identity were actively suppressed. Soviet and American occupation after World War 2 was effectively the first attempt at creating a modern Korean state. From this experiment emerged two distinct Korean states, founded upon two diametrically opposed ideologies.
Perhaps the bigger challenge facing a reunified Korea is the vast economic disparity between North and South Korea – far larger than East and West Germany. South Korea is a modern, first world country with one of the highest standards of living. It is also a globalised economy with a GDP of $1.4 trillion and a member of the OECD. North Korea remains one of the most impoverished countries in the world. North Korea’s GDP is only $12.28 billion as of 2011. Its isolated economy is heavily reliant on Chinese aid and a significant proportion of North Korea’s population lives in abject poverty. Bridging the vast economic divide would pose a nearly insurmountable challenge for policy makers. A reunified Korea would be one of the most unequal countries in the world. The North’s economy would be locked in a decades long game of catchup, while the South would be forced to subsidise its growth. Overnight, South Koreans would face the prospect of a massive exodus of North Koreans to the South. Policy makers would have to deal with the inevitable social backlash arising from job competition, income inequality and lack of opportunity.
Even in Germany, the poster child of reunification advocates, the economic picture isn’t as rosy as one might imagine. 28 years after reunification, East and West remain divided. In the East, reunification hasn’t been a complete success story. The influx of Capitalism led to the collapse of several East German companies who couldn’t compete with their Western counterparts. To date, income levels in the East are significantly lower than the West. Unemployment is also higher in the East (8.5% compared to 5.7% national average).
Overall, it would be inaccurate to compare North and South Korea with East and West Germany. Unfortunately, the two Koreas were dealt a far less favorable hand than a divided Germany. This diagnosis does not dismiss reunification entirely but relegates it to a far distant future – at a time when North Korea is sufficiently reformed and opened up to the world, such that its economy and society would be better positioned for the “shock” of reunification. Yet, the act of opening the country up to the world entails greater risks for the current North Korean regime. When the Soviet Union under Gorbachev tried to reform its political and economic system, the exposure to the outside world only made its citizens realize the failed experiment that communism was. Ironically, it did more to hasten the fall of the Soviet Union than delay it. Whether or not the North Korean regime is willing to take this risk remains to be seen. But what is clear is that such reforms are a precondition to successful reunification.
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