Is the Korean Peninsula Reunification Feasible Anymore?

When I arrived in Seoul, South Korea a few weeks ago it was immediately apparent that this city was absolutely gigantic.  Seoul has roughly 10 million people which represents around one-fifth of South Korea’s population.  Aside from the sheer amazing size of Seoul, I was even more surprised to discover it was one of the most modern and high-tech cities I had ever been too.  There was brand new skyscrapers in every direction and new, world-class apartment complexes seemed to be quickly rising up on every block.  Once you arrived you truly felt that you were in a city more modern than any western world metropolis. You immediately took in that you were in a country with a vibrant democracy and a free market that was rapidly creating a massive amount of wealth.

 

Trip to the DMZ Zone

The next morning I woke up and hopped on a tour bus to the DMZ (demilitarized zone).  The drive was only about 35 miles but as far as a change of scenery goes it was unlike any 35 mile drive I had ever been on.  As the tour bus began to get closer to the DMZ zone, you could see enormous fences lined with barbed wire.  Behind the never ending line of barbed wired fences, there were towers every several hundred yards with many inhabiting soldiers who were holding large artillery guns.

Just behind the fences, you could see North Korea.  You knew it was North Korea not because you could see a large North Korean flag or a sign saying “North Korea” but because all of the sudden the trees were completely gone.  The mountains on the other side of the fences had no trees at all and they looked depleted of any vegetation.  We were informed this was because North Korea had run through all of their energy sources so they had to burn almost all of their trees in order to generate electricity.

Never in less than an hour drive have I seen such a drastic change in the standard of living.  We left one of the most modernized, thriving cities in the world and by the time you were barely outside of the city limits you could see living conditions that I have only seen in my visits to third world countries such as parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central America.  It immediately begged the question if these two drastically different countries with opposite standards of living and ideologies could even possibly reunify? Other than no longer having the threat of war, what benefits would South Korea gain by reunification?

 

History of the Separation of Korea

The North and South Koreans were split after the allied victory of World War II.  North Korea was occupied by the Soviet Union and South Korea was occupied by the United States.  With the Cold War beginning to come into effect, the United States and the Soviet Union were unable to unify the Korean peninsula.  This eventually led to the Korean War in the early 1950’s which created a permanent separation between North Korea and South Korea at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).  Since North Korea was influenced by the Soviet Union and China, they had formed a communist government while the South Koreans formed a democracy because of their influence from the United States and Western Europe.  The separation of the two countries drove them in drastically separate directions but once Communist governments began to fall in the 1990’s the separation became even more apparent.

By the 1990s, South Korea’s democratic government was fully blossoming and their economy was starting to boom.  In contrast, North Korea was embracing for a possible government collapse as the Soviet Union fell.  Kim Jong-il, the leader at the time, responded to the threat of government collapse by what is called “Songun”.  “Songun” is described as a military-first policy which declared that North Korea prepare for a war that they believed was imminent.  The policy justified the country’s shortages and rationing as a necessary step to strengthen their military.  They justified their oppressive government as necessary to root out internal enemies and to create nationalism that needs to be in place during “war time”. B. R. Myers, a North Korea scholar at Dongseo University in South Korea, wrote in a 2010 book on North Korean ideology, “It is the regime’s awareness of a pending legitimacy crisis, not a fear of attack from without, which makes it behave ever more provocatively on the world stage.”

The divide between North Korea and South Korean has been even further exacerbated since the 1990’s.  North Korea has essentially been isolated from the rest of the world because of their aggressive military state and their development of nuclear weapons while South Korea has become a fully developed first world country with the 11th largest GDP in the world.  The scale of separation can be shown by the two countries GDP per capita.  South Korea’s GDP per capita is around $38,000 U.S. dollars whereas North Korea’s GDP per capita is $1,800 U.S. dollars.  These are staggering numbers for two nations whose capitals are 120 miles apart.

 

Reunification

Recently the North and South Korean crisis has come to the forefront of the world stage.  It appears that North Korea’s capability of launching a nuclear weapon at Seoul is imminent.  But after visiting the DMZ and seeing and learning about the juxtaposition of the North and South Korea, it begs two questions.

One, how do you take Kim Jong-Un out of power?  The elites of North Korea are well aware of how poorly their citizens standard of living are and this is why they constantly use their military strength to distract the North Korean people.  But even if China and Russia stopped supporting the North Korean economy and North Koreans’ standard of living got even worse, would they question their government?  It seems that the North Korean people are now impervious to a rugged quality of life.  In the 1990’s, North Korea had a famine that killed up to 10 percent of their population and instead of questioning the government they began to further support them.  Mr. Myers writes that the famine “may have strengthened support for the regime by renewing the sense of ethnic victimhood from which the official worldview derived its passion.”  This means that military action could be the only answer on how to end this North Korean regime but that is an incredibly risky task considering North Korea appears to have nuclear capabilities and nothing to lose.

The second question that immediately came to my mind is would a reunification even work?  If the U.N. and the developed world somehow cracked the code on how to topple the North Korean government, what would the next step be?  Would the South Koreans get rid of the DMZ and try to reunify the Korean peninsula?  Perhaps the most similar circumstance to this is the toppling of the Berlin Wall but it appears the differences in standards of living and ideologies are even more drastic.   Once the people of North Korea hear of the unbelievable quality of life in Seoul will they be allowed to migrate there?  There are around 25 million people in North Korea so could South Korea handle a potential influx of this many people?  Perhaps an even larger issue is that the North Koreans revere Kim Jong-Un as “god-like” would they be able to immediately assimilate with a culture that got rid of someone they worship?  Ultimately, would two countries who have been enemies for over half a century be able to immediately live together considering their drastic differences?  Although some of these questions may not need to be answered until further down the road, it is time the U.N. and the developed world start to create a plan, considering the lack of preparation after World War II is what created this worldwide crisis in the first place.

As you can see from my picture above, South Korea is preparing for reunification of the Korean peninsula.  My pictures of a multi-million dollar train station they have built on the border of North Korea and South Korea that will become a transcontinental railroad from Seoul to Pyongyang and all the way to London if reunification occurs is just one example of the many detailed government plans the South Koreans have for reunification.  I just hope they have thought through the feasibility of this process and if it could truly work without an even worse conflict arising.

 

Whit Huguley