Since the end of the Korean War and establishment of divided Korea, there has always been an expectation of reunification from the western world and South Korea. Yet as the decades linger on and approaches over half a century of separation, there are questions to be raised on not only the likelihood of reunification, but the repercussions of such a massive undertaking.
Form a purely statistical standpoint, the costs of reunification are staggering at $1 trillion. Governmental welfare programs will have to account for a population influx of 25 million people, many of which have had previously little access to healthcare and are not only physically malnourished as a result of North Korea’s food crisis, but potentially emotionally or psychologically affected by the regime (The Economist, 2017). And despite the robust economic boom over the past four decades, South Korea’s economy is growing at a slower rate at 2.6% as of December 2016 compared to 4% in 2007 (Forbes, 2016). If the form of reunification is absorption of the DPRK, the shock to South Korean economy and society will be large, and the process of state-building unstable. Furthermore, extensive funds would need to be poured into revamping northern infrastructure where basic electricity needs aren’t met after Soviet collapse removed cheap fuel, and a deal with the U.S. failed after Bush accused DPRK of reengaging in nuclear weapons program despite the agreements stipulations against doing so.
Granted, South Korea would gain a boost in their labor force as one of the primary concerns of a slowly stagnating economy is the aging population. Yet the influx of workers from DPRK are unlikely the workers needed, as many are not college educated and would undoubtedly be shut out of higher level positions compared to their South Korean peers. The boon in lower-skilled labor would leave the nation at a loss as to how to provide the necessary jobs and education to truly integrate North Koreans into the rapidly advancing society of South Korea.
The collapse of the North Korean state would delegitimize the authority of their Stalinist politics, and accepting any kind of humanitarian help from any country, really, weakens the state’s self-sufficient nationalism. Thus reunification is hardly an attractive concept for DPRK, unless it is on their terms, or a hybrid form perhaps similar to that of China which functions as politically Communist, but still reaps the benefits of the capitalist world.
Despite the many complications and uncertainties of reunification, that rhetoric is still maintained and to some extent, expected by South Koreans in particular. Certainly, public opinion on the likelihood of reunification has declined (with a sharp decrease particularly in younger generations), but over 80% of people, according to a 2015 Asan poll, still invests “high interest” in the concept (Huffington Post, 2015). And in times before the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, she described reunification as a “bonanza” (Huffington Post, 2015). So why are such promises continuously made despite clear negative ramifications?
The Korean view of its division is not one which paints DPRK as the perpetrator or “villains” per se, but instead sees Korea as a whole as the victim to external pressures and aggressive actions like those Japan post World War I. In turn, the sentiment that to some extent, foreign powers want to ensure a divided Korea, further viewing US military presence along the border as unnecessary. This kind of global hands-off approach to Korean reunification creates and feeds into a nationalism on either side, with DPRK exploiting that viewpoint to its extreme to ensure complete control over the populace, while South Korea participates in that dialogue in a far less radical way, but for similar purposes. Considering much of the South Korean population still has family on the other side of the border and its oldest citizens may even remember a period of unification, to give up entirely on entertaining the idea of merging would be to give up not only a political tool, but placation of a population still cognizant of a pre-division era.
Steps have been taken in the past to move towards reunification; Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy earned him a Nobel Peace Prize for his more amiable approach to North Korea, but those efforts have largely since broken down and been deemed a failure. And with Kim Jong Un in power and a regime more aggressive than his predecessors, the question of reunification remains continuously uncertain in the future in terms of true commitment and likelihood.
Feffer, John. "Korean Reunification: The View From the North." The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 16 June 2015. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.
"South Korea." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.
"What North and South Korea would gain if they were reunified." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 05 May 2016. Web. 08 Mar. 2017.