The Korean reunification taboo

Korean cherry blosssom near Yangpyeong, photo by me

Compare two rogue states:

* Nuclear weapons: Iran – none, but trying; North Korea – yes
* Belligerency: Iran – verbally hostile to Israel, supports Hezbollah militia, funds Hamas; North Korea – pattern of regular provocations, sank South Korean corvette in March with torpedo, killing 48
* Governmental system: Iran – unique hybrid theocracy/democracy; North Korea – post-Marxist hereditary divine monarchy held by unstable ageing playboy
* Repression: Iran – vigorous partial repression by theocrats, vigorous pushback from civil society; North Korea – totalitarian silence of the grave
* Economy: Iran – diversified, open, middle-income petrostate; North Korea – failed Stalinist autarky near starvation level.

It’s worrying then how little attention the world gives to North Korea. However, earlier this month Matt Yglesias and Robert Farley picked up a good piece by academic Minxin Pei on the prospects for an early collapse of the North Korean régime, and the ensuing security nightmare:

These critical issues are deemed too sensitive for US, Chinese, Japanese and South Korean government officials to discuss. As a result, few are thinking about these difficult issues, let alone exploring workable solutions that could help avoid a possible conflict between China and the United States over a collapsing North Korea and construct an enduring peace after the departure of the Kim dynasty.

It’s a cop-out to write off the North Korean government as crazy. In fact, they have played the United States pretty well over the nuclear issue and have got away with their bombs. North Korea doesn’t have missiles or bombers, but it does have submarines to deliver its handful of weapons. Not that it should make us sleep much sounder if we see the régime as rational and amoral rather than irrational and amoral: it might after all calculate, Dr. Strangelove-style, that using the bombs was the least bad option to keep itself in power. It’s the amorality that creates the danger.

The way I read the North Korean sabre-rattling (and use) is that it is designed to keep the South Koreans and their allies off balance, focussing on crisis management and preventing war, and not – for instance – planning coherently for the probable collapse of their régime. After all, if there was a good reunification plan, it would become more likely. It’s only anecdotal evidence, but my son, teaching in a small town near the DMZ, warned me that the topic is too sensitive for casual conversation. So Pyongyang may have spooked the South Korean public into treating the whole subject as unthinkable, because of its one unthinkable component, a nuclear conflict.

The monstrous North Korean régime should not be granted victory in this mind game. Here’s my suggestion to break the taboo: split the question. Reunification will have two phases:
A – collapse of the North Korean régime and takeover of the territory by South Korea
B – political, social, cultural and economic integration of the two Koreas.

The problems you have with B are more or less the same regardless of how A goes.

The big exception is the very worst case, a nuclear conflict, in which case the ruins of both Koreas will be under martial law for a long time. It would also make a difference whether the North Korean leadership is able to negotiate its own demise, like the DDR, or simply collapses into a vacuum. But the longer-term issue of integration can still largely be analysed separately. Starting from near the point where the South Korean government is in control of the whole territory, and feeding the population, where does it go to rebuild and unify the country?

South Korean policymakers should be studying historical analogies intensively, especially the victors’ enlightened despotism over postwar Germany and Japan, German reunification in 1989-90, South Africa after apartheid, and – as an awful warning how not to do it – Iraq after Saddam. That gives two-and-a half negotiated takeovers, and two-and-a half collapses. (The halves are for Japan. The Japanese surrender in 1945 was formally unconditional, and MacArthur then ruled the country as an absolute proconsul, but in fact the deal included a negotiated guarantee of the Emperor’s position.)

Just a few of the issues.

The constitutional basis
The laconic South Korean constitution provides a basis for unification in that it claims to apply to the whole territory of the Korea peninsula (Article 3). It’s a unitary state so there are no federal complications, and the National Assembly can be expanded, and local and regiional authorities created, simply by law. There’s nothing comparable to Article 23 of the 1949 FRG constitution (text here – hard to find) which allowed the DDR to be absorbed just by adding new states, or to the complicating vestiges of the occupying powers. At first sight reunification would not require a constitutional amendment – but I’m no expert.
Behind the appearance of negotiation and treaty, the FRG simply imposed its own scheme of government,  and the DDR state disappeared entirely. This looks right in retrospect; there wasn’t time for rewriting. It will be even more so for North Korea, whose régime will leave nothing worth preserving.

The army
The DDR was deliberately kept militarily quite weak by the Soviet Union so its poorly equipped armed forces of 120,000 or so posed little threat to German reunification.[Correction: See comment 3, should be 300,000, so forget about the analogy.] The North Korean army (1.2 million, not counting reserves)  is the strongest institution in the country, and handling it right will be critical. Avoid Bremer’s hasty disbanding of Saddam’s army in Iraq; look more to Augustus’ cautious rundown of the bloated legions left at the end of the Roman civil war.

Economy
The Germans got this partially wrong, by allowing (under union pressure) a far too rapid convergence of wages that made many East German workers and their factories instantly uncompetitive. I would guess that Confucian-moulded Koreans would be more patient here, if offered a decent ten-year road map towards equality. Korea should copy Germany’s massive public works programme; the entire East German phone system was ripped out and replaced, starting from the top. The chaebol can certainly handle this. What will be more difficult is generating a diversified local economy in the North, not completely controlled by the chaebol. Deng’s China offers some lessons here, also Roosevelt’s New Deal. Foreign investment – expecially from Chinese entrepreneurs looking for sweatshops – should be welcomed. I guess Japanese businesses are still out.

Freedom of movement

The South Korean constitution guarantees this (Article 14). I suspect the right may have to be suspended for a few years to avoid a tidal wave of economic refugees into South Korean cities. Similarly welfare provisions will have to be phased in gradually.

Reconciliation
Germany and South Africa offer different but worthy models for Vergangenheitsbewältigung (coming to terms with the past). Elements: a Gauck commission to hold the archives of the police state, headed by an incorruptible; a truth commission to allow public confession and shaming of lower-level state criminals instead of trial and prison; an independent historical enquiry to establish a clear record of the past (including South Korean abuses); physical and cyber memorials to victims of state repression (look at Russia’s Memorial NGO); attention to education.

Finding good things
Hard, given the nature of the régime, but the mass gymnastic displays should be worth preserving.

Korea’s allies should be pushing for open, and much more thorough, analysis of all this.

BTW, I suppose you can draw up a scenario which would allow continued North Korean independence. After a palace coup, a new leadership group would have to reinvent itself as authoritarian capitalist technocrats, as the Chinese and Vietnamese CPs have done, and stay in power through breakneck growth. Cuban stagnation is not an option; the Cuban standard of living is so much higher that North Korea would have to engineer the rapid growth to get there, by methods incompatible with the Cuban equilibrium.  I don’t buy this. The Chinese and Vietnamese leaders knew incomparably more about the world when they changed track, and their societies were also much more diverse and open (Hong Kong, Saigon).

Comments

  1. Joe S. says

    Good things about North Korea?

    Vinalon, the miracle juche fiber! (Okay, we can always pretend.)

  2. says

    Actually, the economic mistake of German reunification that gets the most discussion is conversion of the Ostmark at parity to the D-mark. Industry in eastern Germany was uncompetitive for a host of reasons, mostly having to do with outdated capital stock, lack of quality production, and orientation toward Comecon demands. The most rapid convergence of wages (for individuals) was to be had by moving west, or at least taking work there. Which a significant number of people have done. I am deeply skeptical that freedom of movement can be suspended; South Korea had better plan on receiving that tidal wave. Otherwise yes on the army and the public works; maybe most of the army can be put to work that way?

    I wonder what Norstalgia will look like.

  3. JohnTh says

    You should check your sources on the DDR Armed Forces. Your link refers to some sort of alternative history setup – Wikipedia suggests an that the DDR had standing armed forces of around 300,000, which is very substantial for a population of less than 20 million.

  4. says

    Could you please not translate Vergangenheitsbewältigung as "coming to terms with the past"? It's "coming to terms" only in the same sense that german unification was a "merger".

    But until we have much more information on conditions in North Korea, all of the sociocultural stuff is way more of a crapshoot than either the DDR or South Africa, just because we don't know how deep the psychopathic autarky has gone. We might have to look at religious cults that have collapsed and try to scale from there.

  5. buck says

    Two things–good catch on the DDR armed forces. Remember a lot of them were spread out over the rest of the Warsaw Pact because Soviets' own troops proved to be somewhat unreliable on occasion (e.g., East German troops were involved in 1968 suppression in Czechoslovakia, although they were joined by the Soviet forces).

    But I also think you missed one issue that may need to be addressed. You just marked NK as a "yes" on nuclear weapons. SK is not a nuclear country, although, of course, they could get into it very easily if opportunity existed (just like Japan). And they do have nuclear power, just not weapons. We can be sure that China would have very strong objections to unified Korea becoming a nuclear power–i.e., a unified territory under SK government with NK nuclear weapons. Given SK's technological capacity, they could advance the moribund NK nuclear program very quickly.

    What that means is that there will NOT be an easy reunification solution. Even if the regime collapses and the DMZ is breached, there is still going to be a problem on an international scale. This is something that Germany did not have.

  6. says

    "This is something that Germany did not have."

    Thanks to energetic and timely support from the American side. Thatcher was not keen, and, iirc, Mitterrand was more than a little wobbly. Prompt and sure-footed American involvement in Korean reunification will probably also be necessary.

  7. NCG says

    Why would the Chinese be more upset about a unified Korea with nukes than it is about North Korea already having them? Surely South Korea has no reason to attack China.

    Or is it that nukes would make South Korea/unified Korea harder to attack?

    I don't get it — someone please explain.

  8. Tierce says

    I think it's not that a unified Korea has any reason to attack China, but that whereas NK is a pariah state and its nukes highlight the instability of KJL, a nuclear unified Korea would have more power and status regionally and internationally relative to SK currently, and certainly compared to NK. As it stands, China has significant leverage over NK, largely due to their economic support of the regime.

  9. Jay C says

    But would it not be more likely, under the "unified Korea" scenario, that a peninsula-wide government would sign on to international NPT traties (if SK has not done so already), and dispose of any A-weapons left over from the DPRK regime?

  10. says

    SK in fact is a signatory to the NPT (as was NK until it withdrew in 2003, soon after the abrogation of the Agreed Framework by the Cheney Administration), leaving 3 holdouts on the planet (all nuclear states): India, Pakistan, and Israel.