South Korea and its allies should started thinking seriously about the problems of sudden reunification.
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 rÃ©gime, 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 rÃ©gime 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 rÃ©gime. 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 rÃ©gime 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 rÃ©gime 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.
Continue reading “The Korean reunification taboo”