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Korea after reunification: challenges and opportunities

Last year’s deadly rise in tensions in the Korean peninsula put off any prospects of reunification. Young-II Kim, a North Korean defector and executive director of PSCORE, an organisation furthering the understanding between Seoul and Pyongyang, appears more optimistic. In an interview with Javier Delgado Rivera, he dissects the major issues the Korean Peninsula will face when reunification comes about.

Javier Delgado Rivera: For decades, North Korean observers have but failed to predict the breakdown of the Kim Jong-il’s regime. Is it going to be different this time around?

Young-II Kim: For twenty years, and in spite of the miserable state of affairs in the North, there has been a strong man able to exert control over all blocs and interests constituting the regime. Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, carefully bred his son, now North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-il, to firmly command the country. Ruling elites and the military were given decades to get used to him, legitimising his figure to take over from his father.

This is not what is happening nowadays with Kim Yong-il’s chosen heir, his son Kim Jong-un. He is perceived as a novice, overly inexperienced to take the reins of the country once his father passes away. When the time comes, the regime will implode as a result of the infighting among pro- and anti-Kim Jong-un factions. That may well accelerate today’s unthinkable reunification process.            

Javier Delgado Rivera: What do South Koreans fear the most when speculating about reunification?  

Young-II Kim: When the North Korean regime collapses, a climate of widespread uncertainty will inevitably emerge. It may terrify international firms and investors in the South, making the inherent costs of reunification rise exponentially. As the likelihood of reunification looms closer, Seoul should assure the international business community that the new Korea will work hands-on in running business as usual.

Sadly, recent developments did not exactly bring Koreans any closer. Kim Yong-il’s nuclear programme, last year’s Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong island bombardment had a devastating impact on the South’s perception of reunification. Before, about 50% of South Koreans favoured it. Today the figure is much lower, with people perceiving Pyongyang much more as a threat now than in previous decades.

Javier Delgado Rivera: In many aspects, North and South are far apart. Which of the numerous divides between both worries you the most? 

Young-II Kim: Pyongyang’s appalling human rights record comes to mind first. Seven decades of life under fear have put a toll on our neighbours. The North’s dire conditions in terms of food and health care should be first addressed. Afterwards, stabilising the North’s civic rights and educating its people in their new entitlements as citizens should be pursued.

Democracy will be an entirely alien concept to northerners, one that even if desired, might not be digested overnight. The vast majority of North Koreans only know the belligerent, paranoid state propaganda. TVs and radios are manipulated to only receive official, indoctrinating channels. It is not only that North Koreans can hardly imagine voting in their own representatives. The mere notion of free and fair elections will be an entirely new phenomenon for them and so, risk being misconceived. We should not lose sight of that danger.   

Javier Delgado Rivera: Regardless of the reunification’s timing, there will be ample voices in both sides demanding justice against North Korean leaders. How would you address these claims?   

Young-II Kim: The main goal must be to bring both Koreas back together. If the North’s upper echelons feel the menace of retaliation even before reunification is seriously appraised, it would certainly wipe out any existing leanings towards reunification in Pyongyang. It is not to say that justice will not have place once Koreans unite, but bringing North Korean elites to book should not hinder the reconciliation vision. Taking a closer look at how things are run in the North, the Kim family always appear pulling the strings of the country’s key affairs. They are the ones that, beyond being prevented to take any post in the newly formed state, should be held accountable.      

Javier Delgado Rivera: One of the main fears in the region is the potential for an overwhelming influx of North Koreans fleeing to the South and China the very day the Kims’ regime collapses. Is that a valid concern? 

Young-II Kim: We need to start thinking about that risk right now, envisaging mechanisms to prevent it from happening. For instance, Seoul could allocate cultivated land to rural, impoverished farmers. If they work the land for 20 years, they should be granted with ownership. Thus, the poorest classes, the ones more likely to run away seeking the improvement of their lot as the Peninsula unifies, will be encouraged to stay.

Javier Delgado Rivera: Reunification will also bring large numbers of South Koreans claiming land ownership in the North. How should this issue be tackled?

Young-II Kim: The unified government will have to avoid coming out with a patchwork of stagnant, fragmented ownership. Therefore, I think it would be unwise to return land to pre-nationalisation owners or heirs, although the authorities will have to duly compensate these expropriations. The foremost priority should be to swiftly develop the North. Consequently, these holdings will be better utilised in infrastructure projects, which I am sure will prove critical to attract investments.       

Javier Delgado Rivera: The Korean Peninsula decades-long fall out is far to be restricted to the split states, as it has ramifications way beyond the Peninsula. What a role do foreign influences play in the region? 

Young-II Kim: To begin with, China has been relentlessly trying to attract investments to further develop its northeast. If North Korean start opening up or reunification comes about, chances are that the reinvented North will draw the attention of potential investors, attracting firms away from the Chinese region.     

Furthermore, it is estimated that about 80% of the worlds’ reserves of magnesium lie in North Korean subsoil. As strong as it is light, this metal plays an essential part in the production of cars. Given Pyongyang’s lack of capabilities to extract it, there are a number of Chinese mining companies digging out North Korean magnesium. It could come to an end if both Koreas merge.    

The developments in the Peninsula are also closely followed by Russia. Moscow manages various ports along the North Korean east coast. In the eventual case of the Korean reunification, those assets could be gone.  

Javier Delgado Rivera: Looking at the German case, what lessons could be drawn in the event of the Peninsula reunification?

Young-II Kim: Germany taught us a great deal. For starters, one policy that should be avoided in Korea is establishing the parity of currency. In Germany, the value of the unified Deutsche mark was artificially risen in the East. Besides, the East’s minimum wage was also increased to harmonise it with that of the West’s. These economic decisions turned out to make the East unappealing for investors.

We should look at the prospect of reunification as an opportunity, not as a monolithic challenge. It will open a rapid, massive surge of investment opportunities in the pristine-like North Korean economic environment. The collapse of Pyongyang will free a huge pool of cheap labour [North Korean population is almost 25 million], far cheaper than the neighbouring Chinese. Furthermore, the North’s integration into the global order will open up thousands of kilometres of coastline and dozens of ports strategically located at the heart of bustling northeast Asia.

About the authors

Javier Delgado Rivera is a freelance journalist based in the New York, covering Asian and European politics. His writing has appeared in Eurasia Review, Global Politician, North Korean News, New Europe, Understanding China and elsewhere.


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