Looking Ahead to the Final Chapter of the North Korea Story

Summary:   Every game has an ending.  The complex, insane brinksmanship of North Korea might have entered its last chapter (although that’s been predicted often since the fall of the Berlin Wall).  Probably not a pretty picture, whenever it happens.  Nor will be the early chapters of what follows.  Among the effects, consider the cost to South Korea.  Probably far higher than that of German unification, perhaps to horrific levels.  Some experts have looked ahead; this excerpt gives a good summary of their findings.

Bitter Taste of Paradise: North Korean Refugees in South Korea“, Andrei Lankov, Journal of East Asian Studies, Jan-April  2006 (pp 53-72)  – Excerpt:

The 1990s was the time when the “unification policy” was radically reevaluated in South Korea. Until the early 1990s, the Seoul administrations and mainstream society in general universally assumed that the ideal eventual outcome would be complete absorption of the communist North by the capitalist South. Thus, the disintegration of the Communist bloc in the late 1980s was widely welcomed, as it seemingly made such a scenario even more likely. However, the anticipated collapse of North Korea did not eventuate. It was East Germany that collapsed instead, pretty much in a manner that for decades had been a dream of Seoul policymakers. This made lessons of Germany’s “unification by absorption” extremely important (and extremely disappointing) for the Koreans.

It is widely believed that the current situation in Korea is much less conducive to a successful postunification development than was the case in Germany. The per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in East Germany was only one-third of that of the capitalist West, and some 80% of all Germans lived in the capitalist part of the country. In Korea, per capita GDP in the North is one-tenth–or even less–of what it is in the South, and South Korea accounts for only 65% of the entire population on the peninsula. Apart from economic issues, there are also social and political problems–so painful indeed that few people even dare to raise them.

There are various estimates of how much the unification will cost, with Marcus Noland stating that “the amount of capital investment needed in the North might be in the order of $600 billion.” This seems to be the smallest available estimate, however. Hwang Eui-gak, in early 2005, published a new edition of his seminal work on the North Korean economy and estimated the likely “unification cost” at a higher level: $1,200 billion.

The German experiences did not remain unnoticed among South Korean specialists, and news from Germany has attracted much attention in Seoul over the last fifteen years. Two “unification studies” specialists, Kim Kyu-wan and (Berlin-based) Park Seong-jo, succinctly captured this new mood when they devised a name for their recent book on the possible significance of the German experience for Korea. The main message of the book, titled North and South: Dead if United, did not cause any protest among its numerous reviewers: its authors said what is accepted as increasingly obvious.

Other articles about the decline of North Korea — and what follows after

For more references see the reading list at the Korean Unification Studies website.


Originally published at Fabius Maximus and reproduced here with the author’s permission.