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No Reunification for Korea

20 December 2011, 09:10

The death of Kim Jong Il on Saturday may rouse hopes for a future unification on the peninsula. I’d like to say that, reporting from South Korea, those hopes are in vain for several reasons. Firstly, North Korea’s strategic position aids both the US and China in their attempts to maintain and increase their spheres of influence respectively. Next, South Koreans do not want to have to deal with the strain reunification will put on their economy and society. In this regard, some people have tried to draw parallels with the German experience, but this also fails. Finally, internal factors in North Korea favor the status quo being maintained at all costs.

Here in South Korea, I have read many opinion pieces that claim that the world is ‘scared’ of a unified Korea, as it would make a larger country that is in possession of both economic clout and nuclear weapons. Some on the South Korean far right suggest that Japan, Russia and China conspire to keep the country separated out of pure fear. I think that there is a more prosaic reason for maintaining the status quo. Since the end of World War 2, the United States has maintained a military presence in Japan and South Korea, and it has a defense pact with Taiwan in order to ‘box in’ the former Soviet Bloc of Russia and China. This has not only proved profitable for the military establishment, but also serves as a powerful disincentive for China to embark on any aggressive courses of action in its recent expansionist policies. The Americans need North Korea to remain belligerent in order to justify their presence in South Korea and Japan.

China would love to see the Americans out of Asia, and the Japanese and both Koreas tire of them running the show in the Pacific, but China fears that a Korea unified under the direction of the South will favor the US, even if the military bases are removed. They also fear the exodus of the North Korean elite, who would surely be driven from the country by angry peasants or vengeful South Koreans, across their Eastern border. China also has resource pacts with Pyongyang, some ninety nine year leases for mining and lumber that have been offered at a fraction of their worth for China’s continued political patronage and protection. The Seoul government has said that it would cancel all such agreements should reunification occur. Therefore, although some in China are not opposed to reunification, the Chinese government does not wish to gamble with the results of a unified Korea.

Talking to my friends in Korea, it is apparent that they do not want a unified nation as much as their parents and grandparents do. South Korea has embraced free markets and prospered, going from one of the poorest nations on earth in 1961, to the thirteenth biggest economy today. This year it surpassed Great Britain in exports, and quality of life is relatively good. North Korea has plummeted since 1990, with up to three million dead due to food shortages, chronic malnourishment for a vast majority of North Korea and, of course, a cult personality that have all combined to rob the citizenry of almost all initiative. The North Korean refugees that do make it over here are treated like dirt. Their accent is mocked and they are discriminated against in the workplace. Whilst the South Korean language has been allowed to adapt and incorporate foreign words and a technologically proficient vocabulary based on them, North Koreans have steadfastly held on as much as possible to a traditional way of speaking.  They are different people. When the current generation passes on, there will be very few, if any, familial ties.  Young South Koreans do not want reunification.

As I mentioned, the German example does not apply well to Korea.  East Germany never threatened to turn Berlin into a ‘lake of fire’. East Germany did not launch an unprovoked attack on West Germany, or have a bitter war that lasted three years. East Germany did not bomb West German airplanes or attempt to assassinate West German premiers. When East and West Germany unified, the leaders of the East knew the jig was up and gave in to demands for democratic reforms from their people. Furthermore, East Germany was the most prosperous of the Eastern Bloc countries; South Korea and North Korea couldn’t be more different. The division of Germany was forced by foreign powers, whilst the Koreas split up according to very different ideologies that each faction chose to follow in a most extreme manner. In this regard, it is more like the Indian/Pakistani divide given the almost religious devotion that both countries choose to follow either free market capitalism or state planned socialism with.

Lastly, internal forces in Korea are difficult to gauge. There is no doubt that Kim Il Sung was a hero to the Koreans in their fight for freedom from the Japanese. Even South Korea has, grudgingly, acknowledged his role in the resistance, despite the fact that he instigated the Korean War. At the time, Kim Il Sung enjoyed support in South Korea who welcomed the opportunity to reunify under his leadership. One of the great shames of South Korea is how they very effectively murdered or suppressed this support in the period leading up to the war, and executed many as traitors during the war. The United States and Japan basically placed the Japanese collaborators in the Seoul government, which is why North Korea often refers to the Seoul government as the ‘traitorous clique’ in its propaganda.

The point is that Kim Il Sung’s personality cult is easily understandable; he is still the ‘Eternal Leader’ of North Korea. Even though he is dead, his body rests in a mausoleum where visitors are told that he is ‘just sleeping’. Comparing the videos of weeping North Koreans that came out on Youtube today to the ones that came out after Kim Il Sung’s death, it is striking how different they are. Kim Jong Il and his son do not enjoy nearly the level of support that he did. Kim Jong Il was also sick for a very long time before his death. It has been speculated that either his sister and brother in law, or the military have really been handling his affairs for quite some time. These are people well invested in the status quo. Kim Jong Il himself admitted to a Chinese ambassador that he had had a nightmare of the fall of his regime and being stoned by his own people. For the surviving members of his family, it is clear that maintaining the current order is a matter of life or death. Should they lose their guards and palaces and be driven into exile, there will be no rest or safety for them. No, reunification will not come from the Kims or their allies in the Workers’ Party or military establishment.

There are way too many factors that would indicate that continued separation of the two Koreas will continue into the foreseeable future. Barring a complete revolt by the Party, the Military or the general North Korean population with the clear goal of reunification via negotiated settlement, the death of Kim Jong Il will do little to defuse the powder keg that is the current East Asian situation. I do hope, however, that Kim Jong Un will be able to abandon his father’s disastrous brinksmanship diplomacy and bring those elements in the military so intent on stoking tension on the peninsula to heel.  


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