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The third group of problems can be termed sociopolitical. It affects those categories of people in North Korea that would fit poorly into the new world order. These are not the few members of the nomenklatura who would scatter or be cast from their positions. They are virtually the entire “middle class”: the military, the engineers, the doctors, the teachers, etc. This is the class that would suffer the most from a regime change because they could not compete with the analogous social class in the South, and no one would give them the opportunity to do so.
If unification happens, all of these people would drop by the wayside. The officials would fall because they served the old regime and the new regime would install their own personnel. Agencies formed as early as the 1950s to govern the “northern provinces” still exist, and they include officials down to the university president level. The soldiers would be out of luck because no one would need the world’s fourth-largest army (because they are unfamiliar with modern military equipment). The engineers and doctors would be unneeded because the technologies they work with are at least 30 years old, and they lack computer literacy and knowledge of English (I might add that this primarily applies to older people who would be difficult to retrain because of their age). Virtually all of the wealthy (the new Korean businessmen) would also lose out — these are either people from the current political elite or people with ties to it, and if unification with South Korea takes place, their businesses would fail.
There would be problems even if regime change is NOT accompanied by a witch hunt or score-settling. Although the financial position of the Northerners is improving, a) it has not reached the point where opportunities match desires (these are they who “wanted change” but would expect to keep all of their previous advantages under the new system and, when their expectations are not met, would start fighting for them); and b) the Northerners would become second-class people or would move to the bottom rung of the social ladder. South Korea falls far short of the West German standard in terms of the level of democracy it has achieved (common freedoms, the role and function of trade unions, etc.). Indeed, ideas about adequate protection for the masses in the West were an important factor in deciding the East Germans to unify.
Cold War clichés would also complicate the task. Whereas, as was the case with Germany, the idea is to unify on the ideological and economic base of one side, inertia in propaganda could develop into a full-blown victor vs. loser syndrome with everything that implies for the society of what would now be a single country. However, the two Germanies had never fought a fratricidal war that remains fresh in the minds of the older generation in both the North and the South, both of which unconsciously look upon the other side as the enemy. The North Koreans who were involved in the war would be absolutely justified from their point of view in fiercely resisting attempts by the South to impose its way of life on them and, especially, claim that they were the aggressors.
Correcting for the difference in mentalities would implant a structural minefield of unprecedented power in the society of a unified Korea, especially since North Korean propaganda is still going full blast. Even if the majority of North Koreans change their views, quite a few “true believers” would remain. This minority could perceive the situation as a betrayal and as an occupation, especially if instead of working for reconciliation and forgetting about the past the new government begins a witch hunt based on the National Security Act, which is very clear about what needs to be done with members of the anti-state organization that illegally seized and held the five northern provinces (something that could very well happen if the conservatives are in power).
As a result, we could end up with Juche terrorists and everything that implies, considering that in recent years the Korean Peoples Army has been preparing for just such a guerrilla war. In addition, that class of people includes experts who are theoretically capable of “building a bomb to order.” They will be kept busy so long as North Korea exists, and a wide range of moral and material motivations is keeping them from working for somebody else. But if North Korea ceases to exist, they will lose their privileged status. And it would make sense for them either to leave the country and seek a backer or to participate in terrorist activities at home.
Most, of course, would become criminals rather than terrorists. They might form criminal groups throughout the region and use their experience and military and psychological training to become serious competitors to the Triad, the Yakuza or the Russian Mafia. As one of my fellow Russians has said, “If they came here, they would kick the Caucasian mob out of the Russian Far East and maybe out of Siberia, as well.”
The combination of increased social tensions and the emergence of criminals and a real terrorist threat would naturally result in a crackdown. The country would become more of a police state. And considering that people in South Korea can get a suspended sentence for downloading North Korean music, identification is required for registering on the Internet and — unless I am wrong — adultery is considered a criminal offense, things could quickly go back to the way they were in the 1990s, with torture by the police, persecution of civil activists, dispersal of student and labor union demonstrations, etc.
The last group of problems concerns foreign policy — both the actions that would be taken to solve internal political problems and the unified country’s independence from foreign influence.
The first group of foreign policy problems derives from the fact that the American troops from the “expanded South Korea” would not leave. Moreover, if unification were to result from a military conflict involving the United States, they would expand their military presence into the North to the Russian and Chinese borders and significantly increase their military presence, which even today is mainly directed against Russia and China. That would significantly strengthen America’s positions in the region. It is no coincidence that the Korean Peninsula is called a bridge to China, and this change clearly would have an impact on geopolitics in the region. The interests of both China and Russia would suffer greatly.
They could be dependent on those who backed unification, and Russia would not be among them.
The second set of foreign policy problems concerns how “Big Seoul” would attack the domestic problems discussed earlier. It would be very tempting to seek a foreign enemy and play the nationalist card, especially since nationalism is the only thing northerners and southerners have in common. We should therefore expect to see an increase in “small-country chauvinism,” which the nationalists would try and use to compensate for the difference between where the country would want to be on the international stage and where it would actually find itself.
Even today, those who talk about Korea’s territorial claims against its neighbors receive a certain amount of approval and, going forward, there are statements to the effect that Manchuria and Primorye are Korean lands. Even though from the standpoint of logic and international law they resemble a demand to “give Alaska back to Russia,” they are considered far less marginal in Korea.
That is why I think it highly likely that a unified Korea would engage in a certain kind of behavior and make territorial claims against its neighbors. Modern Russia might be a more tempting target than China. Recall the myths about the age-old Russian threat to Korea and the blame placed on the Soviet Union (and its successor — Russia) for the partitioning of the country, the creation of the DPRK and the Korean War, and territorial claims would begin: The ancient Korean state of Koguryo and the notional Korean state of Bohai included the Russian Primorye 1000 years before Russians got there — so give it back; it’s ours!
Note that all of these problems would result from the most favorable scenario, one in which, if a war did take place, it would be over quickly and would be relatively painless. And if that were not the case, I would just remind you that an unfavorable wind pattern would carry a radioactive cloud from destroyed North Korean nuclear facilities to Vladivostok in approximately two hours. You can draw your own conclusions about everything else, including the foreign policy consequences for Russia.
To sum up, Korea could unify in a number of different ways, and the consequences could also be varied. It is no accident that Seoul’s position on the issue from the late 1990s until Lee Myung-bak was as follows: “Peace (and “peace” was understood to mean the status quo) is more important than unification,” which will certainly happen, just not right now. They even cited Germany as an example in a different context, recalling that two countries with a common language and very similar cultures, Germany and Austria, exist side by side.
A unified Korea would have much bigger problems than those who view it as a happy ending believe it would. As a teacher at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (in the United States) said, if unification were to happen now, Unified Korea could become a state on a par with China or Japan within 50 years, but to get there it would have to get through the first 5-10 years, and that would be extremely costly.
And, most importantly, the new country would differ greatly from the Republic of Korea that we know, and its problems (including those affecting Russia) might be at least as serious as the ones we currently have with North Korea. But it would prove much more difficult to solve them.
So might we not be better off sticking with the status quo?
Konstantin Asmolov, Cand. Sc. (History), is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies. This article was written expressly for New Eastern Outlook.