What’s the Endgame? A Possible Future of North Korea
Sometimes when I stop and think about it, I realize how amazing it is that I live and go about my daily business undeterred and generally unaffected by living in a country within spitting distance of a neighbor who threatens relatively frequently to turn my adopted home into a “sea of fire” and whom it is (technically) still at war with. For those back in the States and others abroad in other countries, don’t worry about this fact as it’s nothing I am worried about, it’s all just something interesting to think about.
It is thoughts such as this that make North Korea such an interesting topic to me (as well as most other expats in the country, I am sure). The main question revolves around what is going to happen in the future? While from appearance, things can seem entirely unpredictable when dealing with the DPRK, in reality there is some rhyme and reason to what occurs and unquestionably things are moving forward. While roadblocks may appear on the path and branches may diverge, my purpose here is to describe an imperfect, but hopefully realistic scenario to the future of a country that is unquestionably unsustainable in its current form (and doesn’t end in nuclear destruction, that ain’t good for anybody). As a side note, while it is a subject of great interest to me, I hardly claim to be an academic on it nor is this an academic paper. To that end, I apologize if I am cribbing on others works here. I would be happy to link other sources of information you’d be so kind as to point it out to me.
Of course I strongly believe that Kim Jong-il is going to wake up tomorrow and have an epiphany that he is greatly harming his people, propose unilateral and unconditional peace and reunification for the peninsula and quietly live out his days exiled to Mongolia, but in case I’m wrong, what else can happen? Perhaps more importantly, is this what is wanted. In my incredibly unscientific survey, meaning simply what I’ve gleaned by conversing with my own Korean friends, students and coworkers on the subject, I found many on the surface supported reunification but more deeply are either hesitant or downright opposed to it happening within their lifetime. The reason for this, I feel, is that South Koreans have become satisfied with their lifestyle, growing economic wealth (both personally and as a country) and are afraid to what extent these would be altered by a one Korea. Make no mistake about it, despite the pure blood myth encompassing both the South and North Korean people (and arguably more strongly held in the North) these are two cultures that have grown incredibly separate and distinct over the past 60 years. One can look to the difficulties faced by North Korean defectors in the South as evidence that perhaps they are not truly one people anymore and the cultural and societal hurdles between true reunification would be great. Additionally, an even greater gap exists in the economic spectrum that could, and likely would, cause a great number of issues. Some supporters of reunification point to East and West Germany as a model as after their reunion, with a good amount of help, the German economy hardly lost a step. This comparison isn’t all that comparable, however, as the two nations in regards to their economies and infrastructure were relatively close at the time.
|East Germany||West Germany|
|GNP/GDP1 ($ billion)||159.5||945.7|
|GNP/GDP per capita ($)||9,679||15,300|
|Budget revenues ($ billion)||123.5||539|
|Budget expenditures ($ billion)||123.2||563|
The above figures come from the CIA World Fact Book of 1990. Compare this to the most recent numbers available from Korea and the disparities are quickly evident. First, where as E. Germany‘s per capita GDP was around 2/3 of W. Germany just prior to reunification, DRPK’s GDP per capita is somewhere around 1/15 of its Southern counterpart. Additionally, the North’s population is around half of South Korea’s (22 million compared to 44). The result is a much higher ratio of people with a much greater income disparity. These factors exponentially increase the costs involved with uniting the countries. While estimates of these costs vary greatly, the number seemingly most often floated around to somewhat equal out the infrastructure and income disparity is $2 trillion USD or greater (that’s trillion with a T) spread out over 30 years. Ostensibly to prepare for these costs, the idea of a reunification tax is often mentioned in South Korean politics, although it seems talks are only as far as it goes and even in the best case such action is only expected to raise around $50 billion USD over the course of 10-15 years. Obviously, this would be far from enough and therefor only two possibilities would exist. First, either enormous amounts of international aid would need to come into the North to level the playing field, or a mass migration (if uncontrolled) would wreak such havoc on the Southern economy that per capita GDP would fall greatly to even the scale.
With so much to lose, it’s easy to understand why South Koreans, especially younger generations, would be hesitant to sacrifice their current lifestyle for another nation they are increasingly disconnected to. So we have arrived at a point where the North likely can’t sustain itself and perhaps the South won’t or shouldn’t take over due to the great harm to itself and now raised is the question from the title, what’s the end game? For better or for worse, in my opinion the answer lies north of the North rather than the South. That’s right, simply put it might be better for all involved if China more directly took over control of North Korean territory.
Since the beginning of North Korea, China has been (outside of perhaps SK) the biggest crutch in sustaining what is on any account a failed nation. What began with Chinese “volunteers” game changing involvement in the Korean war lead monetary and trade support, taking the place of the Soviets after the fall of the USSR. There are a variety of reasons for China’s involvement, not the least of which being the use of NK as a buffer zone between the Chinese border and the strong US military presence in the South. Very recently, we have already begun seeing China take a very direct hand in the North Korean economy outside of aid and cash. The development of the Rajin-Sonbong Economic Zone and other border areas being not only financed but perhaps directly administered by Chinese authorities. These are steps in what fellow blogger Kushibo as termed the “Manchurianization of North Korea” or forcing Chinese-style economic reforms in return for continued support.
In my view, such economic reforms could slowly be transitioned into a more direct Chinese authority of North Korea. This would occur in the form of a North Korean Autonomous Region being created. China has proven at least somewhat successful in keeping these regions under control and increasing development while still allowing greater leeway and legislative control for their culturally distinct population groups. In fact, the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture already exists along the North Korean border and is home to nearly half of the some 2 million ethnic Koreans within China. The reasons for why an expansion of this prefecture into a full-fledged autonomous region would prove smoother than integration into South Korea is a mirror image of the roadblocks described above. While finding hard evidence of it has proved difficult (please feel free to share anything you may know about the subject), I would assume culturally, North Koreans and ethnic Koreans within China have developed among a more similar path than those in the South. Additionally, and more importantly, the economic and population issues described above would be greatly mitigated, if not diluted entirely, through Chinese integration. Within the whole of mainland China, the per capita GDP only around five times greater than the DPRK. When this is split up by province, the difference becomes even smaller as can be seen on the map.
Also, the population of North Korea is less than 2% of the PRC’s 1.3 billion (and counting) residents making widespread economic impact unlikely if not impossible. Finally, given that China is already and established nuclear power, they are in a much better position to control or dispose of whatever weapons North Korea may have developed.
I fully realize that this solution, as explained, is far too simple. I would leave it up to others more intelligent, diplomatic and connected to the situation than myself to structure the integration in such a way to leave all the parties involved at least in agreement, if not wholly satisfied. I also accept that it would be almost impossible for this solution to win in the court of public opinion of South Korea, but over time I feel the economic advantages would win out in the end. With agreements of economic cooperation with China over the region, South Korea could be provided with raw materials and the cheap manufacturing labor force it desires without the need to develop them to South Korean income levels and standards of living (it’s a harsh truth of business, but still better off than the majority of North Koreans currently have). Additionally, with tensions reduced from the current North-South dynamic to the more understated tension between China and Korea (along with all Asian countries really) the need for American military presence would be reduced and therefor a scale down would be likely (an important carrot for China). This action could be combined with the formation of some sort of Asian NATO could help stabilize the region, but that’s a whole different blog topic.
As said at the beginning, I know this solution is far from perfect and incredibly unlikely, but in my mostly uneducated opinion it is one that can do the most good with the least harm. More than an actual plan, this post has been a mental exercise for me and one that, hopefully, can generate a good deal of discussion. To that end, feel free to call me an idiot (but please elaborate as to why), give comments, critiques, additions and omissions to keep the topic going.