History Just Hit the Fast Forward Button: What is Next for Korea?

Is A Major Turning Point At Hand? Maybe.
Yesterday, it was reported that Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il passed away this past Saturday. The world, stunned, began to speculate, as the South Korean president convened the National Security Council, put troops on alert, and then waited. The immediate question is whether or not the transition to the 20-something Kim Jong-Un is up to the task. Let’s throw our hat into the ring, full of arm-chair prognosticators. We can put this post in the time capsule, shake it, store it, and open it up in a few years. The scenarios listed are going to be in reverse order (most likely scenario first).

North Korea Becomes More Like China
Militarily indignant, economically backwards and in desperate need of help, North Korea resembles China of 30 years ago. The difference of course is that the North Korean population is in dire need of food, and Mother Nature has not been kind to North Korea. Add that to the obvious siphoning of slim food resources to the military, and you have nationwide famine. Jong-Un’s first task? Secure food supplies from the international community, and opening the crack for economic cooperation with the developed (including China) world.

This article from Reuters, surprisingly, is quite rational. The passing of the Dear Leader may be the catalyst to this scenario. Perhaps this is wishful thinking. It is more likely that North Korea gradually accepts certain aspects of capitalism, without giving up its governmental structure, nor its continued commitment to the military complex. Perhaps the continued commitment is to maintain internal political peace. For now, that will have to suffice.

North Korea Rogue Attack on South Korea
This is the scenario that no South Korean wants. Seoul is less than an hour’s drive from the DMZ. We have no idea whether or not North Korea has the ability to deliver theatre nuclear weapons. There are various political scientists in the world that have theorized that a theatre nuclear war is possible, and others that suggest that it is impossible. Let’s not find out.

It is difficult to envision a government-sponsored war with South Korea. This blog has stated this many months ago here. China and the US will not allow this to occur. With the world economy already on edge, and China with longer-term goals in mind, it is highly unlikely that China allows North Korea to launch an attack on South Korea. US-China relations are, and will continue to be, tenuous. The two largest economies in the world are going to let 50 million people destroy each country’s individual goals? Highly, highly unlikely. Maybe that offends Koreans, fiercely defending its right of self-determination. Meh. Check your self-determination indigence at the door, and choose survival instead.

That all said, it is possible that a rogue faction within North Korea does not accept the younger Kim’s reign, and takes matters into its own hands. While still highly improbable, this cannot be eliminated. This possibility existed when Kim Jong-Il was in power, so it certainly continues to exist, although highly improbable. It is the death of Kim Jong-Il, and the heightened probability of this scenario, that sent the KOSPI, and regional stock markets plunging yesterday.

Peaceful Reunification
Well, now may be as good a time as any. South Korea now enjoys unprecedented power on the world economic stage. It requires raw materials and cheaper labor. In one fell swoop, reunification would fill both requirements. North Korea is well-known to be rich in minerals. China has been engaged in land-stripping for years in exchange for food. Many final products can no longer be made in South Korea due to high labor costs.

The aging Korean population may be the last group of people that would like to see this outcome. Many have their extended families in North Korea. Let’s leave out the obvious claims to land, property, etc that were taken by the Communists during that period. However, peaceful reunification would be, in many elder Koreans’ view, the unattainable dream. In other countries around the world, this has occurred. The division that remains continues to be political and not because of more pertinent reasons; the elder Koreans may be the last generation that believe this.

Objectors to this scenario usually point to the economic stress on the Korean peninsula. There is no doubt that this would occur. North Korea is nowhere near as developed as East Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. However, with foreign exchange reserves at a virtual all-time high, reunification could relieve the Korean peninsula of the almost imperceptible fear that exists in everyday Korean life.

The problem with this is the transition period. Has anyone seen a viable proposal for this? If the answer is yes, please email me, so that you can provide a guest post on this blog.

North Korea has a unique opportunity due to the sudden death of Kim Jong-Il. There are many shades of grey when considering the scenarios listed above, and perhaps many totally unrelated scenarios. We will see, but a gradual transition to a citizen of the global community may be the best that Korea (both North and South) can hope for.