Korean Unification Comes Up Again in the South Korean Presidential Campaign: South Korea’s presidential election is shaping up to be a sharp right-left choice, especially on foreign policy. The conservative candidate made waves by suggesting South Korea might need to preemptively strike North Korea. The leftist candidate conversely suggested that the Koreas should ‘de facto’ unify. The left-right/dove-hawk split in South Korea over North Korea is quite deep.
Preemptively striking North Korea – barring iron-clad proof that Pyongyang is about to attack – is a terrible idea. We do not know what Pyongyang’s red lines are. In 2017, even hawks opposed former US President Donald Trump’s talk of ‘fire and fury’ and a ‘bloody nose’ strike on the North, because it was easy to see that spinning out of control into unconstrained escalation. But the unification of Korea is a far more interesting policy idea.
Unification Requires the Two Koreas to be More Similar
The most obvious reason the two Koreas remain divided is their hugely different regime types. South Korea is a (mostly) consolidated liberal democracy, allied to another liberal democracy (the US), plus partnerships with many others. North Korea, of course, is the polar opposite – Orwellian, tyranny, cult-ish, brutal. And it too is allied to an analogous dictatorship, China.
That the two are so politically far apart routinely undercuts cooperation and interchange between them. The contrast with Germany is instructive. Like Korea, Germany too was divided by the Cold War, but East Germany never drifted into the genuinely frightening, 1984-style political netherworld North Korea has come to occupy. This made some interchange between the Germanies at least possible. East Germany was never so extreme that it was almost unrecognizable to the world. North Korea, by contrast, has created what is arguably the worst, most bizarre totalitarian cult-state in history. Interchange with it is routinely undermined by its paranoia, extreme politics, endemic corruption and criminality, and so on.
It is bizarre then when South Korean politicians – usually on the left – call for rapid steps to unification. Unification between the two Koreas in their current state would be either a farce – an ultra-thin covering federation with no effective integration which would resolve none of the actual differences between the two – or would so erode South Korea’s liberal democracy that it would likely violate the South Korean constitution, not to mention provoking a massive backlash from South Korean conservatives.
What Unification Might Actually Look Like
So the Koreas must become more similar to unify. This is how the Germanies unified. Specifically, East Germany became more like West Germany. The Berlin Wall opened in 1989. In the following year, East Germany liberalized enough that it had genuinely free elections. Those elections returned results in favor of both the liberalizing changes of 1990 and of unification. Communism and national division, when put to a vote, failed. East German choose liberalism and unity, making East and West Germany similar enough that unification could occur with violence. And that is what came to pass.
Realistically, peaceful unification in Korea requires something similar. The two must become more similar, and that is harder in Korea because the regime gap is so much greater because North Korea is so much more extreme than East Germany was. Formally, of course, South Korea could become more like North Korea, but that is hugely unlikely. South Korean voters are broadly supportive of their liberal democracy.
In practice then, genuine unification means North Korea becoming more like South Korea, which means its liberalization or at least moderation. The first step of that would be the deposition of the ruling Kim family and North Korea’s ‘graduation’ from an extreme totalitarian tyranny to a more moderate authoritarian dictatorship. This is a crucial point: an authoritarian North Korea, probably run by generals like in Myanmar, would be a major moral and political improvement despite being a dictatorship or a junta. The world has lots of awful dictatorships; they are nonetheless morally preferable to North Korea’s extremism.
No Idea How to Get There
Of course, no one knows actually knows how ‘improve’ North Korea from a totalitarianism to an authoritarian. Kim Jong Un’s rule in North Korea seems assured and fairly stable. He recently celebrated the ten-year anniversary of his ascension, and almost all the external commentary agreed that his reign is both stable and of the same totalitarian character as his father and grandfather. Any regime challenge would have to come from disgruntled insiders, and Kim has carefully bought off or liquidated any such opposition.
So when South Korean politicians talk of unity with such a country, it is either politically empty rhetoric – playing to nationalist sympathies to rally voters – or wildly impractical. Even a light covering federation of the two would generate enormous practical difficulties – what about the UN sanctions on North Korea?; how would the Korea’s vastly divergent political systems interact?
In practice, such a federation would likely degenerate into South Korea subsidizing North Korea’s dysfunctional economy while little else changed. In effect that would mean South Korean taxpayers subsidizing North Korea, an absurd outcome no one in the South would support. Unification – barring war or North Korean collapse – is still far away.
Dr. Robert E. Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly; website) is a professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University. Dr. Kelly is now a 1945 Contributing Editor as well.