One Country, Two Systems
On July 1, 1997, the British territory of Hong Kong was officially handed over to China, marking the unification of two systems with vastly different laws and social traditions. China’s plan for the smooth transition of such a challenging unification was to provide Hong Kong with a continuing level of autonomy under what it calls the ‘one country, two systems’ idea. This serves as a relevant example to refer to when considering the possibility of a similar two-system government after the unification of the two Koreas. A likely scenario may entail South Korean control of North Korean territory, much like China’s control over Hong Kong – through the establishment of a ‘special administrative region (SAR)’ in the North.
If the peninsula is technically one country though, how much say would the North have in electing the President? A number of different options exist. First, the central government could withhold the right of the people of the SAR to participate in presidential elections altogether. Another option is to limit the impact of the people’s vote in the SAR through an indirect process, allowing only the North’s assembly or legislature to participate in the vote. The idea is that too many political complications could arise if direct voting were permitted.
This raises the question of how to integrate the North’s assembly into the country’s National Assembly, or whether to integrate the two at all. If both North and South receive equal representation within the National Assembly, the system starts to become indistinguishable from a federal government. Hong Kong again sets a practical example, receiving only a small share of seats in China’s National People’s Congress. This appears the most likely scenario for Korea, where the North would be allocated only a small number of seats in the National Assembly, elected by the territory’s assembly. This election process could involve direct voting by some members of the North’s assembly along with some kind of indirect nomination process. The governor of the territory could even directly nominate the members involved.
There are also various options for selecting the governor of the Northern SAR, including: direct selection by Korea’s President, selection by the National Assembly, selection by the North’s assembly, and direct election by the citizens of the SAR. But considering the circumstances that would determine the need for a SAR in the first place, direct election by the citizens of the North seems an unlikely scenario. It appears more likely that the President of Korea would personally select the SAR’s governor, or, exercising their influence in the North’s assembly, allow for its members to select the governor. The SAR’s assembly itself would also likely be elected through a variety of processes. Some could be directly elected by the people, some by various organizations or industry representatives, some by the governor, and some by Korea’s president.
But while the purpose of establishing a SAR in the first place is to alleviate political issues that would naturally arise with the loss of the current regime, there would still be a significant amount of political compromise to achieve. For the sake of a smooth transition, it would be unwise to impose heavy, long-term political restrictions on the people of the SAR.
The political situation of the “imposing” nation is also very important. While in the case of Hong Kong a British-administered colony joined a less-democratic Chinese system, in the case of the Korean peninsula, the North would likely be absorbed by the democratic South. This makes political restrictions on the citizens of the North a tricky proposition, where people across both North and South as well as the international community would likely object to any such attempts. In addition to public outcry, both long and short-term political restrictions would run into constitutional obstacles as well. It would be difficult under current South Korean law to allow such limits on the rights of people who are technically citizens, calling into question the feasibility of such a proposal.
Other, more far-reaching consequences may deter the limiting of political rights as well. Anti-government activism that has been suppressed in the North for decades may be rekindled through political suppression by the new Korean government. Even if problems do not initially arise, public sentiment against government policy may grow over time. A return to less-democratic rule could severely damage the global image that South Korea has so carefully built up over recent decades.
But we cannot completely rule out the “one country, two systems” approach, especially considering the possibility that the international community may react with understanding, and that opposition and dissent across the Korean peninsula may not pose an immediate threat. Alleviating the North of its current political issues and debt through the initial act of unification is likely to represent a significant improvement in quality of life for North Korea’s citizens, even though they may not enjoy the full liberties available to their Southern counterparts.
While it remains unclear how the international community will react, there would likely be some opposition to the South imposing political restrictions on the North’s citizens. The nuanced reasoning for such limits may be easier for diplomats and academics to grasp, but ordinary people may only see such moves as oppressive. The new system could be compared to Park Chung Hee’s Yushin Constitution or Lee Kuan Yew’s rule of Singapore, and many would question the righteousness of the free South imposing political restrictions on the long-oppressed North.
Theoretically, if the new governing authorities could expect a transition free from societal and economic upheaval, then there should be nothing stopping the immediate expansion of the rights of North Koreans. But this is not a very likely scenario. The North is expected to see higher crime rates following the end of the Kim regime, putting an unprecedented strain on the emerging justice system. Immediately granting the North’s citizens the same level of rights as the South may be a recipe for chaos and confusion. A more balanced approach would involve a gradual process granting rights as the situation permits.