There are few words that get as much use in the South Korean media as ‘unification’. Perhaps because of this, we often hear both the progressive and conservative camps talking about unification on a regular basis, too. When you look at the discourse on unification though, there is very rarely any substance as to how unification should be achieved; simply, it should (or occasionally should not). It is not so easy to find a realistic explanation of how unification can be brought about.
Nevertheless, the majority of South Koreans do believe that unification can be achieved in a progressive manner, through talks and the development of inter-Korean relations. In other words, the hope is that sooner or later the elites of both sides will get together to discuss, and hopefully arrive at, an acceptable compromise which may put the Korean peninsula on a gradual and phased path towards unification.
The main reason for this, at least in my view, is that fears on the South Korean side regarding the astronomical cost of absorptive unification make it hard to imagine South Korea ever swallowing the North whole. Additionally, for modern societies which tend to be more instinctively driven to avoid violence and conflict, the merits of unification based on compromise and carried out gradually has to be attractive.
It is worth mentioning here that sections of left-wing South Korean politics still harbor misconceptions about the virtues of North Korean Stalinism, too, and have a tendency to think that phased unification would actually be a good way to construct a better society drawing on the better elements of each.
Given the aforementioned, it is impossible not to accept the desire for gradual, phased unification as a natural alternative. It is clear that it is an easier and less burdensome scenario than absorptive unification, or even permanent division for that matter. Regrettably though, there is one important weakness of this scenario, which is that it is impossible. In other words, it is impossible for the elite of both Koreas to get together and nut out a grand bargain which can bring about this phased unification.
It is not hard to see why, if you take a minute to look at the makeup of North Korean society and politics. In the northern half of the peninsula, the political elite maintain the domestic peace, as well as their own personal privilege and authority, by isolating the people from the outside world and minutely scrutinizing their every movement. Gradual unification would eat away at these immutable conditions of North Korea’s system of control (national isolation and a population under constant surveillance) from the very first step.
Were the Korean peninsula to start down a path of unification, economic exchanges and movement between the two Koreas would become common, and this would afford the North Korean people an opportunity to see South Korean society with their own eyes. Of course, the number of North Korean people who believe that South Korea is a poor country full of homeless beggars has already dwindled significantly thanks to the Korean Wave phenomenon making its way slowly but inevitably into the country; however, seeing how people live and behave in the South all the time would have the potential to force an about-face in the way North Koreans perceive their southern neighbors.
Seeing the lifestyle of South Koreans would be a motivator for the people of North Korea. It might surprise those of us on the outside to see how willing they would be to pressure their government for expedited unification so that they too can start working towards the same standard of living.
In the eyes of most North Koreans, South Korea is something of a paradise on Earth. In South Korea, people are well aware of the shortcomings and problems of the society they live in, and may find it difficult to understand why people in North Korea would think this way.
It also goes without saying that with gradual unification would come South Korean investment and aid, which would help bring about unprecedented levels of economic growth. In almost any other country the potential for such rapid growth would receive universal backing from the people; however it is hard to make the rulers of North Korea embrace such change when increased exchanges with South Korea would be the dreaded corollary to it.
At some point, the North Korean people are going to see South Korea as the absolute benchmark for its standard of living, given that it is a country inhabited by fellow Koreans and which it may eventually unify with under one flag. If North Korea does not begin to see the same standard of living as is enjoyed in the South, people will quickly begin to regard themselves as poor. Accordingly, if the regime cannot deliver progress which promises a quick upswing to such standards of living, it may take just as little time for that public displeasure to turn its attention on the regime itself.
(To be continued...)