13.07.2016 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

How is South Korea Working towards Unification?

35345345345Owing to his professional activities, the author often reads various reports written by South Korean representatives dedicated to the topic of “how we could rebuild North Korea after the acquisition.” Most of them leave very curious impressions in terms of their analysis methods: in examining in detail the procedure for the cleansing of the ranks of power, or methods of exploitation of the natural resources of the North, their authors are putting the cart before the horse, all the while omitting the most important question – how and under which circumstances, in fact, will North Korea disappear from the world map?

It looks like the South Korean diplomats do not currently have, and have never had, a real program or well-thought-out plan of action. Even at the start of Park Geun-hye’s term in office, the process of restoring trust assumed a strange three-part scheme:

​ The development of correspondence and cooperation that enhance mutual trust. Here, it is more or less clear what to do and how to do it, and this step was thus outlined fairly well.

​ The “systematization of trust”, and from here on, empty words without concrete ideas began to flow.

​ Suddenly, the union ALREADY exists! Yet, it was not disclosed at all how the transition from the second to the third is going to be implemented.

However, even this process in the modern-day situation is replaced by the idea that North Korea must first denuclearize, open itself up to the outside world, disarm, and only then can some form of dialogue be had. In other words, the emphasis is on the tough option, but even here, there has not been any attempt to build normal conditions for civil dialogue. At best, it is expected that, under the influence of economic sanctions, there will be riots and civil unrest as well as revolution, after which people, eager for democracy, shall come to be reunited with South Korea as the legitimate governing authority. Another embodiment of hope is the expectation that North Korea’s nuclear missile program will end up in a bad way, and then the international community will help the South to get rid of it once and for all.

In such a situation, the author would like to indulge in some fanciful thinking about what strategy the South Korean leader would like to adhere to, if he or she really wanted to absorb North Korea in the short or medium term, while at the same time avoiding exacerbating regional tensions.

Let’s imagine then that the South Korean president is a politician who wishes prosperity to his or her people and is against the scourge of war. He or she does not have propaganda blinkers, and so is able to accurately look at the real situation in North Korea. That is, he or she knows and understands that there is no “Christian resistance” or mass dissidence in that country, and the local “wealthy” look askance towards the South.

This means that the option of seizing North Korea by military force or inspiring a color revolution is not under consideration: War carries too many risks, and victory will not outweigh the costs. Especially when it comes to attacking Seoul or sabotaging one of the many nuclear power plants.  Do not forget that the South Korean Armed Forces can not start large-scale military action without the permission of their American colleagues, and currently, the Pentagon considers a full-scale Korean Conflict as too risky.

It is impossible to bring about the collapse of the regime in any other way: there isn’t the political and economic situation necessary for a Maidan-style revolution: there are no preconditions. Extending sanctions to the maximum will also not work:  pragmatists will not want Pyongyang to be shoved up against the wall, and even in the case of an oil embargo, over time, there will be a program similar to the “oil-for-food” program. It is no coincidence, that even supporting the sanctions, the Chinese have kept the trade sector that is beneficial to them – zinc and other non-ferrous metals.

And even if you manage to rock the boat, a “ruined” country with a strong hotbed of resistance is not a place that can be seamlessly integrated without cuts made to the welfare of South Korean citizens.

There is only one way: to achieve a situation in which the North Korean elite itself initiates a set of actions as a result of which they will approach Seoul “bowing with reverence”. Create a situation where there is a large and widespread stratus of businessmen and decision-makers in the North who would be more comfortable in a united Korea than in the current conditions in the North.

How can such conditions be created? The author sees some clear steps that can be taken right now.

First, it is necessary to dissolve the Committee for the Five Northern Korean Provinces. This institution has long since become a sinecure. In particular, its officials hardly participate in the wide range of projects and symposia devoted to the future of the unified Korea. However, this “anachronism” pretty strongly suggests to North Korean citizens that, in the case of unification, all the seats shall be occupied, because they are ALREADY occupied. In theory, as soon as the acquisition of North Korea occurs, management representatives will immediately move to the north and occupy all the VIP seats. Accordingly, what is the point of pro-South Korean businessmen or officials trying to achieve something, if they will not have access to high posts anyway?

Yes, once, this organization had a strong demonstrative value. The same as the North Korean constitution, which proclaimed its capital as Seoul, located in the “temporarily occupied territory.” But even northerners refused this placement of the capital in 1972. Maybe it’s time for southerners to abandon the practice of assigning the Mayor of Pyongyang or governor of the Hamgyong Province.

Second, it is worth thinking about abolishing the National Security Law, which at its core states that North Korea is actually non existent. I will explain this for the readers: According to the South Korean paradigm, North Korea does not exist as a state but is an “anti-state organization”, “criminal gang”, which captured the five northern provinces (“… to which we continue to appoint officials, even if they themselves are based in Seoul”), and sooner or later will be punished in its entirety.

I would like to remind you that this is why the summit was held in Pyongyang and not in Seoul. If North Korean Kim is discovered on South Korean territory, he is to be immediately arrested and tried. And those who organize such visits must also be condemned as accomplices of the anti-state organization.

Under current law, all those who could become part of the Pro-South Korean Lobby and take up some positions in state institutions, would themselves be subject to the process of cleansing the ranks of power. Why should they seek union with a country that will immediately arrest them as state criminals, or just throw them out onto the street? Those who will lead North Korea under the rule of the South must obtain certain social guarantees that will ensure that what happened to the East German elite, for example, would not happen to them. The National Security Law not only provides no such guarantees, but also stops any overtures in this direction.

If it is annulled, part of Pyongyang’s elite may become more amenable.

Third, pressure should be greatly moderated. Soviet or North Korean-style authoritarian regimes thrive when surrounded by enemies, because this allows propaganda to oversimplify the situation: “… We are surrounded, and therefore shall rally around our leader, responding blow for blow.” But what happens if, on the contrary, the encirclement subsides and the sense of threat disappears?

Modern-day South Korea surpasses North Korea both economically and militarily. Why stoop to the level of provocations and burning leaders in effigy? Demonstrative generosity and ignoring provocations from the outside raises any moral authority, because when a person compares an unpleasant regime at home and a bad regime abroad, suddenly his own seems a lot more important.

Fourth, the policy involving North Korean defectors and changing their social status should be taken more seriously. Presently, channels of communication are quite transparent, and much of North Korea’s population is currently aware of the fact that there is a higher standard of living there, but also that defectors face a variety of different problems there having found themselves labeled as “second-class citizens”. This information finds its way back to the North, and many supporters of integration are beginning to believe that, after reunification, they will find themselves in the humiliating status of being the “poor relative”, and the material benefits they may receive will not outweigh this indignity. If you change the situation, the people of North Korea will know that they are perceived as brothers, rather than distant relatives from the provinces who eat foreign bread, and the relations may indeed change.

Fifth, it is necessary to rebuild trust, without expecting instant benefits. The process of building up trust is a very long and complicated one, especially in today’s inter-Korean situation. Each side will be overly cautious and maybe even arrange provocations to test the sincerity of intentions. It is no coincidence that many believe that the Sunshine Policy lacked patience. After all, the German “Ostpolitik” lasted twenty years, and South Korea’s policy only seven.

We could continue listing these recommendations, but the problem still remains the same – in modern South Korean society, none of them will be implemented in real life. Bureaucratic momentum is too great, the Cold War legacy too strong, the desire for wishful thinking too great, and it is too frightening to slaughter the “sacred cows” such as the NSL or the regulatory bodies of the North. So, instead of a real reunification of the two countries, South Korean experts will remain the prisoner of their own fantasies.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History, Chief Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook