Skip to comments.N. Korea: Why Phased Reunification Is Impossible
Posted on 05/25/2012 11:58:27 PM PDT by TigerLikesRooster
Why Phased Reunification Is Impossible
[Andrei Lankov Column]
By Andrei Lankov, Professor, Kookmin University
[2012-05-25 11:20 ]
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 suggests a quick upswing toward such standards of living, it may take just as little time for that public displeasure to turn its attention on the regime itself.
The majority of North Korean citizens will always see the Kim Jong Eun system as a descendant of the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il reigns, times which presided over economic collapse, food shortages, political crimes and human rights abuses, so even if the current government were to strike a compromise with South Korea, the public would demand accountability for the actions of previous rulers. Preparations for gradual unification would necessitate a spike in inter-Korean exchanges and contacts, however the prospect of bearing responsibility for the legacy it has been left with is a serious threat for the current regime to consider, and one that no doubt plays on its mind a fair bit.
On the other hand, if the regime were to simply pursue exchanges with the South while continuing its Orwellian policy of state surveillance then it might be somewhat easier to maintain its authority. That level of supervision would be impossible to carry out on the same scale employed by Kim Jong Il though, considering the number of skilled workers and businesspeople who would be routinely visiting North Korea for work, and evidence of government corruption and human rights abuses would be exposed for the world to see on a much grander scale than they are now.
Many people are aware of the reality in North Korea and are under no misconceptions about the character of the regime. It is worth remembering though that many others have never seen the videos, leaked official documents and other materials which prove the human rights abuses of the Kim Dynasty, and that others still sympathize with the regime under some mistaken belief that the human rights situation has been exaggerated.
With that in mind, increasing the level of exchanges between North and South Korea would provide a platform by which to uncover documentary evidence about the regimes activities which would be impossible to cast doubt over. We already know that people who are accused of damaging portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are severely punished. However, if for example the real names of people who had been punished for such offenses (up to 10 years in some cases) or official documents concerning their cases were made public to the outside world, the effects of this would be enormous. It would be difficult for both sides of politics to ignore in South Korea, conservatives and left-wingers alike; the latter of which, it should be said, have a tendency to overlook the faults of the regime.
In the end, the more North Korea opens itself up to exchange with South Korea, the more it is going to face pressure from the South to improve its human rights situation. If the North Korean elite yielded to that pressure and eased the policy of suppression it would become harder to maintain internal stability and order. Like it or not, therefore, South Koreas amazing tale of economic growth and democratic progress is a perceived threat to North Korea, and with that being the case, economic aid from South Korea can be no fix-all; long-term survival for the regime is only possible by continuing a policy of national isolation, controlling information and the politics of terror.
Those who have ultimate authority over the direction of policy in North Korea are well aware of the above facts. The way they see it, holding summit talks aimed at phased unification would be mass political suicide, so while the idea of unification through gradual talks looks an attractive proposition on the surface, it is nothing more than an impractical illusion. The only scenario that can truly bring about unification is change from within North Korea.
I feel I should point out that I am in favor of the individuals and groups who work tirelessly to facilitate inter-Korean exchanges and contacts in the hope that one day unification will become a possibility. The efforts of such people go a long way in spreading knowledge about life outside North Korea, and give a chance for the nations people, including low- and mid-level bureaucrats, to see South Korea as it truly is.
Irrespective of any subjective motivation, those efforts do weaken the authority of the North Korean dictatorship and help increase the influence of the only people who can truly bring about the change required for Korean unification.
If North Korea is to ever be free, the only option is to give an absolute guarantee that the leaders can retire without fear of consequence.
“people will quickly begin to regard themselves as poor”
How do a people that are starving, year after year, that are concerned with simple survival, day after day, ever arrive at a point where they can compare themselves with a standard of living that is hidden from them by their own government?
Lankov discussed this in an 2009 interview:
The North Korean government is afraid that if they begin reforms, the result will not be economic growth, a Chinese-style economic miracle, but rather Eastern German or Romanian collapse followed by reunification. And they are afraid that in a unified Korea they will find no place for themselves.
But these peoples major goal is not economic growth. When someone asks, What is the strategic goal of North Koreas leaders? I usually answer, Their major strategic goal is to die in their beds. They want to stay alive, they want to keep the regime going, and they dont care much about economic growth because they believe that economic growth will take them to prison. And they are probably correct. So maybe, sooner or later, someone will try reform. But I would not expect it to happen anytime soon.
Q: We occasionally hear from defectors that there are reformminded officials in the middle levels of the government and Party who realize that the whole systempolitical, economic, and everything elsehas failed. Can these people, who have enough information to know how bad things are, have any influence over the long term?
A: In the long term, maybe, yes. But we shouldnt forget that once these mid-level people become high-ranking peopleand this is a necessary precondition for them to have any influencethey acquire a vested interest in keeping the system going. Because if the system collapses, its leadership will be in trouble, and they know it. This is partially because their rule has been exceptionally brutal and, at the same time, economically very inefficient. So the major problem of the North Korean elitemaybe most of them, and probably Kim Jong Il himselfis that they understand very well that the system is not delivering, but they simply dont know what to do about it. They dont see any way out. They dont have any exit option, and honestly I dont know what can be done about this.
North Koreans are told routinely that everybody else has it as bad or worse.
Animals on two feet.
Perhaps Kim Jong Eun can take a cue from Obama and blame all of his problems on his predecessor - oh, wait...
What’s Behind China’s Fresh Crackdown on N.Koreans?
But some others think the move aims to tame the North Korean regime. Since Kim Jong-un came to power, high-level exchanges between North Korea and China have mostly stopped, and there is little communication on strategic matters going on between the two allies. The tensions surfaced publicly when North Korean launched a rocket earlier this year and soldiers held Chinese trawlers to ransom.
North Korean government officials who are involved in dodgy dealings in China will also be subject to the crackdown. This includes businesses and North Korean restaurants that supply hard currency to the North Korean military. A diplomatic source in Beijing said, “A large restaurant called Daedonggang in Beijing set up by the North Korean military has been closed for two months because China did not issue work visas for some 50 North Korean workers there. It may be that China is trying to hold the regime’s activities in check.”
I was stationed in West Berlin from 84-88 and went into East Berlin many times. The TV antennas mounted on the East German apartment buildings were all pointed towards West Berlin. I also read that there was one community in the extreme southeast of East Germany where West German TV was not available. For East Germans this was considered a hardship location.
For practical purposes, the answer is close to zero.
Anyone in North Korea with access to significant information about the world outside North Korea is part of the government or an enabler of the system, and therefore has a vested interest in keeping the regime alive.
Another key difference between East Germany and North Korea is that the East Germans understood that Germany, until the collapse following the Second World War, had been one of the most powerful, most wealthy, most educated, and most culturally sophisticated nations in the world. Average East Germans knew from firsthand experience that in the post-war environment, they were laboring under significantly straitened circumstances.
We simply cannot understand North Korea in Western terms. This is a not a nation which went from a typical European monarchy into Communism; this is a nation which has never had even pre-1917 Russian levels of contact with the outside world. Horrible things go on regularly in North Korea, but it is not at all clear that the average North Korean, even those few people old enough to remember the days before Communism, would consider what goes on now to be bad compared to pre-Communist rule of the Japanese or even before that, to the rule of the native Korean "Hermit Kingdom."
I'm not disputing that modern North Korea is worse for its mid-ranking educated officials than Korea was for the pro-Japanese collaborators from 1910 to 1945, or for the yangban class of pre-1905 independent Korea. A scholar or a businessman living in North Korea had greater opportunities before 1950 than he does today.
However, the North Korean regime can make a realistic case to the average North Korean that he is better off today than his ancestors were as peasants in the Hermit Kingdom of monarchist Korea, which was much more isolationist than modern North Korea and ruled its people with an iron fist. A North Korean who knows virtually nothing about the West has good reason to say that his great-grandfather lived in a mud hut with a thatched roof, had to gather sticks to heat his home, and was starving because he had to give most of his food to a hereditary noble in a big house in his village, but as a modern North Korean, he now lives in a home with solid walls, a solid roof, access to rudimentary medical care, and access to enough schooling so he can read. That's an improvement, and while North Korea certainly lags far behind the rest of the developed world, that doesn't mean there haven't been some improvements.
The major problem average North Koreans know they have today which neither they nor their government can deny is famine. Yes, North Korea has famines today, but the nation has often had trouble feeding its people, and a side problem of improved medical care is that mortality rates drop leading to more mouths to feed. There's no way for the Korean peninsula, especially its colder and rockier northern half, to sustain modern population levels without foreign trade.
Also, as bad as North Korea is on human rights when compared to the West and to South Korea, even the horrible nightmare situations of sadistic public executions and punishments of entire extended families of “wrongdoers” have direct parallels in pre-Communist Korea. For example, when Koreans from the educated classes illegally converted to Roman Catholicism under the persecutions of the last Korean kings of the 1800s, it was not uncommon for all their relatives to be punished by removal from government service, confiscation of their property, and reduction to poverty and even beggary as a result. I read a report from the 1800s about the martyrdom of the first Bishop of Seoul a few weeks ago, and the tortures administered to him and his priests sounded very much like something out of a modern North Korean prison camp. Controlling dissent by group punishment of relatives and severe torture of dissenters are not new to Korea.
Essentially, North Korea has exchanged a hereditary king and the privileged “yangban” class of educated and mostly hereditary court officials and local rulers for a hereditary Stalinist dictator and a privileged group of Party and military rulers in Pyongyang and the provinces. Because of its Communist roots and advocacy of the proletariat, as hypocritical as that can be, successful advancement through the ranks of the Party and the military are things to which an academically talented scholar or physically strong and well-disciplined soldier from a poor background has at least some possibility of aspiring toward.
While being born into a powerful family is certainly very helpful, that always had been the case in Korea. Communism is certainly a bad thing, but Asian feudal monarchies weren't a whole lot better.
How to interpret what is happening in North Korea?
Obviously they have an Imperial cult http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperial_cult with a dynasty that is worshipped as gods that can make wonderful things like 11 hole-in-ones http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/world/from-fashion-icon-to-golf-pro-mind-boggling-facts-about-kim-jong-il/story-e6frf7lf-1226226100974
They borrowed the cult from Mao http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/article.aspx?id=3684 and Stalin. This followed a long tradition that can be explored in The Golden Bough by Frazer http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext03/bough11h.htm
This is the type of activities that will cause China to dump the Norks:
On the morning of 21 May (Monday) three Chinese commercial fishing trawlers and their 29 crew members, captured and detained by DPRK forces on 8 May, arrived in their home country through the port in Dalian. With the fishermens return, accounts about their detention have emerged in Chinese media.
Their strategic goal of the Party Elite is for the Party Elite to live like royalty. Part of it is the lifestyle (which is much higher than the common people) but a big part of it is the power. There are some people who just get a hard-on over the idea of having power over people, to make them beg for favors.
Thanks for the ping.
I’ve long thought that behind the scenes, China and South Korea are discussing how to solve the North Korea problem in a manner that won’t result in millions of NoKo refugees overrunning their borders.