First off, lets examine some more differences between East and West German reunification with that of North and South Korea:
>East Germany (EG) was much wealthier than North Korea (NK) is now. EG was the ‘leading’ economic performer of the east bloc. The USSR realized how central the German competition was to the overall Cold War competition, so EG was heavily subsidized. NK was never as important, because the cold war contest was never as stark in Asia as it was in Europe, so NK never got such big handouts. NK’s GDP/capita today is a crushing $1700; EG’s in 1989 was $10,000.
>NK is not just a dictatorship; it is an Orwellian nightmare, more Stalinist than even the Soviet Union or Albania ever were. East Germany was bad but never plumbed the depths of repression and madness like NK. One of our faculty at my university works with NK defectors, and he notes how many of them have psychological trauma from life in NK. Fixing NK will not just be a huge pile of money; we know that. It is also going to require something akin to nation-wide psychiatric care for millions of mentally brutalized Winston Smiths. This will be an event unheard of in the annals of mental health; read here and here.
>On just about every other benchmark conceivable, NK is worse off than EG: environmental management, infrastructure, labor productivity, health care, education, technology, etc, etc. The per person cost of Korean unification is likely to much higher, because NK is so much further behind in almost every way than EG was. Estimates of Korean unification could begin with these figures: in 20 years, WG has transferred $1.2 trillion euros to the roughly 16 million people of EG at the time of unification. Note than NK has more people (23 M) than east Germany, and those people are significantly poorer per person too ($10k vs 1.7k per capita). So that means the 1.2T euros figure is likely too low for the NK case. Note also that West Germany had around 60 M people in 1989; SK has 49 M today. WG’s 1989 GDP per capita was $25,000; in SK today, it is around $19,500. The arithmetic is punishing.
>EG and Soviets did a good job deceiving the world that EG really was modern and advanced, just like the West. This is one reason why the WG government granted 1:1 currency convertibility to the GDR mark: almost everyone thought EG would have some reasonably competitive industries and sectors. Yet when WG finally got in there – when the West finally pulled the lid off – almost everything was badly behind or unusable: the phone system had to be completely replaced, EG cars were a polluting environmental nightmare, laborers had no idea how to use computers or even basic office devices like photocopiers, infrastructure around the country still had World War II battle damage (that is no joke, I saw it), etc. So it’s likely that NK is much worse than we think it is. Even Bruce Cumings has admitted this. Yes, try to imagine that: NK, our customary endpoint of geopolitical awfulness, is probably hiding much worse than we know now. Once we see the NK gulags up close, I think we are going to see Nazi-style atrocities even the Taliban wouldn’t have tried.
>South Korea (SK) is less politically prepared to carry the enormous stresses of unification – and not just the financial burden. The SK political system is flimsier than WG. Corruption is more regular; its parties are shallow and change names quickly; political unresponsiveness drives a street-protest culture and brawling in the National Assembly. For a state that came out of dictatorship less than a generation ago, SK is doing pretty well, but it clearly does not have the state capacity WG did in 1989, while it faces (points a & c above) a comparatively greater burden. Indeed, this is my greatest fear – the burdens of unification will simply overwhelm SK’s still maturing democracy and leave NK in some kind of semi-annexed limbo like the West Bank.
>In 1989, the US was at peak of its postwar relative power. The USSR was in decline; China was still far off. This is the era of the ‘unipolar moment’ and the ‘end of history.’ Today the balance of forces is very different. The US is much weaker. Many think the US is in decline. All this makes it harder and harder for the US to support SK in any contest with China or NK over unification. It is likely that SK will have to do more of the work on its own, compared to the heavy intervention by the Bush 41 administration to support the WG position. The weakened American position means it will be easier for China to dictate its terms for unification (such as no US forces north of the current DMZ, or perhaps even no US forces at all).
>In 1989, the USSR was a mess; today China is not. The GDR’s patron was imploding. It could no longer afford the contest with the US. The Soviet Union was trying to geopolitically retrench and to re-starts its moribund economy with perestroika and glasnost. The Soviets were getting desperate, and the east bloc – subsidized as it was – had become an albatross. Gorbachev was fumbling to control all the forces unleashed. China is the opposite. It is not overextended, but rather just beginning the international expansion that flows from its rising strength. It is feeling its oats and ready to give the US a run for its money in Asia at least. Tiananmen Square demonstrated a non-Gorbachevian willingness to roll out the tanks to maintain the one-party state, and there is no serious liberalizing force, in part because the Chinese population is being bought off with growth. So China is much more capable of carrying the NK albatross and ready to push its interests into Korea not pull out per Gorby.
>China’s interest is much higher in NK than the USSR’s was in EG. NK borders China; EG was two time-zones away from Moscow. China’s interest in the terms of a final settlement are much more direct. Gorbachev was basically trying to sell EG for desperately needed cash; for China, Korea is a more existential issue. NK is a buffer between democratic SK, Japan, and the US. Hence, China is much more likely to stick its nose into Korean unity talks, and to push for its own terms. Those terms will probably include a ban on US forces north of the current DMZ, and possibly an exit of SK from the US alliance altogether, in exchange for Chinese acquiescence on unification:Korean ‘finlandisation’ (an outcome of which Japan might secretly approve too).
>SK can’t buy unity from China as West Germany did from USSR. WG was an economic powerhouse by the 1980s – in the OECD and G-7, second biggest donor to the UN, etc. WG could simply write a huge check to Moscow, and the USSR was so desperate that it took the money and abandoned Honecker. SK is simply not there. Yes, it’s in the OECD and G-20, but its still lists itself as a developing country at the WTO, and it is still decades away from German levels of affluence. Nor do the Chinese need the money. China will play a much harder game than the Soviets were able to 20 years ago.
>SK has no supportive environment of allies or revolutions, like NATO and the Velvet Revolutions of 1989, which could add momentum to unification. Beyond the US, SK has no real allies. Russia is an unpredictable faux-‘partner’ at best. Because of all the bad history, the Japanese don’t really like the idea of a united, wealthy Korea which is growing faster than them, right on their doorstep. Taiwan is also a divided country, but it is in the NK/EG role as the smaller and weaker of the two. So there is nothing like a local NATO of friends to provide group moral cover for unification efforts, nor can there be any regional momentum for NK change, as the other revolutions like in Eastern Europe provided to East Germans in 1989/90. The are no nearby states similar to NK to catalyze NK change, unless one imagines Chinese democratization, which is a huge leap. As we see in the ME today, revolutions can synergize each other, but there is no region here to provide a wave to wash into NK. Koreans will have to do this themselves.
- Altogether this means that hurdles to and burdens of unification are much higher here:
- There are more NKs than EGs, and they are poorer as well.
- There are fewer SKs than WGs, and they are poorer also.
- SK’s state strength/capacity is lower than WG’s, while NK is a catastrophe by even EG standards.
That domestic arithmetic is brutal, and if that weren’t bad enough, the international balance of forces is worse now than in 1989 too:
Today, the external patron (US) of the free Korean half is weakening, while the external patron of the communist half (China) is strengthening. The opposite was true of the US and WG, and the USSR and EG, in 1989.
Today’s northern patron (China) is trying to push further into the continent (Asia), while yesterday’s eastern patron (USSR) was looking for an exit (from central Europe).
There is no regional encouragement, revolutionary wave, democracy zeitgeist, or whatever to push this thing along in NE Asia.
The incentives for China to meddle – because of the greater importance of NK to China, than of EG to the USSR -, and the greater ease of such meddling – because the US and SK today are weaker than the US and WG were then, while China is much stronger today than the USSR was then -, mean Chinese intervention is highly likely. It will try hard to structure any final settlement. A major policy question for SK is therefore likely to be, will it dump the US alliance if that is what’s necessary to get China out of the peninsula? Will SK exchange ‘finlandization’ for unity? I think the answer is, and should be, yes.
The only alternative I see to this is a unification process that goes so badly off the rails, is so destructive, disorganized, and chaotic, that China would want to stay out it from sheer concern to avoid a quagmire.
In other words, the more chaotic the end-game turns out to be, the more likely it will be a Korean-only affair. This is unfortunate; no one wants Korean unity to be a Hurricane Katrina-style national meltdown that requires heavy western and Japanese support – which might not even be available. because of the accelerating sovereign debt crisis. But reunification chaos seems like the only way to keep the Chinese out, because the balance of forces I sketched in the post are so much worse for Korean today than they were for Germany in 1989/90.