Why Ko­rea can’t repli­cate Ger­many’s re­uni­fi­ca­tion

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

North and South Ko­rea have fun­da­men­tally di­a­met­ric eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal sys­tems and na­tional ide­olo­gies. They also have very large guns pointed at each other’s head. Nei­ther side has much rea­son to trust the other to re­frain from try­ing to ex­ploit the chaos that would come with a tran­si­tion and force re­uni­fi­ca­tion on their own terms. This trust gap is not go­ing away, nor is the pris­oner’s dilemma. True re­uni­fi­ca­tion would re­quire breath­tak­ing courage from lead­ers on both sides, who would need to ig­nore im­me­di­ate in­cen­tives and as­sume enor­mous risk while go­ing through the process.

This is, in part, why only two mod­ern states have achieved ne­go­ti­ated, peace­ful re­uni­fi­ca­tion. One was Ye­men in 1990, and its ex­pe­ri­ence ever since has been noth­ing any­one wants to repli­cate. The more in­struc­tive com­par­i­son is Ger­many, which re­uni­fied the same year. Prior to be­ing sliced in two by out­side pow­ers, both Ger­many and Ko­rea were co­he­sive cul­tural, lin­guis­tic and eth­nic en­ti­ties. Yet both be­came locked in a pro­tracted zero-sum con­test for supremacy be­tween their com­pet­ing halves. Both are sur­rounded by coun­tries that, through the long-term lens of their own geopo­lit­i­cal im­per­a­tives, would rather see them stay di­vided. Both had U.S. troops sta­tioned on half their home soil. And like the North, East Ger­many suf­fered greatly from the loss of So­viet aid and se­cu­rity.

In most ways, though, the two Ger­manys were much bet­ter suited for re­uni­fi­ca­tion. By 1991, they were far more in­te­grated than the Koreas are to­day, and the East was al­ready begin­ning to dis­in­te­grate. East Ger­many had never adopted North Ko­rea’s ex­treme ver­sion of to­tal­i­tar­i­an­ism and col­lec­tivism, and it didn’t de­rive its le­git­i­macy from as in­tense a nar­ra­tive of per­ma­nent siege by out­side forces. The eco­nomic dis­par­i­ties be­tween the two Koreas are also far wider. By 1991, West Ger­mans were two to three times as wealthy as their eastern brethren, while South Kore­ans are es­ti­mated to be be­tween 12 and 40 times richer than North Kore­ans (the North’s opac­ity ex­plains the wide range in es­ti­mates). Thus, re­uni­fi­ca­tion was con­sid­er­ably less tax­ing for the West than it would be for the South, which likely wouldn’t en­joy the same level of out­side fund­ing for the process that the West Ger­mans did.

De­spite their age-old sus­pi­cion of a united Ger­many, neigh­bour­ing pow­ers like France and the United King­dom ac­cepted re­uni­fi­ca­tion in ser­vice of the broader project of Eu­ro­pean in­te­gra­tion, with NATO and the com­mon mar­ket di­min­ish­ing the threat of Ger­man dom­i­na­tion of the Con­ti­nent. None of Ko­rea’s neigh­bours have a sim­i­lar cause to tol­er­ate a process that puts a more pow­er­ful state on their doorstep.

North Ko­rea, de­spite its poverty, has al­ready proved ca­pa­ble of sur­viv­ing with­out So­viet sup­port. And though Py­ongyang does not want to be be­holden to Chi­nese pa­tron­age, this life­line isn’t go­ing to dry up any­time soon, given China’s as­cen­dancy and in­ter­est in re­tain­ing the North as a buf­fer state. As a re­sult, North Ko­rea is more likely to be able to hold out on re­uni­fi­ca­tion if it doesn’t like the terms. By com­par­i­son, West Ger­many and its al­lies were able to grad­u­ally en­tice the East Ger­mans away from the wheez­ing USSR, which couldn’t af­ford to keep up heavy sub­si­dies to its client states any­way. For all in­tents and pur­poses, West Ger­many ab­sorbed East Ger­many. North Ko­rea won’t will­ingly fol­low suit. And un­like East Ger­many, North Ko­rea has nukes.

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