Post-Unification De-population of North Korea?


PNU’s Institute of Social Science Research had a good speaker this week, demographer Berhard Koppen of Landau-Koblenz University in Germany. His talk, “Demographic Change and Immigration in Germany since Unification,” focused on the population impacts of German unification. As you can imagine, the Koreans study the German model (although not as much as you’d think), because they wonder what unification will look like – how much, how long, how disruptive, etc.

Koppen laid out a lot of good demographic data on just how extreme the population shifts from east to west inside Germany have been. I don’t have all the numbers in front of me, but it was pretty striking. In the most underdeveloped parts of the old German Democratic Republic (GDR), the population drop was more than 40% in two decades! In toto, the old GDR is 20% below its old population, despite the move of the capital to Berlin. So bad is it, that many east German communities have had to bulldoze housing, because it has simply sat unused for more than a decade (this, in country with one of the highest population densities in the world).

I have written about the geopolitics of Korean unification before. In short, they are not good, because China is much stronger than the USSR was in the German case. SK is weaker than was the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). The US is also relatively weaker. And NK is far worse off than the GDR, which was regularly touted as the most advanced socialist state. All this forebodes that China’s role in unification will be much greater than the Soviet Union’s. As Koppen put it, the wealthy FRG could effectively ‘buy’ unification from the bankrupt USSR. China today though is ‘rising,’ and given the NK borders China, its interest and influence in the issue are correspondingly greater. As I wrote a year, China will structure any final status Korean deal much more than most people think right now (and the Chinese were sure to tell me that in Beijing earlier this year).

If this doesn’t scare South Koreans enough, Koppen’s data quieted the room. When I asked about the comparison with Korea, and what Koreans should expect, he could only foresee that a sudden border opening would lead to a huge southward flow – maybe 6 million people in the first few years. The differences between east and west Germany were much smaller than NK-SK, yet look at how much population flight has been happened there. One can only imagine how bad it would be here – a 40% depopulation of NK (9 out of 23 million), perhaps? Where would they be housed, how would they be supported, what would they do all day? The questions are endless.

Koppen closed by arguing that a slow federation of North and South would be better than the lightning unification of a sudden border opening as in the German case. Koppen used the EU as a model for Korean unification (an interesting parallel I never considered). As the EU is gradually federating in stages, so might Korea. I have heard this line of reasoning before using a more Asian model – Hong Kong and mainland China. Like that arrangement, perhaps Korea can go through a ‘one country, two systems’ stage. So North Koreans would get temporary work and living permits in the South, while Southern business would be encouraged to go North, with the North reconceived as something like a massive enterprise zone.

I am skeptical for a number of reasons:

1. North Koreans are vastly poorer than not only east Germans, but any of the eastern EU members. The moral pressure to do more faster would be enormous. Paced unification would look like Southern niggardliness in the face of desperation and poverty. Note also, that Hong Kong is quite wealthy, as is surrounding Guangdong province. This helps mitigates the border pressure; the opposite would be the case in a united Korea.

2. The nationalism factor would make holding the North at arms length difficult and distasteful. If the Koreans are one minjoek, as they never cease to tell us expats here, then how can you justify, save unashamed selfishness, keeping Northerners out? It looks bad, and it would certainly encourage populist North Korean politicians to complain about Southern cheapness, etc.

3. Keeping the North in some kind of semi-national limbo would encourage Chinese meddling. Indeed, the slower the unification process goes, the more likely China and others are to stick their noses into it. Conversely, if unification speeds along as a chaotic mess, then even China will likely say, we want nothing to do with the catastrophe-in-the-making; you South Koreans figure it out. This sounds unfortunate – the more anarchic the reunification, the more likely it will be a Korean-only affair, but I think it is so.

4. And in fact, Korean unification is almost certainly going to be messy, rapid, and chaotic if not downright anarchic. If one looks at Germany, once the communist lid was removed, the desire for unification on the part of the east especially, but also the west, exploded and became like a freight train accelerating downhill. It was just unstoppable. Yes, there were all sorts of GDR intellectuals who wanted east Germany to become a unique space, neither capitalist nor communist, but somehow ‘more humane,’ and all that. But the huge bulk of the population wanted nothing to do with such academic airiness, a luxury for elites. Average east Germans wanted nationalism, unity, wholeness, an end to an awful, artificial historical division, and an immediate improvement in living standards. They just pushed aside all those both internally and externally (Thatcher and Mitterand especially) who wanted a paced process. Helmut Kohl led reunification as much as he was led by it. And even though the GDR was supposedly ‘advanced’,’ it turned out not to be at all. The state collapsed almost immediately, and realistically, there was no one to pick up the many, many pieces expect West Germany. I think this is by far the most likely scenario here too. Once North Korea slips, it will go lightning fast. It will be chaotic, unpredictable, with huge national emotions at play and populations on the move, and near anarchy in the North, given how thoroughly illegitimate the state there is. The only realistic way to get control over this nation-wide meltdown will be the immediate extension of SK constitutional authority across the whole peninsula. It will be messy, hugely expensive, and involve the dramatic depopulation of the North, but realistically, I don’t see serious alternatives given how much worse off NK is than Hong Kong, the GDR, or eastern Europe.

13 thoughts on “Post-Unification De-population of North Korea?

  1. Hum..After unification of Korea, it’s peninsula will be connnected with China.
    Although SK has maintained the deep relationship with the U.S for
    several decades, Korea was an original alliance of the China over
    the two thousands years. I also think the U.S had been supporting SK
    after the division, but China seems more close to us. They are
    same Asians, and have very similar culture with Korea. I wonder which
    country the united Korea will choose to support, the U.S or China.


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