USC-CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (2): ‘One Country, Two Systems’ will not happen

CSIS Korea ProjectHere is part one of this post. The following will make more sense if you start there.

I noted that I am participating, today in Seoul (attend if you can), in a USC-CSIS project on Korean unification. This is the final ‘phase’ of their Korea Project on unification.

I thought I would post my thoughts on the USC-CSIS Phase II report (available here) which provided all sorts of suggestions for reconstruction. It’s required reading if your area is Korea and NK, but I actually disagree with a fair number of the analogies to Iraq and Afghanistan. I think Germany is a better model for what will happen here, and I think a ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement like in greater China is nearly impossible given the extraordinary deep ideological divide, which is also existentially necessary for NK to demonstrate why it must be a seperate, poorer Korean state. So it’s either implosion or stalemate.

Anyway, the rest of my thoughts are after the jump. Having read the CSIS report is not a prerequisite to understanding my arguments, but it would help.

g. Far more detailed thinking on how exactly to extend Southern systems into the North is necessary. SK bureaucrats and officials will need to be relocated throughout the North in large numbers to fix almost everything – managers, administrators, engineers, professionals, and technicians of almost every type. Similarly Southern military, police, and intelligence will need to be on station in the North for years in large numbers. South Korean political parties will need to expand northward to begin socializing newly enfranchised citizens. Southern systems of health care and welfare transfers will need to be extended. Identity cards and numbers, passports, drivers licenses, and all the other documentary accoutrements of a modern state will need to be distributed to 23 million people in a year, two at most. Communications infrastructure will need to be built almost from the ground up. Southern universities and hospitals will need to open branch campuses. The list goes on and on…

In all these instances, Germany is a far better exemplar than Iraq, much less Afghanistan or Mozambique.

h. Getting NK up to speed ASAP is also necessary to forestall a massive migration southward with consequent North Korean ghettoes emerging around Southern cities and all the crime, resentment, and pseudo-identity politics that would create. The likely food shortages alone will probably drive Northerners southward. USFK/ROKA ideas of air-dropping food into North Korea are band-aids, and notions of a green revolution to improve NK agricultural production will take several years to fall into place. But the obvious attraction of Southern lifestyles will be the true driver as it was in Germany, a point I am surprised was not made in the report.

It is worth noting how much internal migration there was in unified Germany. Pusan National University had a German speaker on this issue of post-unification migration. He noted that it was 20% of the entire ex-GDR population, slowed only by moving the capital to the east, an option a unified Korea would not likely entertain. I have written this up on my blog (October 22, 2010), and the Project might like to contact the speaker.

Migration-deterring notions like an internal passport or temporary work permits for Northerners in the South would appear terribly immoral, suggest North Koreans are second-class citizens, embarrass Korea before global opinion, and fire revanchist Northern political entrepreneurs. Once the DMZ is open, it will be politically near-impossible to reclose it without North Korea turning into something like the West Bank, a semi-occupied wild west zone in legal limbo, or a gigantic SEZ for the chaebol. Either way, it would appear so immoral before global opinion, and ‘illegal internal immigration’ would be so persistent, that I cannot imagine it will work.

i. There is a fairly-substantial literature from comparative politics on state-building that does not seem much referenced, including sequencing, and rebuilding after conflict and/or under occupation. I think Robert Caplan’s International Governance of War-Torn Territories, which I once reviewed, would be a good place to start.

j. I was surprised there was so much discussion of the ‘first-mover’ into NK and that actor’s legitimacy. In reunification scenarios, that question, in my opinion, is definitively culturally decided – the other half of the cultural community is doubtless the legitimate actor. South Korea is indisputable lead actor here. Only China would contest that for reasons so transparently cynical that the weight of world opinion would likely restrain it.

Similarly, I find it unlikely that China would actively seek to absorb NK as part of the Dongbei project to ‘sinify’ Koguryo. That would be seen globally as near-imperialism and would alienate every state in Southeast Asia immediately. This conjecture also ignores the strong track II signals over many years now that China is increasingly reconciled to Southern-led unification with some concessions on troop stationing.

k. In my opinion, the ability of NGOs to meet North Korea’s tremendous needs is all but impossible. NK is in far worse condition that many LDCs, and NGOs have never been able to turn around an LDC on their own. NGOs can complement state action, but they cannot replace it. Nor will NGOs be coordinated by government agencies into a semi-‘arm’ of a united Korean state. This violates their very ethos of free-spirited humanitarianism. (I wrote my dissertation on how the NGOs pressure the Bretton Woods Institutions, and despite three decades of advocacy by some of the largest, most professionalized NGOs in the world, their ability and desire to seriously coordinate is very low.)

The ROKG needs to face squarely the enormous sum of money, many years, and huge movement of southern technical expertise northward that unification will entail. Invoking NGOs, IOs, foreign donors, the Americans, etc. obscures this necessary, if disliked, recognition.

l. I think the discussion of transitional justice misses the likely huge pressure of the SK right to ‘de-baathify’ far more deeply than the Project contributors suggest. Also, SK still has the death penalty, likely so that NK elite figures can be prosecuted with it. Once NK has opened, and the full scale of the atrocities becomes known, with all the gut-wrenching personal stories of torture, family execution, etc., the pressure will be enormous to execute much of the Kim family and KWP/KPA elites. NK is governed vastly worse than any of the other examples cited in the report – except for the Khmer Rouge – so the pressure to dispense with the niceties of a truth-and-reconciliation process will be tremendous.

m. The loyalty of the KPA is central in scenarios of regime collapse. The participants seem to agree that the KPA, especially the political/officer class, has vested economic interests in defending the state. But this is good news in way, because it suggests they can be bought. Officers ideologically committed to the Kim monarchy might die to protect it, but if the KPA is as riddled with graft as we believe, then SK can leverage its wealth to isolate the dead-enders. One lesson of Iraq not mentioned in the report is that Petraeus openly paid Iraqis not to fight against the Americans. Purchasing the loyalty of the Sons of Iraq was his simple answer to halt the insurgency in Anbar. Perhaps it could also separate the middle officer corps of the KPA from the Kim family.

n. I do not believe NK can follow the Chinese or Vietnamese model of economic reform because of SK. If NK become more like SK, then it raises the obvious question of why NK exists at all. This point is hinted it in the report, but is made regularly by Andrei Lankov and Brian Myers. This suggests there are existential limits on Northern reform, hence my earlier emphasis on collapse scenarios.

Continue to Part 3.

9 thoughts on “USC-CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (2): ‘One Country, Two Systems’ will not happen

  1. Korean unification always reminds me of Episode 9 of “Band of Brothers”. Easy Company discovers a Nazi concentration camp and the first impluse is to immediately free all the inmates. It then becomes painfully clear that the best course of action is to keep the inmates in the camp where they can be better treated and nursed back to health.


    • That is a really good catch. It is similar. The easiest way to help NKs post-unification would be in place. But that will go so slowly, that I tend to agree that there will be huge numbers of people – internal semi-refugees one might call them – flooding south.

      Good reference.


  2. “…it raises the obvious question of why NK exists at all”

    I can’t help wondering what happens to South Korea in a socio-political/identity sense after/if all the juche ash settles and North Korea no longer exists. Its very difficult to discuss either the North or the South without making reference or implication to the other – their very names are testament to division and otherness. They seem so intertwined in a structuralist sense so that they only exist individually because they are not the other.

    What happens to an economic, political, and cultural system that has defined itself in many ways by what it is not, when that ‘not’ has turned to dust? It takes time to forget and then construct identities. I don’t know enough about German reunification but wonder if there are applicable lessons there?

    I really enjoyed your deconstruction and thoughts on both parts of the conference. Thank you!


    • That’s a really good question – domestic political psychology beyond my skill set. So any reader in need of an MA/PhD topic, here you go.

      I do think you are very right in this on NK. NK certainly is built around a fortress mentality in which the US, Japan, and the Yankee colony at climbing the walls to annihilate the minjeok. Thankfully the Kim dynasts are here to keep the barbarians at the gates.

      For SK, my sense is that this is fading. 40 years ago, I think you’d be right on the money with Park Chun Hee and South Koreans believing that communists had horns and all that sort of mccarthyism. But today, I think the dominate feeling would be relief – ‘it’s finally over, for chrissakes.’ I think identity confusion would be less severe, because Koreans increasingly identify themselves as a modern people, part of globalization and the world, rather than an anticommunist barracks state.

      Glad you liked the write-up. Thanks for reading.


  3. “The ROKG needs to face squarely the enormous sum of money, many years, and huge movement of southern technical expertise northward that unification will entail.”

    And just why repeated Seoul governments have failed to address this issue, at least in public, is beyond me. If memory serves LMB did float the idea of creating a fund for this express purpose but public reaction forced them to back down. Perhaps it is just too abstract for ROK citizens to think seriously about unification beyond the Pavlovian response. But I get the sneaking suspicion that a lot of south Koreans really just want the northerners to stay where they are; out of sight, out of mind and out of their paycheck/tax rates. I mean really, does anyone actually know what the costs of this are going to be? Replacing dilapidated 60s era Soviet infrastructure and housing stock, and not even to mention the social costs of integrating into the 21st century 25 million people who have lived the literal “Allegory of the Cave”? Seen from that perspective maybe the DMZ doesn’t look so bad after all.


    • Very well said. Couldn’t agree more, and I say the same basic thing at every conference I go to and student class or group I talk to.

      The FRG has transferred $2.5 trillion to the ex-GDR since 1990. The ex-GDR was wealthier, more advanced, and demographically smaller than the DPRK. So let’s say, back of the envelope, that Korean unification, over 20 years, will cost around $4 trillion. That’ll knock your socks off…


  4. Pingback: USC-CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (3): DPRK ‘Sovereignty’ is a Sino-Russian Fig-Leaf to Slow Unification and Check US Power | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  5. Pingback: USC-CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (3): DPRK ‘Sovereignty’ is a Sino-Russian Fig-Leaf to Slow Unification and Check US power » Duck of Minerva

  6. Pingback: USC/CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (1): it will cost WAY more than people think | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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