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Korean Thunderdome, Part 4: See No Evil

There is no easy solution to the problem of North Korea — so even amid its madness, South Koreans often choose to pretend it's not there.
Photo by Ryan Faith

President Barack Obama, the leader of the free world, has just arrived in Seoul, where he will tend to America's important diplomatic and security relationship with South Korea. Meanwhile up North, the naughty Korea is reportedly preparing to mark his visit with its latest nuclear-weapon test. Yep, it's business as usual on the Korean peninsula.

So how exactly will the bizarre 60-year-long staring contest across the DMZ end? (Because, at some point, it will have to end.)


In Part 1 of this series, we spoke with Myeong Chul Ahn, a defector from North Korea, about how his adopted country integrates the 2,000 defectors from North Korea that head south every year. And judging by the way the South doesn't really want to think about integrating North Koreans right now — whether it's 2,000 or all 25 million of them.

Which is significant, because in Part 2, we learned that the window for peaceful reunification may be closing. The massive economic costs of reunification have been at the forefront of most discussions, but less discussed is the change in cultures that has taken place as the two countries have drifted apart, creating a divide that may soon be too big to bridge.

But if peaceful reunification is off the table, does that mean the default future option is war? As we learned in Part 3, war would inflict massive costs, both human and financial. Even absent a declared war on the peninsula, regime collapse in the North could end up triggering a regional — or world — war.

So what is South Korea planning to do about this whole reunification mess?

This NASA image shows North Korea at night, indicating a relative disuse of artificial lighting at night. This map also closely mimics the political significance of South Korea's various neighbors in its domestic politics.

Officially, the country is enthusiastic about it. But in reality, folks just don’t care that much. South Koreans would love for both Koreas to reunite if they didn't have to pay for it. But since they would — and dearly, possibly with both blood and treasure — they'd rather just not think about it.

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The official government position in the South is, and has consistently been, the pursuit of “eventual peaceful reunification." As Andrei Lankov, a Korea expert at Seoul’s Kookmin University, explained, “North Korea is not a political issue inside South Korea.” Rather, South Koreans spend about as much time thinking about the North as Americans would spend “thinking about some [hypothetical] radical anti-American government in power in Jamaica.” Which is to say, not much at all.

That said, a Korean politician who denounced "eventual peaceful reunification" as a fantasy would do about as well at the polls as an American politician who burned the American flag during the national anthem at the Super Bowl. “National reunification is an important, if not decisive, ingredient of any ideological cocktail you come across [in South Korea]," Lankov said "But it's increasingly taken less and less seriously.”

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South Korea’s Ministry of Unification was set up to pursue peaceful reunification with the North. But its ideas about the process tend to involve North Koreans peacefully and willingly assimilating into the South Korean Borg collective. And that's probably not what would happen.

The South has written off the North like a squirrel in the attic. There are some scratching noises now and then, but other than that it can mostly be ignored.


“For the North Korean government, peaceful gradual negotiation is suicide," Lankov said. "They are not idiots. Why would you expect them to start an agreement which is likely to get them killed?” So how is this magical transformation supposed to happen? Well, details are very fuzzy, but the general expectation is that one night someone will sprinkle magical fairy dust all over Pyongyang, the ruling elite will turn into the level-headed city council of Dubuque, Iowa, and they will convince the populace to be amenable to anything.

In other words, there’s a hole in the planning.

But if it’s not to be peaceful reunification, will a united Korea result only from war? The odds of North Korea starting a full-scale conflict are only slightly higher than their odds of winning it. (They have zero chance of winning it.) Pretty much everyone knows this. That's one reason why folks in the South have developed quite an immunity to the North’s saber-rattling. Though when asked about this, Ahn somewhat ominously said that people in the South had become a little too complacent.

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The last scenario left is the collapse of the North Korean regime, followed by reunification. So VICE News asked the Ministry of Unification what kind of contingency plans they have for a post-collapse reunification. A spokesperson helpfully explained, “We do not have a contingency plan and we cannot give any official comment on transition measures for unification on behalf of the R.O.K. government.”


The South does maintain a sort of government-in-exile for their neighbor to the north — the Committee of the five South Korean governors of North Korea. But in the event of a collapse, they're required to resign so that a new body can be set up to administer the North.

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“There is a bit of taboo about discussing what appears to be the only realistic scenario of unification — collapse of the North Korean region," Lankov says. "This collapse might be more likely and might come sooner than most people expect, followed by civil war and anarchy in North Korea, followed by the military intervention of South Korea with US backing, and essentially, of the annexation of what is now North Korea as another province of the Republic of Korea.”

Lankov can talk about this scenario, because he's not South Korean (or American). But, he says, no politician would openly advocate preparation for a North Korean collapse because doing so would be interpreted as encouraging a collapse. And no one in the South wants that to happen.

That's because the South has, in its heart of hearts, written off the North like a squirrel in the attic. There are some scratching noises now and then, but other than that it can mostly be ignored. Sure, drone launches and nuclear tests make news, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent to everyone involved that there’s just not going to be any real-life impact on the everyday existence of South Korea — unless South Korea does something about the scratching in the attic. And so, they don't.


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So Koreans are enthusiastic about the idea of reunification, but not about the idea of the reunification process. VICE News asked Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean studies professor at Tufts University, about this. A South Korean national himself, Lee compared South Korea's attitude to the North to America's attitude toward its national debt. “At least in the US, serious people talk about debt," he said. "But in SK, there’s so little interest in the real North Korean problem. A one-dimensional view of a poor, half-crazy cult with a bizarre sense of fashion. North Korea is dismissed as a factor or political factor, and then forgotten.”

It appears the question of what to do about North Korea is kind of like the Serenity Prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

South Koreans are pretty serene about accepting the things they think they cannot change. It's just not clear whether they — or the US, or anyone else — have the wisdom to know the difference.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan