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Korean Thunderdome, Part 2: The Reunification Myth

The second in a four-part series on the Korean peninsula: Why no one may ever be able to put South and North Korea back together again.

by Ryan Faith
Apr 21 2014, 6:35pm

Image via Wikimedia Commons

In Korean politics, the idea of peaceful reunification is a universal truth. The theory goes that, following a period of careful, peaceful negotiations and trust-building exercises, the two Koreas will begin a period of harmonious, gradual reunification, once again permitting a united Korea to pursue its destiny.

Well, Korean politicians may want to familiarize themselves with the well-known political screed Humpty Dumpty. Because the two Koreas have been so different for so long that it very well may be that nobody can put Korea back together again.

Korea was hardly the only country to be cleaved in two by politics and conflict during the 20th century. But when other countries were split — Germany, Vietnam, Yemen — both halves managed to retain some sense of common identity thanks, at times, to relatively porous borders. But the North and South have been all but hermetically sealed from each other. Personal cross-border communication is against the law in both countries.

During the height of the Cold War, even the tightly controlled border between East and West Germany allowed for some travel and exchange — and the diffusion of money, people, ideas, and the occasional stolen car are the kinds of things that keep people connected to each other. Today, the closest connection the South has to the North comes in the form of the 2,000 or so defectors who make it to the South every year (usually by sneaking into China and being smuggled across a few more borders). Understandably, virtually no Southerners make their way North. And so the most Northerners will ever see of the South is from DVDs smuggled in from China.

Korean Thunderdome, Part 1: The Defector Dilemma. Read more here.

Today, South Korea is known for Samsung, Hyundai, and Gangnam style. Meanwhile, its evil twin brother to the North is known for rogue nuclear tests, mass incarceration, gruesome political executions, and questionable taste in haircuts. South Korea has the 15th largest GDP in the world. As Sung-Yoon Lee, a Korean studies professor at Tufts University, pointed out to VICE News, North Korea is the only “urbanized, literate, peacetime country” in history to have suffered a major famine.

This disparity is, essentially, the result of the largest (and least ethical) sociology experiment ever performed — a massive “nature versus nurture” study performed on tens of millions of people. Andrei Lankov, an associate professor at Seoul’s Kookmin University, cites income disparity as an excellent measure of the divergence of the two Koreas. The difference in per capita income between the countries is staggering; official estimates peg the ratio at something like 18:1, but Lankov told VICE News that the “real” number could be as high as 40:1. For comparison, the ratio between the US and Mexico is about 5:1. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to assume that someone who earns 20 to 40 times more (or less) than you might find mutual identification somewhat difficult.

Meanwhile, the languages have also diverged. Although the difference between spoken Korean in the North and South is often discussed as one merely of dialects, the truth is that some of the same words now have very different meanings — a kind of Orwellian linguistic feat — on either side of the border. The word for girl or miss in the South means slave of feudalism in the North. The casual North Korean expression for “I’m fine, thanks” means “Mind your own business” in the South.

How far can talking slightly differently and having skewed bank accounts divide two countries? The integration of each of those 2,000 North Korean defectors every year is a sort of small test case. After all, if South Korea can’t do enough to successfully integrate one North Korean defector entering the South, then how will they manage 25 million North Koreans when and if reunification occurs?

There is no compelling reason for any of South Korea’s neighbors or allies to push for reunification.

During our discussion, Lankov was reminded of a story from a memoir written by a former North Korean spy captured by the South. Decades ago, after North Korea could no longer rely on intel brought to them by emigrating South Korean communists, they had to start training spies to infiltrate the South. Initially, it took only a few weeks to complete the “How To Be South Korean” program. As time went on and the North became more estranged from the South, six months were required. Then a year. Ultimately, a sophisticated 18-month program was created, complete with a mockup of a South Korean street hidden in an underground facility.

South Korea, meanwhile, puts defectors through a three-month assimilation program — and even then the defectors have enormous problems forging lives for themselves in the South. Can you imagine someone moving from New Zealand to Australia requiring three months, let alone a year and a half, of training to learn how to adapt and integrate?

Lee, Lankov, and North Korean defector Ahn Myeong Chul all told us that if reunification doesn’t happen in the next 20 to 50 years, the window of opportunity to unify Korea — which, as Lee pointed out, had previously been politically unified for 1,000 years — will probably close. Certainly a huge part of this is a result of the growing economic gap between the two countries and the economic burden that a reunified North would place on the South. but the increasing cultural divide isn't helping.

While there is a moral case to be made for ending the abuses of North Korea, there is no compelling reason for any of South Korea’s neighbors or allies to push for reunification. In fact, reunification could very well create more problems than it solves for everyone involved — except for the 25 million people who have to live in the North.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan