Korean Unification: Planning for the Long Term

Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052748704627704575204200080708816

I chanced upon this research project on the longer-term transitional issues that is likely to result from unification of the Korean peninsula, done by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) with the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California (USC).

This research project took place from 2010-2014 and involved analysis of problems and solutions to integration of the Korean peninsula.

The principal investigators for the Korea Project were Dr. Victor Cha, senior advisor and holder of the Korea Chair at CSIS, and Dr. David Kang, director of Korean Studies Institute at USC.

Here are the findings:

While the unification process will be a challenge, it will provide opportunities to generate growth and peace in Asia.

Some of the lessons learnt from past examples of unification related and state-building tasks in several countries:

  1. Internal migration will be more chaotic than external migration
  • Conventional wisdom is that refugees will flood across the Yalu and Tumen into China while others seek to move to the South
  • However, migration experts find that people generally don’t want to leave homes especially if they have food and feel secure
  • Those who know someone who successfully migrated are likely to move but most North Koreans don’t know anyone who did
  • Migration outflow isn’t guaranteed
  • The bigger problem will be internally displaced persons as people try to come to the city to look for family members, inevitably stressing already vulnerable food and security systems
  • Thus, having plans to provide food and security in the North post-unification will be critical


2. Re-establishing a health infrastructure will be more challenging

  • Despite a state health system, North Korea suffers from significant disease problems: Measles, tuberculosis, small pox, cholera
  • Average North Korean is significantly shorter and weighs less than the average South Korean
  • This will be a top priority upon reunification, to limit disease and to gain trust of North Koreans
  • However, solutions cannot be imposed from outside
  • Must be tailored to the situation at hand; Doctors have to work with whatever coping mechanism North Koreans have developed
  • Currently, NGOs have been successful locally in North Korea but they will need help scaling up to a national level


3. Transitional justice must be viewed as reconciliation, not revenge

  • There is this widely shared notion that all North Korean Party officials, military officers and intelligence circles are ‘bad’ and must be prosecuted
  • However, countries such as South Africa and Mali show that this is not the ideal solution
  • Justice that seeks high profile acts of vengeance will not create reconciliation. Instead, will create a “Us” vs. “Them” mentality and breed fear
  • Yes, some will go to jail, but some should be offered alternatives. Nuclear director should be prosecuted to the fullest extent, but perhaps amnesty should be given to scientists


4. Economic opportunities could exist under shambles

  • Most think that the North Korean economy is in shambles, have little to offer and that unification is too expensive
  • It is true that average South Korean is about 25 times richer than the average North Korean; In comparison, at the time of unification, West Germany was about 2 times richer than that of East Germany. And even up till this day, Germany is still working to establish economic equality.
  • However, economic situation may not be that dire and potential does exist in North Korea.
  • North Korea has significant natural resources and a relatively high social capital involving education, literacy and urbanization.
  • North Korea’s literate labor force could marry South Korea’s capital and management, as evidenced by Kaesong.


5. Unification as a driver of regional peace and cooperation

  • Unification needs to be led by the Koreans with support from the U.S. and other regional powers
  • The spectrum of support may range from strong (U.S.) to reluctant (China)
  • U.S., China, Japan and Russia experts all agree that the process of unification must not end in 19th century balance of power politics, but in 21st century security committee
  • Laying the groundwork of support now will ensure reunification will be a driver for peace and security in the region



  • Potential of bringing North Korea fully into Northeast Asia brings about short term costs but unification can also offer an enormous upside that can benefit the entire region


See more: https://www.csis.org/programs/korea-chair/korean-unification-planning-long-term


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Currently living and pursuing my undergraduate studies in South Korea.

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