For decades, the ultimate diplomatic goal of South Korea and North Korea has been reunification. Both countries assume that if they reunify, the economic, social and military strength of the nation as a whole would increase tremendously. Unfortunately, I would argue that the reunification would result in the complete opposite because of the huge economic loss and the extreme social conflict between South Koreans and North Koreans. Thus, I believe it is too late for both Koreas to even attempt reunification. I would like to discuss economic issues first because money is a key aspect of understanding difficulties of reunification.
Ever since the armistice between South Korea and North Korea on July 27, 1953, the difference in economy, politics, ideology and society has become wider and wider. For instance, according to the United Nations, the gross domestic product of South Korea is $1.116 trillion USD, making it the 15th-largest economy in the world. In contrast, North Korea’s GDP is only $12.135 billion USD, which puts its economy at 125th. Approximately, the economic ratio between South Korea and North Korea is 100 to 1. Naturally, South Korea would have the entire burden of paying for reunification, much like West Germany.
When West Germany and East Germany reunified, the economic gap between them was only 3 to 1. Moreover, living conditions of East Germans were adequate compared to other communist nations in the Warsaw Pact. East Germany had suitable basic industry and relatively advanced technology. However, after the reunification, West Germany had to spend the equivalent of €1.6 trillion over two decades. Yet the economic power of former East Germany is still lacking compared to former West Germany. Even with relatively favorable conditions, West Germany had to pay enormous amounts of money for the reunification to cover the economic gap. If we apply simple math to the gap between South Korea and North Korea, the burden of South Korea will easily be double, triple, quadruple or even more than that of West Germany.
The phrase “shoveling sand against the tide” perfectly describes the situation of the Korean Peninsula if the reunification actually takes place. Everything in North Korea — including infrastructure, transportation, education, technology and nutrition — is vastly inferior to South Korea. For instance, North Korea’s primary mode of transportation is railroads. Supposedly, railroads are an affordable and efficient mode of transportation, widely used for moving various resources. The problem is that North Korean railroads and trains are seriously outdated, so much so that they are not safe to use. Simply, North Koreans still use trains and railroads that were built during the era of Japanese occupation in the early 20th century. Furthermore, they still did not fix the railroads — which were damaged during the Korean War — due to lacking “money.” Somehow, North Koreans have plenty of money for building a hundred-foot-tall statue of their supreme leader, but they don’t have enough money for fixing the railroads. Additionally, North Korea still uses steam-powered trains, which probably belong in a museum. Unsurprisingly, massive fatal accidents have occurred in North Korea . Obviously, if the reunification happens, it would be South Korea’s burden to install new train system.
The problem that I discussed above is only the tip of the iceberg. In other words, there are tons of problems that will be the responsibility of South Korea should reunification occur. The problem is that South Korea cannot afford these expenses because the economic situation in South Korea is not very optimistic. Due to the prolonged recession, the unemployment rate of South Korea is the highest since the early 1990s. Also, due to the low birth rate and retiring baby boomers, South Korea became an elderly society, which raises concerns about social welfare programs and preparations for long-term depression. South Korea does not have a “mountain of gold,” so there are only two options for obtaining money needed for reunification: sharply increasing taxes or taking loans from other nations. Obviously, people will not like the idea of increasing taxes, and huge debt will become a heavy burden sooner or later.
Economically, South Korea is not in a position for reunification.
Alex Cho is a sophomore political science major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]