남과북 뭉치면죽는다 (Unification will kill both Koreas), by Sung-Jo Park, Publisher: Random House Korea, 2005
No one could have expected what the first quarter of 2018 can be. The North and South Korea team marched as one in the opening of Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Kim Jong-Un extending an olive branch to President Trump and the latter receiving it. Now that almost every political conventions in the Korean Peninsular are broken, a reunified Korea seems to be a possible scenario. Perhaps it is time for us to pick up this book, scathingly titled ‘Unification will kill both Koreas’, from more than a decade ago.
As the title suggested, the book argued that a unification of Korea would follow the footsteps of the unification of Germany and ends with failure. By understanding North Korea through East Germany perspective, the author argued that after living for more than 70 years under an authoritarian socialist regime, the cultural mentality of North Koreans has become something entirely divergent from their southern, individualistic and capitalist counterpart. In other words, the North and the South have split into two different ethnicities.
After serving at the Free University of Berlin for more than a decade, Professor Sung-Jo Park had witnessed the unification of Germany first-hand. No sooner after the referendum in 1990, both East and West Germans suddenly realized their cultural differences.
Those from the East accused the west of being poisoned by capitalism and their greed cannot be satiated while those from the West complained that their Eastern cousins had long been spoiled socialism and rendered loafers that lived on welfare. Economically, the recently privatized companies from East Germany failed to adapt to the market economy of the West and a lot of them were either liquidated or acquired by West German conglomerates. From 1990 to 1992, the former East Germany regions were sunk into a deep recession as unemployment rate soared by 5%.
East Germans had always harboured an inferior complex towards those from West Germany. Shopping catalogues and television broadcasts from the west were keenly consumed and goods from the west were displayed as prized items1. Now, with them suffering deep recession whilst the west enjoys a small boom, this sense of inferiority was further exacerbated. On top of that East Germans were also disappointed by the lack of improvement in living standards after reunification and grew nostalgic of their former communist regime (Ostalgie).
In his controversial work titled ‘Der Gefuhlsstau’ (Behind the Wall), East German psychiatrist H.J. Maaz detailed what life was in the GDR and the psychological impact of that life suddenly grind to a halt. Work as a sacred activity, collective wellbeing and a sense of solidarity were major tenets of GDR culture, and they either rendered obsolete or completely shattered by recession and unemployment. They tried to find meaning in life and a sense of belonging by entertaining the expectations and requirements of the authority. However, reunited Germany could not meet such needs of the East Germans, creating a sense of negligence among them. In other words, having some rules to follow is better than none. This prevalent sense of emptiness was sometimes exploited by politicians, with East Germany being a hotbed of far-right ultra-nationalist cells.
Division of Labour between the two Koreas
This book delineated the differences between the two Koreas and its comparability to the two Germanies: compared to East Germans, North Koreans have an even lesser sense of self and relies more heavily on a parental regime; they are more susceptible to propaganda and believe that South Koreans had it way worse than themselves. On the other hand, competition, at all levels, in capitalist South Korea is highly intensive and thus, very unlikely for most North Koreans to adapt. So harsh was the hyper-competitive South Korea for North Korean defectors, that, it is not uncommon for some to slip back into the arms of their motherland.
In a 2011 research titled, ‘One Country, Two Societies? Germany Twenty Years After Reunification‘ researchers pointed out that discontent between East and West Germany remained painfully visible 20 years after their reunification. A unified Korea would face a steeper challenge as the disparity between the Koreas is much greater than the Germanies.
- Unlike North Korea, East Germany’s economy was one best in the socialist bloc. Prior to unification, the per capita income of West Germany was 3 times higher than that of East Germany, whilst North Korea was drafted by the South by 15 times.
- The authoritarian grip of the North Korean is far tighter than that of East Germany.
- The world is much less hostile to East Germany than to North Korea.
Advocates for a unified Korea often depict a rosy picture of with the capital-rich South funding the enormous labour force from the North, and Park argued that this ‘win-win’ scenario is merely wishful thinking. Long yoked by an authoritarian leadership, creativity and personal drive, cornerstones of a modern workforce, were not commonly found in North Korea. To make it worse, prevalent undernourishment has made them unfit for physical labour. If Korea is to unite in haste, it would most likely fail as the North would be too much of a burden to the South.
Must the oppressed by innocent?
There are two immediate takeaways from Park’s work:
- the socio-cultural effect of an authoritarian regime
- The construction of a political, social and individual identity
Post-soviet Russia is a classic example of the longlasting mental imprints of authoritarianism. In 2016, The Moscow Times revealed that only 20 % of Russians think Stalin was a ‘harsh, inhumane tyrant, responsible for the destruction of millions of innocent people’ and 12% believed that Russians need a leader like Stalin to “put things into order”. In the west, freedom is seen as something universally integral to human life, that while tyranny rule is to be condemned, the people living under it can only be innocent victims long starved of freedom. This poll, alongside with recent emergences of dictators and strongmen from supposedly democratized regimes pose a somber rebuttal to this post-cold war triumphalism.
The Unification of Korea, much like Germany, is more of a socio-cultural problem than a political quagmire and fans of a united Korea needs to understand this: bridging two people would be much harder than crossing out the 38th parallel.