We’ve got it for sure: Kim Jong Un, one of the official sons of Kim Jong Il, has been nominated to be the next leader of North Korea. Does it mean the North Korean nation will end suffering? The actual transition of power in North Korea and the last events between North and South Korea are also vulnerable times for North Korean elites. Authorities are increasing their grip on society to prevent potential riots. Meanwhile, the nomination of Kim Jong Un as the next North Korean leader and the presentation of the new elites may give a new impulse to relations between both Korea and China. Expectations are high and stakes are high. This is a crucial moment for North Korea: everything can happen and even a breakdown is possible. Furthermore, on the 23th November, one of the most important clashes between the North and the South occurred. Artillery fire was exchanged between these countries and two South Korean soldiers and two civilians were killed on the island Yeongjong, an island localized in the suburbs of Seoul.
Recently, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak has urged the North Korean elites to adopt China’s economic reforms, arguing that it can lead to eventual Korean reunification. Lee Myung Bak and his administration probably waited for the nomination of Kim Jong Un in order to pronounce these spectacular words. There are hopes everywhere, not only in South Korea, that the new leaders will make the perspective of unification more plausible. Does it mean, nevertheless, that North Korea has to exist?
In general, there are various possible scenarios for the Korean reunification. The first one would be a bloodless scenario like in Germany. The second one is a violent reunification as the one which occurred in Vietnam. The third is an intermediate scenario.
None of these scenarios may fit to the Korean scenario. Both Koreas are too different from Germany, Vietnam or Yemen. The North Korean economy is in collapse and being unified with this country will mean an economic catastrophe for the potential donator for the next 20 years. North Korean industries are operating at only half of their capacities due to insufficient electrical power and North Korea’s economy has been experiencing a negative growth for a few years.
Repairing the economy is not only a question of money but also, what is often forgotten, a question of time. Fixing the North Korean economy means also new infrastructure. The next weak point of North Korea is a lack of competencies among its workers. That’s why the best solution, and the most radical, would be to destroy North Korean production capacities, which are of course not normalized in terms of international norms. It will cost billions of dollars. But who will pay the bill? For sure, not Seoul – As things stand today, South Korea cannot take care of the 20 thousand defectors from North Korea residing in its borders. China is also against the unification of the country. Beijing is afraid of a potential strong United Korea. It could be a challenge for China’s status in Asia and may probably threaten the leading position of China in Asia and the political status quo in South-East Asia.
As a matter of fact, speaking about the unification of the Korean Peninsula is a never-ending story and most of the debate has now centered on China’s position in the Korean Peninsula. China invests in North Korea, but the Chinese authorities refuse the idea of the collapse of North Korea. That’s why both countries are already sharing the “North Korean cake” by creating various joint venture or investment groups. A Chinese-North Korean investment bank emerged last year, with at its head Pak Sol Chu, a Korean-Chinese businessman. As to South Korea, South Korean companies operating in the Kaesong Industrial Park receive certain incentives from South Korea.
In reality nobody wants the reunification, but everybody wants the collapse of North Korea. The ones who are interested are people whose families are on both sides of the peninsula. Only the families divided by the border between both countries desire unification. However, they are too few, and that’s why nothing is done in order to find a solution to their problem. Reunions occur sometimes, as the one in October 2010. Over 100 people from both countries, long-separated family members, saw each other on the Mount Kumgang tourist complex. They were brought there together after decades of separation, but will probably never see each other again.
Taking in account the new realities of North Korea and the impossibility of unification, what are the prospects for the country?
The first scenario is the satellization of North Korea, where the country becomes a Chinese province. It does not mean that North Koreans would trust the Chinese. Hostility is always there, interrupted by brief periods of détente. Cooldown periods take place only when one of the sides needs the other for whatever reasons.
The second scenario is the disappearance of North Korea. United Nations may attack North Korea, but that requires the permission of China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council. In case of victory, the North Korean territory will be occupied by United Nations Troops. If North Korea disappeared as a sovereign state, it could be still a country in a geographical sense, divided into various occupation zones. The situation might be similar to the one that happened within the Balkans, where peacekeepers were sent. In the case of North Korea, the United Nations would be going to maintain a presence, with the acceptance of China and South Korea. Chinese may accept such a deal if they could use the North Korean population as source of cheap labor and if the population of North Korea would have a limited access to China. China will also prohibit migration from North Korea people to access to China because China is afraid that these populations will commute with the Korean minority living already in China and together would have some whims on independence. What’s more, the North Korean population won’t have access to South Korea either, or the access will be strictly limited. It is due to the fact that South Korea cannot already manage its population of defectors, and surveys shows that their economic livehood is poor. Park Gab Dong, a former director of the Propaganda Department of the Korean Workers Party, a defector to South Korea, urges to use preemptive attacks against North Korea. Waiting is not a good solution, because it means condemning the next generation of North Koreans to live under the banner of one of the of the world’s most repressive regimes.
This situation also means that China can afford to lose its political partnership with North Korea without losing its leadership in the Northern part of Asia. After a period of adaptation, a new country may emerge with a new economic infrastructure. New persons will be also at the head of this country but who are they?
New North Korean elites should be found out of North Korea, because North Koreans who are living in the country haven’t any political education. The potential new elites are mainly in South Korea, which is a base for more than 20 thousand defectors. The problem is, nevertheless, that the majority of defectors are lower class people and they cannot be viewed as potential next leaders of the new North Korea. However there are also a group of people who created a movement for the democratization of North Korea: The National Salvation Front for the Democratic Reunification of Korea. It is an exile organization constituted of former North Korean government leaders. These people should complete their political education in countries supportive of the idea of new North Korea. All of this should help to a smooth the creation of a new state with the total, or at least partial, acceptance of its neighbors: China, South Korea and Russia.
Interestingly, it may be the case that new North Korean elites may also be found in North Korea at the new Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. This school is to boost the North Korean economic development. It is to be the place where business capacities and foreign languages are to be taught.
Actually dealing with North Korea doesn’t represent an easy thing. North Korea is not a dictatorship like any other; it is very unstable and secretive. When North Korea was in famine in the early 1990s, it was a weak but a stable country. It was the best time to put an end to the dictatorship. Now the rogue regime has nuclear weapons, and may use them against U.S. allies. North Korea’s attack on the South Korean island Yeongjong now also represents a dramatic diplomatic test for South Korea and its president Lee Myung Bak, who promised to punish North Korea for its artillery attacks. A new level of hostility was reached and it seems that prospects of unification are further away than ever.