The death of Kim Jong-il and the succession of Kim Jung-un to the state’s throne raises the possibility of some sort of opening for the North Korean hermit Kingdom. The possibility of significant reforms–more open markets, freer travel for North Koreans, even elections and a free press–have to be considered. (So, of course, does continued repression and saber rattling from the North.) Reform of any sort leads towards the Korean reunification that both Korean governments and nearly all other powers say they want.
Any honest look at the facts about the two Koreas, however, reveals a deeply depressing truth: reunification of the Koreas, if it ever comes, will probably take generations. Under the rule of the Kim family, North Korea has fallen so far behind the South that it may never be able to catch up.
The problem isn’t simply that North Korea is, as Christopher Hitchens once put it, A Nation of Racist Dwarfs: there’s little reason to doubt that, given time, North Koreans could overcome the pablum of propaganda and live successfully in the South. (Thousands of refugees already have.) Rather, it’s that the world’s longest-lived truly totalitarian regime has so wrecked the economy that reunification is very likely impossible.
Consider: South Korea has a per capita GDP of about $30,000, pretty close to the average for the European Union. North Korea’s economy produces a GDP of about $1,900 per capita. Put differently, South Koreans are roughly as wealthy as Italians while North Korea is pretty similar to Bangladesh. Mexico, by comparison, has about a quarter of the United States’ GDP per capita.
Official statistics are probably too kind to North Korea. About half of the country’s GDP currently goes to support a military that would have to be demobilized almost entirely following any reunification. Furthermore, the handful of countries that appear poorer on world charts are mostly places with central governments that don’t control the entire nation and/or have very large subsistence agriculture sectors that economists can’t really measure accurately. (North Korea has a large subsistance sector too but the government’s periodic crackdowns on markets mean that it produces well below capacity.)
Furthermore, the North Korean government’s economic mismanagement has destroyed much farmland and tapped out many natural resources. South Korean experts have put the cost of reunification at something like $1 trillion. But even this figure, a little over $40,000 per North Korean, seems pretty low given that North Korea has just about no use productive infrastructure.
The result, sadly, is that no amount of economic reform could, in the short term, make North Korea even close to a peer of the South. Unlike East Germany, which had the highest standard of living in the communist block prior to West Germany’s absorption of it, North Korea is so different from the South that, given the chance, nearly everyone capable of moving from North to South would do so. There’s literally no way the South (population about 50 million) could handle a sudden influx of all 25 million North Koreans. The 62 million people living in the western portion of Germany, indeed, had a hard enough time absorbing the relative handful of their 16 million eastern kin that moved west.
Even if everything goes right, even if the new North Korean leaders turn out to be willing to make reforms, it appears that the two Koreas just aren’t going to become one nation anytime soon.