A friend of mine beautifully summed up the case of North Korea: the very idea of a communist dynasty smacks of a Three Stooges comedy. It would be hilariously funny if it weren’t so incomprehensibly tragic.
Now, in the latest attempt to affirm its near hermetic separation from the rest of the world, the North Korean government has announced that it will turn its clocks 30 minutes behind those of Japan and South Korea. The changeover will occur Aug. 15, marking the 70th anniversary of the defeat of Japan, a nation as despised and reviled among the North Koreans as the United States.
Dropping the current time standard is viewed as casting off one of the last vestiges of the Japanese colonial legacy.
The change will drive another wedge into an already deeply divided Korean peninsula. Korea has been sundered in so many ways within the last 70 years, notably by language.
The dialect spoken in South Korea reflects the nation’s close integration into the American and global economies. English words – ice cream and shopping, for example – have become commonplace in South Korea. North Koreans predictably are hostile to incorporating any imperialist terms into their language. Consequently, two separate languages are emerging on the peninsula, a hard reality imposed on North Korean defectors after their first encounter with the South Korean dialect.
All this sundering leads me to wonder how South Korea ultimately will deal with the wholesale collapse of the North Korean regime. German unification will look like a cakewalk compared to efforts to rejoin Korea. Beleaguered East Germans at least had exposure to West German media in the years leading up to unification. The yawning cultural, social and economic chasm that has emerged between the two Koreas within the last 70 years is only one obstacle among many to unification. In economic, political and social terms, North Korean society is pathologically sick in ways East German society never was.
Aside from all the cultural and political challenges, the economic costs of Korean unification would be higher than Germany’s – as much as $2 trillion over a ten-year period, according to one estimate.
The psychological challenges alone strike me as daunting. Many North Korean defectors to the South remain dysfunctional for the rest of their lives, entirely ill-equipped to acclimate to an advanced western economy. Integrating a few thousand North Koreans into the South’s economy is one thing. What happens when South Korea faces the prospect of incorporating 25 million psychologically scarred, malnourished and economically dysfunctional people into its ranks?
Wouldn’t a post-Kim North Korea have to be put on life support indefinitely?
Under the circumstances, I wonder if a German-style organic union with North Korea is feasible in the short term. Indeed, in the months following East Germany’s collapse there was serious talk of a confederation of the two Germanies as a temporary but desirable alternative to unification – a chance to allow socialist East Germans time for decompression and acclimation.
Wouldn’t a similar strategy be better suited to Korea’s situation? For that matter, would placing north North Korea under a UN mandate with the prospect of confederation with South Korea as a short-term goal offer a more desirable option?
Mind you, I’m no Korea expert, only a ordinary citizen who harbors a perverse fascination for the hermit kingdom of the North and her ultimate fate.