Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

A Focus on Costs, Not Benefits, Dampens Koreans' Desire for Reunification

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

A Focus on Costs, Not Benefits, Dampens Koreans' Desire for Reunification

Article excerpt

While reunification remains South Koreans' preferred method of ending the peninsula's long division, Korean youth increasingly are contemplating alternatives such as permanent separation. Many consider North Korea another foreign country, albeit one whose inhabitants share language and ancestry. Numerous factors underpin their changing attitude. Sixty years have passed since the Korean War sealed the frontier, reducing familial ties and other linkages with the North. Rapid increases in wealth, plus advances in communications and transportation, have brought South Korea's mindset closer to the West. The strongest catalyst of anti-unification sentiment among Republic of Korea (ROK) youth, however, is the monetary cost of unification, which could surpass $2 trillion. Overcoming anxieties that equate political union with impoverishment will require ROK decisionmakers to portray costs as investments and to highlight reunification's economic benefits, which will endure long after expenditures subside. Since a reunified Korea furthers long-term U.S. interests in Northeast Asia, the United States should support the ROK effort.

Once Solid, Support Begins to Dwindle

ROK politicians continue to promote peninsular union, fearing electoral blowback if they abandoned this longtime strategic objective. Nevertheless, recent polling shows support for integration dropping. Eighty percent of mid-1980s South Koreans asserted unification was imperative. That figure now reads 56 percent. (2) Young adults poll at 41 percent, while only 20 percent of ROK teenagers consider national union vital. Of citizens claiming that achieving reunification should be the government's highest objective, 83 percent were elderly. Most South Koreans under 30 assert the government should focus first on improving their job prospects. (3)

Despite loud pro-reunification rhetoric, ROK government policies often preserve the peninsular status quo. Examples include large-scale food and fertilizer donations to North Korea and continued funding of the Kaesong Industrial Complex north of the demilitarized zone, which conservatively provides $20 million yearly to the Kim family. (4) Curtailing financial support could hasten regime change and thereby increase reunification prospects. Nonetheless, prominent Korea watchers contend that Seoul prefers that the North undergo a China-like economic reform before unification proceeds. (5)

Electoral calculations explain the go-slow approach, as ROK citizens jealously guard their hard-won prosperity and punish politicians who risk it. Recently publicized cost estimates on reunification have stoked fears of a return to poverty. The Presidential Council for Future and Vision set the price tag for union at $2.1 trillion if the North Korean regime toppled today. (6) That figure represents $40,000 per ROK citizen and would raise the national debt from a manageable 38 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 135 percent.

What Is Behind These Enormous Figures?

South Korea's 49 million residents enjoy a per capita GDP of approximately $30,000. Corresponding figures for the North are unreliable, but demographers estimate the population at 24 million and GDP at $1,000 to $2,000. The South's assimilation of a population half its size and far poorer would require a gargantuan investment. Korea experts peg first-year expenditures--primarily for humanitarian assistance and resettlement--at $50 billion. (7) Costs could rise further if the nations reunified following a violent struggle, as in Vietnam. (8)

Infrastructure expenditures increase reunification's cost considerably. Compared to South Korea's infrastructure, the North's utility and transportation grids appear medieval. While the ROK rates among the most wired nations in the world, Internet connectivity is rare in North Korea. Much agricultural land lies fallow and environmental degradation is frightening in scope. Also worrisome is the North's woeful underinvestment in human capital. …

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