Friday, November 16, 2007

Lankov on the Korean Reunification Process

In the Asia Times, Dr. Lankov has penned one of the best pieces on Korean reunification I’ve ever read. Period.

Be sure to read it. Be sure to read it NOW.

Among the points:

  • Don’t hold you’re breath for “Chinese-style” economic reform in the North. It won’t happen.
  • Despite resistance to reform, North Korea is crumbling from below. The Romanian endgame is a likely ending.
  • Whether it likes it or not, South Korea must prepare for reunification.
  • The major task is to smooth the transition, and to do this, a provisional confederation is a possible solution.
  • No such confederation will be possible, however, until there is new leadership in Pyongyang.
  • A 10-15 year confederation will give the North a chance to transform while softening some of the problems associated with immediate unification (i.e., mass cross-border movement, South Korean real estate speculation in the North, unresolved land ownership issues, etc.).

Some of Lankov’s points are bound to be controversial. His proposal that a general amnesty be granted for crimes committed under the Kim regime, for example, is sure to raise a few eyebrows. So will his call for generous affirmative action programs for North Koreans in South Korean universities. Nevertheless, read the whole thing carefully — lots of good observations and solution proposals.

NOTE: Just to add my own two cents:

  • While I understand the need for a general amnesty for crimes committed under the Kims, I question whether such an amnesty will work as a practical and political measure. No amount of time is likely to protect Kim’s butchers from South Korean politics. Former South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan stepped down in 1987. Nine years later, he was sentenced to death for what he did in 1979-1980. South Korea’s ruling party, meanwhile, has spent the last five years forming committees to look into abuses committed during the colonial period and military dictatorship periods, and those ended over 50 years ago and 20 years ago, respectively. Given the enormity of what has transpired in the North, South Korean politicians and — seeing how they’ve been the primary target of South Korea’s recent historical naval-gazing — South Korean conservatives in particular are unlikely to give North Korean leaders a pass. Lastly, but probably most importantly, there’s likely to be great pressure from below in North Korea to see their tormentors punished. It would take great political will on the part of what is likely to be a weak and pressured transitional regime to hold off on bringing North Korea’s former leaders to account. On a positive note, however, should the current North Korean regime end in Romanian style, the question of what to do with Kim and Company might naturally work itself out in the first few hours of the revolution, allowing the North Korean masses to get their Fanon-esque cathartic act of violence done with right away.
  • Quotas for North Korean students in South Korean schools — sounds reasonably in theory, but good luck getting the South Koreans to go along with that. Like in many societies, education is a hot-button issue in South Korea, and I can’t see the South Korean public standing by while precious admission spots in Seoul’s top universities are allocated to inferior North Korean students. Or, to put this another way, South Koreans are reluctant enough as it is to contribute tax money to reunification, so I can’t see parents happily sacrificing their child’s shot at the big time so Cheol-su from Nampo can go to Seoul National University.
  • What the piece doesn’t delve into is the international aspect. An interim confederation would not exist in a vacuum. As is pointed out ad nauseum, the Korean Peninsula is surrounded by Great Powers like China, Japan, Russia and, by virtue of its presence, the United States. It would be interesting — and probably important — to speculate on how the geopolitics of the region might play into the political decision-making of the reunification process.

more from Lankof

Some rejoinders before I’ll run away for my next appointment.


You argue that the general amnesty promise is unlikely to be kept, I am afraid it is the case. However, I hope that when things settle down a little, it will the most notorious people whose punishment would become a political issue. Frankly, if some guards from the camp #22 will go to prison, I will not feel sorry, even though I will still probably publish few columns about value of unbroken promises. However, without amnesty these people will fight hard (and, without divulging to much in the open media, I can hint that they have made some preparations). This means many more deaths, Second, rough justice, revolutionary-type, should be minimized or, ideally, avoided. You know, people who become victims tend to be the least dangerous representatives of Ancien Regime.

Re affirmative actions. You know, my major worry (idealistic, perhaps) is that for a generation or two North Koreans will remain inferior, second-rate citizens. Without a sufficient number of holder of SKY degrees there will be no “new” North Korea elite. I know how crazy the ajumas will be. But this is important.


No, they do not. First, they know that South is doing better, but they do not realize how large the gap really is. Second, it is difficult to estimate which part of the population know even this. Majority in Pyongyang and borderland areas, but perhaps a minority elsewhere.


The problem is: these issues (indeed, each one worth a book) are NOT discussed publicly. Believe me, since I read much on this subject. Few references in passing, and it’s all. It is “politically incorrect” to talk about NK failure, as if the silence will help to solve the problem.


This is exactly what I am most afraid of (and want to avoid). Chaebol making the northerners “cheap labour” For ten or fifteen years, it might be OK. But not for generations.

to WangKon936, #13

WangKon, be surprised! Pretty much every college-educated Russian knows who Lincoln is. And if said Russian majored in history, s/he will know a lot about carpetbaggers and Reconstruction. As a matter of fact, world history, esp. European and American history, has been taught very well in Russian schools - a lot of teaching hours, great detail. I do not know any other country where “foreign history” was taught so well - or, at least, in such quantities. This is partially side-effect of “Marxisation” of the school system in the 1920s, and partially an old tradition going almost to Peter the Great’s times.

to Corpy Carly #14

Re migration. I am afraid you are correct. However, the “the maintenance of the DMZ as a heavily militarized border” will of limited use, since Korean soldiers will not shoot at the North Korean defectors (and if they do, there certain to be a public outcry). And even landmines will instantly become controversial. So, the flood will happen. And this is why I believe that confederation or any kind of special legal regime in the North will help to mitigate the disaster. It makes legal border control measures easier. It will also help to execute other policies designed to keep North Koreans in place. For example, in this article, due to space constraints, I mentioned “land rent system” proposal only in passing, but the land rent system might become such an incentive. The idea in brief: for ~10 years the farmers will have the distributed land not as property, but on condition of “free rent”. Then the land will be made their property, but only if the would-be owner actually worked the land for the entire length of this period. This will make people less willing to come South. For the first year or two it might even make sense to keep the PDS (public distribution system) – again on conditions that you receive rations only in your place of residence or, perhaps, elsewhere in the North.

But let’s be frank: unification will be a disaster for the South – at least, in short-term, since long-term effects might be benefitial. And I am not talking about preventing disaster, only about mitigating it.

Re FDI: investment should be ecouraged. The arable land and living houses are the only exception, but very important one!

The issue of domination. Alas, you are correct. The new economy will be owned almost exclusively, by outsiders, largely South Koreans. Carpetbaggers will flood the country, too. The palliative measure will be creation of the new North Korean elite – this is why affirmative actions are so important. Not only in the university admissions, but also with employment (some quotas of the locals at the managerial positions for the companies operating in the North, etc.). By the way, these policies are likely to create another issue: the “new elite” will consist largely, if not exclusively, from the scions of the Kims’ officials. This is why I believe that large-scale training of defectors is of such paramount significance, to create another layer of future elite which will be opposed to the old system and, to some extent, free from its shortcomings.

But once again: this is not a perfect solution. There is not perfect solution. Alas.

TO #17

We have a very reliable data, even if somewhat old, on the NK population, since in the early 1990s the NK government invited US experts to help with census and provided them with wealth of data. The NK officials tried to doctor the books, hoping to hide the size of their huge military, but in the demographics such manipulation is difficult, so the real picture was easily reconstructed. See early works by Eberstadt who was one of those experts. So, the short answer to your question is: yes, the population is younger, but the difference is not as large as one might expect. The TFR in NK is ~2.1, and life expectancy is in the mid-60s. So, it will help, but will not make a large difference. To complicate matters further, the NK population is very unhealthy.

TO Corpy Carly, #16

I know. I lobby hard for these policies (education for defectors), both with US officials (no success so far) and SK officials (moderate success). If somebody in this blog will be in position to make noices, make these noices, too. I do not know how much time we have left, but it’s never too late to start breaking. It’s better to hit a wall at 45 miles an hour then at 60 m/h.

Re 성통만사. To my discredit, never heard of it. Just googled it, found their site, and will have a look right now.

TO WangKon936, #22

No need for apologies. Frankly, the over-emphasis on the world history in Soviet/Russian curriculum is sort of anomaly, but this is the type of anomaly I like! And I think many people read the Hole, many more than even Marmot himself thinks. I have had interesting experiences when things I said in my blog (in Russian, a reliable secret language, one assumes) were sometimes cited by people under very surprising circumstances.

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