Why the 'civilization' gap will hinder reunification efforts

[Understanding Unification]
Daily NK  |  2017-04-14 15:12

Although ex-South Korean President Park Geun Hye asserted it, can unification really be considered a bonanza? If there is sufficient strength of government to manage what needs to come before and after unification as well as protect the economy, then unification is indeed an opportunity. However, bringing together the two Koreas--each cut off from the other for more than half a century--is no simple task. Remaining optimistic about unification is necessary, but understanding the positive and negative aspects involved is of critical importance.

To this end, Daily NK will deliver a series of excerpts from the recently published book, Unification Strategies During Sudden Changes in North Korea, co-authored by Kim Young Hwan, head researcher at the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights; Oh Gyeong Seob, researcher at Sejong Institute; and Ryu Jae Gil, secretary general at the think tank Zeitgeist. This 40-installment series seeks to offer fresh insights into pending issues relating to the unification of the two Koreas.

Reunification of the Korean peninsula will be a significant challenge largely due to the cultural differences between the North and South. It is therefore important to promote the concept of cultural unification. Lets start by looking at just a few of the differences between North and South.  

The difference between people in one particular society liking pets and another society not liking pets is a minor cultural difference. However, if people in Society A think it is morally wrong to abuse pets while no such taboo exists in Society B, this amounts to a major cultural difference. It is quite difficult to get people with dramatically different worldviews to live together in harmony. Perhaps a public bathroom stops being serviced because someone is stealing the toilet paper. Or perhaps people stop using it because others are leaving a mess behind. These kind of major cultural differences can drive antipathy. Perceptions of human rights also apply here. 

Enforcing dozens of laws on people who are struggling to earn enough to make a living could prompt those people to perceive the laws as a form of psychological or financial pressure. But one might say that these types of people do not have a very developed sense of the importance of laws. As the problems become more pronounced and severe, these differences can lead to psychological stress and political turmoil. 

The economic, cultural, and societal gaps between North and South Korea are immense. There have been a number of failed attempts at reunification throughout the world. For example, Malaysia and Singapore tried and failed to unify. Many people attributed this failure to ethnic and religious differences, but Malaysia and Singapore are and have been countries that have thrived despite their ethnic and religious diversity. When reunification was being attempted, over 30% of Malaysias citizens were overseas Chinese, and that number is still hovering around 30%. Although there was some rioting in the 1960s, things have been relatively stable since then.  

Looking at the details of the Malaysia-Singapore unification process, we can see that religion and ethnicity did play some role in impeding the effort, but cultural differences were a far stronger factor in the ultimate failure of the policy. The cultural gap between North and South Korea is significantly larger than the gap between Malaysia and Singapore, and it is almost meaningless to even compare the two. From this point of view, getting North and South to create a single system means overcoming intense differences with regards to politics, economics, and social values. 

North Koreans are accustomed to a military structure that encourages very politicized behavior. In a military society, it is necessary to learn how to follow rules, ignore ones own opinions in favor of the party line, fulfill orders and responsibilities, recognize power, and obey the authorities.  

Without any knowledge or experience of political freedom, the right to assemble, and a free press, the sudden introduction of these freedoms could result in social turmoil. It could induce the rise of political factions and prolonged demonstrations, while creating a high risk of undesirable consequences. The fact that North Koreans are unaccustomed to having an influence on politics will bring many dangers. 

Some prefer to compare North-South reunification to post-Soviet Germany, but North Koreas military social structure makes this comparison less applicable. If the South Korean political and legal system is suddenly applied to the North, it will cause economic problems and significant confusion. 

If North and South become united into a single political entity, there are risks associated with applying South Korean standards too quickly. If South Korean welfare, medical care, and labor protections are all applied universally, the new country will face tremendous financial pressure and it will be difficult for companies to operate successfully in the northern regions. And if South Korean human rights standards are suddenly applied to the North, it will be extremely difficult to maintain law and order. 

South Koreas citizens, politicians, and bureaucrats are used to the South Korean system, so it will be difficult for them to properly lead the North Korean people. North Korea is an extremely oppressive country, where people have very little knowledge about the law. Law and order in North Korea is less important than who has the power and who has the money to pay a bribe. To lead a population who have known only this type of system will be no easy task.  

We need to increase our understanding of North Koreas style of political activities, North Korean political and social trends, and the North Korean peoples desires and demands. This means going beyond textbook-style learning. Only a very small number of South Korean politicians, academics, and journalists seem to understand the full ramifications of sudden unification. It is challenging to teach South Koreans about these kinds of problems because they are so used to thinking about things from a South Korean point of view.  

*Edited by Lee Farrand

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