- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2000

The meeting between the presidents of the two Koreas last week has had all sorts of fascinating and unexpected consequences already. As if the sight of Kim Dae-jung of South Korea and Kim Jong-il of North Korea holding hands was not enough ranking in strangeness with the photo of Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl holding hands in the mid-1980s there was the sight of thousands of North Koreans waving little red flags and cheering for the leader of the country they have been indoctrinated to hate with all their hearts.

Meanwhile, back here in Washington, we had more developments. Sen. Jesse Helms, of all people, was the first to air the view that the United States ought now to consider bringing home the boys, the 35,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to prevent a repeat of the invasion of June 25, 1950. It was up to the Clinton administration, of all people, to pour cold water on Mr. Helms' enthusiasm, saying that withdrawing the troops might be a touch premature.

The White House, however, had more surprises up its sleeve. This week, we learned that the American embargo against North Korea will be lifted without further ado which makes you wonder what kind of charms the North Korean leader has hidden under that fluffy, funky hairdo.

Something evidently moved Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, for she disclosed yesterday that the term "rogue state" is no longer to be applied to North Korea (or Libya or Iraq). Instead, they are now to be known as "states of concern." How tactful. One hopes that the three dictators ruling over these barren lands, arming themselves with weapons of mass destruction, will find their self-esteem improved from not having the offensive term "rogue" flung in their faces. Perhaps self-esteem was the problem all along.

Given all these strange omens, how long can it possibly be before the two Koreas reunite and fall about each other's necks, the way West Germans and East Germans did 10 years ago? Events back then certainly also took all of us by surprise; do not rule out the impossible.

Still, anyone who happened to find himself (or in this case herself) in South Korea in the early 1990s came away with little doubt that South Koreans had no desire to repeat the German experience, despite the similarity in circumstances. Indeed, it was regarded somewhat with the horror the Chinese talk about Russian-style economic reform.

That view still appears to prevail, according to a perfectly timed study, published this week by the Institute for International Economics, "Avoiding the Apocalypse: The Future of the Two Koreas," by Marcus Noland. Mr. Noland writes that "a review of the literature on the costs of unification suggests that Korean economists interpret the German experience as a costly failure. This view appears to be shared by the general public."

In fact, 90 percent of respondents to surveys in South Korea on unification regard it as "somewhat" or "very" important, but did not want to pay much for it. More than 70 percent said that "since unification can create many problems, it must proceed slowly," and more than half thought that a unification tax was a bad idea (such as the income surtax West Germans paid with widespread grumbling), unless it could be done so as not to burden the average household.

That is not likely to be possible by Mr. Noland's calculations. In order to get North Korea to 60 percent of the per capita income of South Korea, the point at which he calculated population migration from North to South would cease in a unification scenario, $700 billion of new investment in the North would be needed. Were that investment not to flow, 90 percent of the 21 million North Koreans would travel south to join the 46 million there. Unification on South Korean soil in other words, a nightmare.

The reasonable conclusion Mr. Noland draws is that gradual unification, through perhaps a customs union, currency links, investment and capital transfers to the North would obviously be a preferable approach. However, as he writes, "Economic integration of this sort would presumably require an enormous reduction in political tensions (or even political integration)."

Did we witness the first steps in this process last week? And if North Korea's communist government were to ease its grip on power, would anyone be able to control the outcome? The reason German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had to rush through unification, including making enormously expansive financial commitments to the East, was that he could not otherwise stem the flow of East Germans fleeing their pitiful lives. South Koreans have had the luxury of theorizing about unification for a decade. The time for contemplation may be running out.

E-mail: bering@washtimes.com

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