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The cold reality of Korean reunification
Merging disparate societies could be traumatic for both countries
A South Korean government-affiliated institute said recently that the cost could be up to $240 billion after a year and up to $2.4 trillion after a decade.
South Korea’s president has urged his country to prepare for reunification by studying the possibility of adopting a tax aimed at raising money for the costs of integration. The idea largely has stalled for the time being.
The German model is often raised for Korea, but there are important differences.
West Germans largely footed the bill for reunification after the collapse of communism, bringing the overall infrastructure of the former East Germany up to a standard similar to that in the West.
North Korea’s population, however, is about half the size of the South’s, while East Germany’s population was only a quarter of the West’s, according to Erik Lueth, an economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland.
Also, East Germany’s ruling elite, chafing under the Soviet yoke, was not averse to the idea of uniting with West Germany and even accepting its capitalist system.
North Korean leaders, analysts say, won’t quickly accept a system that would take away their power and seek accountability for a rule that the United States and others say often trampled on rights.
“Reunification would be terrible for North Korea’s elite and wonderful for the North Korean people, although there would be a traumatic period of adjustment,” said Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Hawaii-based think tank. “For the top handful of North Korean leaders, reunification under Seoul would mean jail or worse.”
For South Korea, reunification “will no doubt be messy and costly, even if it comes with a whimper, not a bang,” Mr. Cossa said. Still, “living with a hostile, unpredictable, nuclear-armed North Korea is not much fun either.”
Reunification also could provide eventual benefits for the South’s economy.
Economist Marcus Noland at the Peterson Institute for International Economics describes a “peace dividend” that would come with a reduction in military tensions and the associated drop in military spending. The North also has abundant natural resources and a relatively well-educated and cheap labor force.
By John R. Bolton
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