70 years on: Korean Reunification – Bonanza or Bust?

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and also the 70th anniversary of Korea’s division into North and South. Last month the World Journalists Conference was held throughout South Korea under the theme ‘the 70th anniversary of the division of Korea: Thinking about unification on the Korean Peninsula’.

Na Kyung-won, Chairperson of the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee of the National Assembly, posed the question: What is North Korea for South Korea? Her response – “On the one hand, a serious security threat, but on the other hand, a partner with which we have to work together on the way leading to the unification of Korea.” This stance isn’t surprising – the requirement to seek peaceful unification is included in the South Korean Constitution.

South Korea established a Ministry of Reunification in 1998, which works to establish North Korean policy, coordinate inter-Korean dialogue, pursue inter-Korean cooperation, and educate the public on unification. In Korea there is an old saying, ‘ten years can change even the rivers and the mountains.’ However any progress on reunification to date has been largely non-existent.

From 2000 until 2008 liberal governments in South Korea put in place the Sunshine Policy under the leadership of President Kim Dae Jung. The policy resulted in greater political contact between the two countries, two Korean summit meetings in Pyongyang, several business ventures and brief meetings of some Korean families separated by the Korean War.

Kim Dae Jung was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his successful implementation of the Sunshine Policy. However, following nuclear and missile tests and the shooting of a South Korean tourist at the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region, the Sunshine Policy was deemed a failure and wound up in 2010. The Sunshine Policy is dead, and so are the key players on both sides.

Sadly there are an estimated 6,700 people from separated families living in South Korea. The tragedy of the division is most prominently seen through those people who have not seen, spoken to, or even sent letters to their family members. Those people with the closest ties to the North are getting very old. Koreans, who are extremely family-centric, are very conscious of the fact that there is not much time left. The older generation passionately long for reunification, and believe it is imminent. Younger Korean’s seem to be agnostic about the prospect and worry about the economic cost.

Aside from reuniting disrupted families, South Korean government officials frequently spoke about ‘hitting the jackpot’, or the ‘bonanza’ that would come with reunification. The Korean Peninsula would be thrust into the role of an Asian hub. China, the world’s second largest economy lies to the West. Japan to the East is the world’s third largest. The virtual island of South Korea that is so evident from nighttime satellite photos would become connected through rail, road, and pipelines through to Eurasia.

South Korea’s population of 50 million combined with 25 million in the North would develop an entirely new market. North Korea has 20% more space geographically than South Korea and an abundance of natural resources including coal, iron ore, gold, rare earths, hydroelectric and seafood. South Korea would suddenly become resource rich, and South Korean companies would gain access to a pool of hardworking, inexpensive North Korean labour.

On the flipside, Andrew Salmon, an author and high-profile journalist based in Seoul had a more pessimistic stance. He noted that if you look at North Korea through only the lens of the leadership, nothing much has changed. His view is that the most exciting and underreported story in Asia is that North Korea is becoming a de facto capitalist state.

During the 1990s North Korea suffered from horrific famine. The State distribution system imploded and North Korea had no choice but to go across the border to China, start trading, and run primitive markets. These markets have not gone away and have instead expanded nationwide to the extent that you can now buy almost anything – food, consumer goods, even electronics. Instead of North Korean currency the traders use international currencies and communicate with each other to set exchange rates. While it may be primitive and unofficial, for the first time in history change is coming from the bottom up.

Salmon believes there are rewards just ahead. Under Kim Jong-un, we have seen incentives and autonomy for factories, agricultural and fishing industries. A real estate market is becoming established in Pyongyang and even a venture capital market is becoming established.

The Kaesong Industrial Zone was established and is run by the South Koreans. While it has been open for ten years, there are only 123 small South Korean companies operating there and is unlikely to get any bigger. The original plan was for this to be the first step for South Korea’s economic recolonisation.

On the flipside, North Korea are establishing additional special economic zones. They are seeking foreign trade and investment, with China moving in very aggressively. The Rason special economic zone is in the far northeast bordering Russia and China and serves as a warm-water port for both countries. Foreign currency is permitted, and there are no poor people there.

Salmon’s view is that there is some hope in the future. But it doesn’t lie in the hands of the generals, the politicians, or the diplomats. It is up to business leaders. The Sunshine Policy wasn’t instigated by a politician, but by Chung Ju-yung – the founder of Hyundai conglomerate. Salmon argued that South Korea needs to get rid of sanctions that prevent any trade or investment in the North outside the artificial Kaesong Industrial Zone and stop the incessant focus on denuclearization – because it won’t happen. He argued that we should instead separate business from politics so that we can all have a stake in the North Korean economy.

As a country that assisted in the Korean War, I was invited to take part in a panel discussion on reunification, and share lessons that could be learnt from a New Zealand perspective. With speakers from powerful economies of Russia, China, the UK and South Korea, this was formidable, but the Korean’s were interested in hearing about New Zealand’s much admired strong relationships with nations around the world.

Reflecting on Korean reunification from a New Zealand perspective, our close partnership with Australia in particular offers a number of lessons instructive to prospects for such a future partnership between North and South Korea.

Despite our entwined history and combined military efforts, it would be fair to say that our relationship with Australia has remained strong due to our successful economic and trading partnership. Although the countries have their differences – cultural, political, nuclear, and commercial – they both represent an important trading partner to the other, supported by what is often referred to as “the world’s most comprehensive, effective, and mutually compatible free trade agreement”.

New Zealand’s close relationship has endured with Australia because we are stronger together. If New Zealand can share something with the world, it is that careful navigation of trade issues is something that can strengthen relationships, and over time build trust.

Word from the officials is that unification will be a jackpot not only in Korea, but for the rest of the world. Whether that is right or wrong, a divided Korea is a very sad reality. Progress has been slow, but ultimately the key to resolving conflict and division on the Korean Peninsula will come down to demonstrating that the interest in reunification is mutual and that benefits long term will extend the potential – for both economies.

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