in reaction to the speech made by Antony J. Blinken (U.S. Deputy Secretary of State) just yesterday, I thought I should take a look at the elephant in the room that is the unification of Korea.
As you all surely know, Korea has been divided in two states ever since the Korean war (1950-1953). The two states, one stalinist-communist and the other deep right-wing democracy/dictatorships (depending on who you’re talking to), are very much at war. Year after year, due to North Korean propaganda picked up by popular media, it seems like the peninsula is going to self-destruct and yet nothing ever happens. Majority of Koreans, presumably from the South, feels like the unification is just around the corner and even if they don’t they at least keep the hope that it is going to happen during their lifetime. To me that sounds awfully positive, so why is that that nothing ever happens ?
I believe that the answer is very simple despite also being very complex. Nobody wants it to happen and especially not Koreans themselves. North Korea is one of the most oppressive and underdeveloped countries in the world. It has a population of over 20 million people that has only experienced hardships, propaganda and Communism. The country lacks proper infrastructure, functional industry or even functioning agriculture. On the other side, there is South Korea where 90% of its inhabitants have access to broadband internet and which is home to tech giants like Samsung (which is by the way manufacturing all the fancy chips and screens for our beloved Apple in addition to flooding markets with their own devices). According to some estimates the unification would cost South Korea around US$2.7 trillion. Honestly, I can’t even say how many Samsung S6 Edge+ they’d have to sell to pay for that. It would essentially send South Korea from being among top 20 largest GDP nations to medieval times for decades. No wonder the South Korean leadership is no hurry. Surely one must admit that once this little hiccup is out of the way unified Korea could swing back up using natural resources of the North combined with business experience and tech savvy to counter giants like China, but that is like saying you could win the marathon, but you need to shoot yourself in a leg first and wait till it heals. Who would want to be the leader that does that.
That brings me to why literally nobody else wants the unification to happen despite fancy speeches and declarations. The United States consider their position in Asia as very important as proven by the official pivot of Obama administration towards Asia. Australia and central Asia produce great deal of resources that are then pumped into US and Chinese economies and Asia in general is where lots of US trading happens. Therefore the US needs a strong foothold in Asia. It has its troops in Japan, treaties with Taiwan and up to 60% of its navy in the region, but most importantly it also has up to 30’000 soldiers sitting in South Korea, presumably safeguarding the country against North Korean aggression. China does not like that at all. China is like your egocentric younger sibling who constantly eats your chocolate and blames it on the dog. China fears that after the unification the US is going to move its troops towards the new border and ,frankly, it is not all that far from Yalu river to Beijing. Basically a missile launch away. In public, China and North Korea are great buddies while actually China thinks of it as the lesser evil.
Surely the US would be forced to withdraw its forces out of Korea once the country is stable, thus loosing a very important reason to be there. After all, what motivation would Japan have to keep the US base on Okinawa if North Korea is out of the picture ?
From the economic point of view neither Japan, China, Taiwan or Philippines would benefit from the unification since who needs a nation that could, given enough time, turn from a tiger to a lion (sorry, can’t think of an unbiased animal stronger than tiger) and drag in all the business that everyone wanted to get their hands on.
In my opinion, the only way towards unification of Korea leads through collapse of regime in China and subsequent collapse of North Korea once the scales of power are tipped towards everyone there having no other choice than to support it. Until then, maintaining the current status quo is more than comfortable state of affairs for all parties concerned.