Rolling back the fear

SCMP Dec 24 2011

Philip Bowring

The death of Kim Jong-il does not in itself bring the reunification of Korea closer. It is a still a dim and distant prospect as the Kim 'royal' family and North Korea's military bosses shore up the system using the young Kim Jong-un as a symbol of continuity and inheritor of the magical powers attributed to the dynasty.

Nor can one expect any easing of tyranny. After all, it is the system that is the source of tyranny, so change can come only when it is challenged, whether from within or without. An eventual challenge from within looks the more likely, given the difficulty of popular uprisings against regimes as ruthless as this.

And change can happen, if only because enough of the beneficiaries of the system, particularly the younger ones, recognise that, for their own survival, they need to be prepared to surrender some power, preferably in return for sustainable wealth.

That is a process which seems to be happening in Myanmar as military leaders morph into civilians, and crony capitalism and rigged elections offer a modest improvement on the previous situation.

Any change for North Korea's elite is far more difficult than for the Myanmese military. Its paranoia is such that it has come to half-believe its own propaganda about threats from the United States or Japan, which becomes justification for a nuclear programme that in turn becomes a symbol of the regime's almost mystical claim to be the defender of the Korean race. The Pyongyang propaganda machine almost invariably blames Korean problems on foreign interference, seldom even on the South Koreans.

Then there is the fear of either being swallowed up economically by a rich and confident South Korea or becoming an economic satellite of China - a quite reasonable fear, given the extent of the regime's failures and one that explains why it has been deaf to Chinese advice to follow the Chinese model and open up.

But a reformist group within the existing power structure might just be able to use the regime's extreme nationalism in a different and more positive way.

Given the suffering it has inflicted on its own people for 60 years, and particularly since Soviet aid was withdrawn in the 1980s, knowing - as the leaders and an increasing percentage of the population know - the success of China, let alone South Korea, a move towards some form of reunification may be the only way it can both redeem its place in Korean history and, even more important for the elite, ensure their own survival and future comfort.

Is there anyone at or near the top who can recognise that the North is at a dead end, as surely as then prime minister F.W. de Klerk recognised that apartheid in South Africa was a dead end, abandoning the ideology and trading power for peace and the hope of prosperity?

It is often said that the South does not actually want reunification because the economic cost would be crippling, creating huge demands for capital while wages in the South were driven down by labour from the North.

It would, say the doomsayers, be several times the cost of reunification for Germany, where the east had a relatively small population and much narrower income gap than exists in the Koreas.

But unification accompanied by temporary controls on labour movement and no attempt at immediate wage equality would present a huge investment opportunity for a South with capital, skills and markets but an ageing population.

The North was once a semi-industrialised country with skills and an infrastructure to match. Rebuilding could be done quickly and the North could become the location for many Korean-owned factories now found in China and Southeast Asia. The North's people may have been brainwashed but they are literate, mostly already urban and younger than in the South.

The many sins of the Kims, of the Workers' Party and of the military, could be quickly forgotten if they were seen to be the ones to take the risk for reunification. History for all Koreans would place all the blame for the past 60 years on foreigners - Americans, Russians, Japanese and Chinese.

For sure, China and Japan would be nervous about the prospect of a united and ever-prickly Korea. But a genuinely non-aligned, united Korea, even one with nuclear weapons, would probably be acceptable to all the bigger players in the region, including a US whose strategic priorities in the western Pacific are decreasingly focused on the Korean Peninsula.

Indeed, an advanced and united Korea that was also a major trading nation could be an important influence in keeping a peaceful balance of power in northeast Asia, committed to freedom of the seas and the merits of trade.





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