‘Merciless[…] Sacred War’The North Korea Question:

‘Peace secured by slavish submission is not peace.’ – Kim Jong Sung. Can some sort of peace, far more stable and calm than the current cold war between North and South be accomplished? Reconstruction or invasion? The answers to the North Korean question remain.

For this to be explored in a shorter essay, we will consider the political will for unification as present.

While buying a second hand book from a stall in town I got a copy of a book on Kim Jong Sung for a pound. Upon further inspection at a later date I realised that it was something more special. Printed in Pyongyang and stylised with the narrative voice we expect. A patriotic zeal that made me double-take, the first look in a paternalistic smile at the clear naivety of the author and then a moment of quiet and sad reflection. North Korea is a joke to many, and it us understandable when taking it all on face value: the rallies, the plump leader, the chanting masses. And then I remembered, it is not a joke for the 23 million people that live there, nor for the 200,000 incarcerated Prison population[1], the starved and the oppressed.

We have fallen for the North Korean lies but not how they would want. Rather than a show of strength we see a pathetic attempt and we laugh, in the end it buys into the hands of the DPRK. We see an illusion and forget the fact that North Korea is real, it exists, and like some sick joke, manifested into a reality, we must acknowledge it all the same.

[Re]unification. Ideology was the main factor in the split North-South. The Communist North and the ‘puppet’, ‘imperialist’ South. Reunification is the official desire of both the North and South, so why no peace? North Korea’s stance is different from the South’s. Considering that North Korea has educated its people in the history of the external forces’ role. America split the nation, not them, ‘capitalism and imperial enslavement’, not war. Allowing to this perception, North Korea says that for unification the U.S. must be denounced, South Korea must expel anti-unification forces, and is grounded on ‘the By-Our-Nation-Itself ideal,” (우리민족끼리).[2] From this, the preamble to the exploration of  reunification cannot be accepted without the expulsion of the US Forces in the South. This seems a likely decision from a cautious Government. Here are several reasons why Korea is cautious of unification:

  1. Economic cost (common ground and concern)
  2. Social shock- assimilation of an increasingly changing population
  3. The issue of war criminals

1) Economic Cost:

There is a twelve year life expectancy gap between the North and South, there are twenty-two infant deaths per thousand births, eleven times higher than the South. The updating of hospital infrastructure in the North would be expensive, the training of the staff already there would also be astronomically high. There are approximately twenty thousand miles of unpaved, unkempt roads and few cars in North Korea, Air Koyro is populated by old soviet aircraft. Infrastructure to move vital supplies through the country would not be present or of high quality and would slow down the process of unification as the logistical effort is undermined by the poor quality of roads and buildings.

Bar the physical infrastructure the economic inequality between the North and South would be far the most pressing issue for the business world and economy. Average GDP of South Korea is above Thirty thousand dollars, the average North Korean may take in two thousand dollars a year. This would lead to further questions by economists, a regional currency perhaps? Rationing until inflation helps bring costs down and wages up? What about pensions? Loans? The ones given by the DPRK? Waved? Cost estimates vary between fifty billion dollars to upwards from three trillion.I will not look at investigating these factors as I am not an economist, however the fact remains: The unified Korea would experience an economic shock like no other and the destabilising affect would be destructive.

2)Social shock:

North and South Korea have been raised with different leaders. The first and most pressing issue is the cultural aspect. Naturally the authoritarian Northerners would struggle in a unified Korea but for more reasons than the abundance of food and lack of state over-watch. Linguistical evolution since the division has been rapid enough to be considered thoroughly heterogeneous. A third of most words spoken in the two nations are different[3]. Rather distastefully I will draw on a conclusion drawn in Stalin’s ‘National Question’ which states that: ‘Thus, a common language is one of the characteristic features of a nation'[4]. Assimilation is a final characteristic of a unified and answered Korean Question, the social shock of the linguistic differences would lead to social rejection in many cases and from that, a Nativist response to this would then occur and lead to social tensions.

A conclusion for the social shock factor would be that cultural assimilation would be one of the hardest problems within the Korean Question. Only the linguistic factor has been mentioned, however, a consideration must of course be made to the fact that, not only does the difference polarise the Northerners, it also identifies them, and although the objective of the state may be to see a peaceful transfusion of Northerners into the South, there is the obvious fact that many Southerners would despise the new migrants, and many Northerners would of course, feel most uncomfortable surrounded by the nationals of whom they were told would shoot their children and burn them to death if ever they met. This aspect of social conditioning may be touched on at a later point, it is too vast and deserving of more detail than to be an aside. Fear and caution on both sides would amalgamate into communal tensions. Social shock would be an issue that would not easily be pushed aside or solved and makes the question’s answer more vague and threatening, if the populations cannot assimilate, and if nativism were to win out, might we then expect a repeat of history based on cultural grounds?

3) The issue of criminals:

In a leaked contingency plan from the Chinese Government concerning this aspect of the Korean question: “Key figures must be moved to a separate investigation facility to ensure they cannot command any military activity nor band together with other forces”. The investigation of ‘key figures’, as well as their separation would potentially become the bargaining chips of this geopolitical game, the momentum-movers into what kind (if any) model of unification could be reached.

The UN has published a document, stating the crimes against humanity committed by the DPRK, they are extensive and evidenced. Morally and legally we would consider ourselves as an international community to be inclined to try and prosecute the perpetrators. Most notably, Kim Jong Un. It could be easily theorised that two camps would appear, one would be seeking justice, the other would be more willing to make concessions and wave certain crimes for the good of unification. It would be a moral debate, culpable to that of the end of the second World War, the acquisition and ‘loss’ of certain criminals once the deluge had receded.

Prison population, that of work camps and slave labour in the North and abroad would resemble the allied forces’ discovery of Nazi death/concentration camps. Due to the unknown numbers of the incarcerated population of N. Korea’s camps the infrastructure needed to sustain, house and reenter them would be costly and cautious work. The leaders of  the camp would no doubt be tried and punished without much backlash, the guards similarly would no doubt be grouped as active participants such as torturers and executioners and non-active, guards and the like.

I would suggest that due to the quasi-religious fundamentalism undoubtedly felt by (however small a minority) of the population, as well as the existence of Juche (주체) Policy the liquidation of the army, comprising of over a million people, and heads of state would have negative impacts on the North Koreans. They may see it as an attack on their heroes and national identity, harming unification. I would also suggest that swathes of the newly disbanded army would feel disenfranchised and may go rogue, loyalist forces would act as terrorist militia cells, potentially forming small guerrilla groups, disrupting efforts.

The question of criminals would be lengthy, tip-toeing between destruction of national identity and source of pride, appeasing many Koreans, and a need to fulfil humanitarian and moral obligations by bringing the ‘criminals’ to justice.


North Korea and Korean unification is not an unattainable utopia but a possible reality. The foundation of which is built of ash or uneasy compromise. Whether China would remain faithful to the DPRK in its dismantling is a factor which must be considered. Its harbouring of potential criminals as well as its willingness to house millions of potential refugees, offer billions in investment and infrastructure support are largely dependent on the political environment at the time. The collapse of the North Korean state through war or negotiation effect the means of the unity, and the answer to the question. Militant nationalism caused by poor assimilation or nativism from social rejection or the response to the military and national leaders, change the question of Korea. Ultimately, as time moves forward, our need to assess and react to the Korean Peninsular march on also. Nevertheless, a unified Korea would be a political experiment like no other and would reshape East Asian politics, and how we view unification and statecraft forever.

It must happen. As famine and the threat of war looms unseen but felt by all. Our need and duty as  humanitarian international community to help the people of the North as well as disarm and dismantle the forces of the North, becomes an imperative for a sustained peace in Korea.

[1] The Hidden Gulag: The Lives and Voices of “Those Who are Sent to the Mountains”
[2]South and North Korea’s Views on the Unification of the Korean Peninsula and Inter-Korean Relations Park, Young Ho
[3] Sang-Hun, Choe (30 August 2006). “Koreas: Divided by a Common Language”
[4] Marxism and the National Question (Марксизм и национальный вопрос) Joseph Stalin January 1913

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