The debate about North Korea’s
future has been reduced to a fight between those on the one hand who favor
expanding cooperation with North Korea and thereby increasing investment,
business activities, transport networks, electric grids and energy ties, and
those on the other hand who feel that North Korea has not completely
denuclearized, that it cannot be trusted by the international community because
it is run by a totalitarian government that does not embrace democracy, free
markets and open borders like advanced nations do.
This simplistic argument has filled the media over the last
year and it has been effective because of the near total collapse of debate
among citizens concerning current affairs outside of what the media presents.
Unlike Korea before, there are no groups of dissent or
students gathering in cafes in Insadong to discuss forbidden books like there
were in the 1970s or 1980s, or regular debates at NGO meetings, or even debates
on policy, the environment or the future of the country going on at home over
the dinner table, or among friends at school, or even in cafes. The passive
reception of information, entertaining and harmless information, via cell phone
has become the norm for a passive population.
If the press describes policy is described as
“liberal,” or as “conservative,” that ruling is accepted to
be so by much of the population. We have achieved what Princeton professor
Sheldon Wolin refers to as “inverted totalitarianism,” a state of
politics in which the day to day discourse on issues is profoundly limited by
hidden forces like the commercial media or the pressure of advertising, that a
totalitarian system is ushered in even though there is no dictator standing at
the top of the government to enforce obedience. Rather, corporate forces
pushing profit-driven agendas have created an environment in which it is
natural to ignore daily the most critical issues of the age.
We are no longer readers; many of us cannot focus for more
than 10 minutes. The corporate media has become the common space for obtaining
information and social media just offers pictures of cats and chocolate cakes,
and occasional references to pre-digested mush from the corporate media.
The collapse in discourse on shared concerns in South Korea
means that serious questions about the collapse of the local economy, about the
overwhelming influence of foreign investment banks, about the catastrophe of
climate change and its handmaiden fine dust, and about the dangerous drive for
world war undertaken by some in the United States, are now taboo topics in the
That limited domestic debate has profound implications on how
the developing relations with North Korea are perceived, what exactly
unification will mean, and how they will be carried out. For example, the media
presented us glowing images of President Moon Jae-in and Chairman Kim Jung-eun
embracing, related stories of the historical cooperation between the military
on both sides in removing weapons from the sides of the DMZ, and presented
scenes in which clean buildings in Pyongyang are shown in a positive light.
All that content was positive. But implied in the narrative
was that North Koreans who have lived in a closed feudalistic state-socialist
state, cut off from the world, will now be allowed to enjoy the pleasures of a
consumer society and to live it up in the manner that their much more fortunate
southern brothers and sisters have been doing.
But South Korea is no paradise. The tremendous social,
cultural and economic forces in the South, most prominently the deep alienation
of much of its population that has resulted in a high suicide rate, the
self-abuse and abuse of others in daily life, a rapacious employment system
wherein young people, if they find work at all, are tracked for jobs at coffee
shops or convenience stores that offer them no chance to serve society, to gain
advanced training or to or make real decisions. Every aspect of life has become
a for-profit commercial show and the people are exhausted.
Moreover, the entire ideology of the “democracy and
market economy” that South Korea and the United States will supposedly
present to North Korea as a means of saving that country from poverty and
isolation is collapsing around the world. In the United States, Japan, South Korea
and in Europe, the modified capitalism that evolved in response to the
challenge of socialism in the 1930s and 1940s has reverted to its more
dangerous predatory form ― looking more like the 1890s than the 1990s. We need
only look at the strife in France to get a taste of what awaits us in Korea,
and elsewhere when the contradictions grow more pronounced.
Today markets play a minor role in these so-called
“advanced economies.” The super rich dominate economic activities,
and have established a financial feudalism wherein those members of the elite
can borrow as much money as they want and invest it as they wish but the vast
majority of citizens are only allowed extremely limited high-interest loans.
The process by which private banks and other funds created this nightmare world
is left out of most media and the true decision makers behind policy decisions
At the very moment that the newspapers speak of the great
market economy that is going to be introduced into North Korea, that beast is a
dying species in South Korea, in France or in the United States. As described
in Peter Phillip’s carefully researched book “Giants: The Global Power
Elite,” the super rich and their enablers now form a mutual protection
society within which they buy each other’s’ stock, and lend each other money at
low rates. Ordinary people, on the other hand, are expected to complete
ruthlessly for a dwindling number of poorly paid jobs. This exploitative system
is the product of the “fourth industrial revolution,” we are told, by
which (dictated by God and not by global institutional investors) technology
demands a massive degrading of workers’ status.
So what are the issues that are swept under the rug by the
media during the headlong rush to embrace North Korea and launch a new age of
cooperation? First and foremost, we are not learning any of the dirty deals of
who will finance what, and why, and who will make what profits.
If a train is going to be run from North Korea to South
Korea, if oil or natural gas is going to be piped through North Korea to South
Korea, we need to know. Who owns the pipes? Who owns the oil? How will it be
sold and how will the profits be divided up? If the pipe is being paid for with
taxpayers’ money, will taxpayers get part of the returns?
We literally know nothing about what contracts are being
discussed by corporations, or about what agreements the government is
negotiating with North Korea. Demands for transparency are especially critical
at this moment because a move from a state-owned system in which a mine or a
factory belongs to the government to a capital-driven system in which a single
corporation, or even an individual could have absolute control over such
resources, could be catastrophic. It will create even greater poverty, an even
greater concentration of wealth in the North and the South.
It would be good to know which multinational banks and
sovereign wealth funds might invest in North Korea and under what conditions?
What protection will North Koreans, or South Koreans, have if the investors do
not hold to their agreements? Are the contracts that have been signed (or will
be signed) going to be made public?
If there are plans to build factories in North Korea, we
should be asking: Who will finance those factories? Where will the profits go?
Who will own them? What rights will the workers be granted and what share of
profits will they get? What steps are being taken to protect the health of the
workers, or to assess the impact of the factories on the environment?
North Koreans do not have the expertise to assess the
environmental impact of mining for coal, gold, iron and rare minerals, so
experts and NGOs must be involved in assessing the process. Currently they are
not being granted visas to visit North Korea at all.
But then again, South Koreans, Japanese, Chinese and
Americans did not care all that much about what has been done in Vietnam or
Myanmar that may have been similar to what may happen in North Korea. We did
not ask ourselves what the impact of the private exploitation of nationalized
property in Vietnam meant for ordinary Vietnamese. So far we are told that
Vietnam is thriving, but is that an accurate picture, and was industrialization
positive for the environment or for ordinary workers?
As a general rule, we do not discuss, or even think about,
the damage to the environment, or the injury to workers, or other long-time
costs that lie behind the cheap clothes we buy and throw away, the cheap
plastic items we consume, the cheap smart phones and speakers and sunglasses
that we think nothing of tossing in the garbage. To put it bluntly, our
consumer society has blinded us to the true cost of things. This is a serious
problem in the age of unification.
North Korea will bring that reality back to us. Building 20
or 30 thirty coal-powered power plants in North Korea will be not only
catastrophic for the ecosystem, and contribute to global warming, it will make
the already dangerous air in Seoul even more lethal to people’s health. If
pollution from factories is subject to little regulation in North Korea in the
pursuit of profit, not only with South Korea get the pollution, South Korean
factories will no doubt follow the precedent set in North Korea.
We must remember that poor wages and poor environmental
protection in North Korea will be quickly imported into South Korea, which
already is suffering from increasingly poor air quality.
If North Korean laborers have no rights and cannot organize,
South Korean companies are likely to follow that model and exploit South Korean
workers. To put it another way, we are being sold a myth that North Korea will
open up and become freer, happier and wealthier like South Korea. But the truth
is that South Koreans themselves are less and less free and less and less happy
and wealthy following the current developmental model.
Or could it be that the plan being put together by investment
banks and corporations for North Korean economic development is not about
helping North Korean people at all. Perhaps they are planning for North Korea much
as they would plan for Mongolia or Vietnam. There is no concern for people
The concentration of wealth is the most important issue after
climate change that we need to consider when we address the challenge of
unification. The concentration of wealth in the hands of the few is increasing
globally, and particularly it is increasing in South Korea and in China. That
process damages the rule of law and creates a culture in which ordinary
citizens are compelled by a twisted culture to admire the indulgence and the
waste and extravagance of the super rich because a corrupt media bombards them
with such images.
The mainstream media narrative is that North Koreans are poor
and that the big economic gap will be between South and North. In standard
economic terms, this situation is an undeniable fact.
Yet we already know that some North Koreans find the
selfishness, the competitiveness and the lack of concern for others in daily
life in South Korea to be so unbearable that they have wanted to go back. Many
South Koreans who visit North Korea are deeply touched by the lack of
commercialization, the lack of a competitive culture and the value given to
art, gymnastics and writing as an end in itself.
There is a bigger issue. If wealth is increasing concentrated
in the hands of the few, as the trends described in Thomas Piketty’s book
“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” suggest, then it is likely that
the true divide in Korea will not be between the poor and malnourished North Koreans
and their prosperous and healthy South Koreans, but rather between ordinary
Koreans in the North and South who are increasingly poor, and a tiny handful of
the super rich.
I am not trying to deny the existence of tremendous gaps
between the North and South today, but rather to suggest that the economic
distortions caused by the concentration of wealth are even greater.
Such trends suggest that we need to address an extremely
different set of problems on the Korean Peninsula and that there is not a
chance in hell that we will reproduce the “Miracle of the Han River”
in Pyongyang under the current circumstances. Social and economic justice will
be a bigger issue than material progress in the years ahead.
The unification task must involve a meaningful response to
negative impact on ordinary people of an economic system that subsidizes the
cheap transport of goods through trade routes around the world and undermines
the local economies, an economy in which cheap finance is available only to
The result for South Korea of the decay of an open economy
has been the collapse of local stores, local factories, local pharmacies, local
bakeries and the growth of Starbucks, convenience stores, chain bakeries and
other businesses funded by large corporations that can take massive losses for
years because of the low-cost finance they receive, and thereby eliminate
Working in these chain businesses means the employees are not
guaranteed long-term employment or adequate retirement and health benefits.
They have no role in decision-making over administration and finance, and they
do not get any ownership of the branch in which they work.
This is a tremendous setback from the family-owned stores
that were once so common, but are increasingly being driven into bankruptcy. If
this is the economics that we are planning to introduce to the North, it should
say no while it still can. After all, the primary issue for North Korea is
where it will be in 20 or 50y years, not what thrills its citizens can get
today from the introduction of video games or K Pop idols.
What is “unification?”
Central to the confusion concerning the ultimate meaning of
unification is the vague and misleading comparisons made to the unification of
Germany in 1990. This fairytale comparison is popular when talking with
foreigners over soju late at night and it always follows the same plot: East
Germany was hopelessly behind West Germany economically and unification
improved the lives of people in East Germany and it made Germany a more
prosperous and powerful nation. Korea can also derive such benefits, but
because the gap in income and in industrial development between East and West
Germany was not as great at that between North and South Korea, Korean
unification should therefore proceed more slowly.
The gap in income and development between North and South is
cited as a justification of the exploitation of low-paid North Koreans by South
Korean and international firms as part of the long process of unification. But if
North Koreans are poorly paid, and if they are not allowed to accumulate
specialized skills, or save money, that process is more likely to result in a
decline in living standards for all Koreans than it is to make North Koreans
wealthier. Encouraging North Koreans to waste their tiny incomes on fast food
and cell phones will make things worse for them.
And how exactly did South Korea come to enjoy the relative
economic prosperity that it has had the last few decades? That process is
obscured by the term “miracle” as in “miracle of the Han
River.” It was many contradictory things but it was not a miracle.
Economic growth was in part a result of the plans for rapid
industrialization undertaken under President Park Chung-hee. Looking back, that
rapid industrialization that left South Korea so dependent on fossil fuel and
on imported agricultural products seems less of a blessing now, but we must
admit that the policy was effective.
President Park effectively employed the Manchurian
development model to speed development and compel all citizens to participate
in the national project as if they were all part of an enormous military.
But the key to rapid industrialization was the manner in
which the government took the control of capital away from foreign banks, and
away from big business, and put it firmly under the control of government
bureaucrats who were committed ideologically to a long-term developmental
model. Park ruthlessly restricted Koreans’ ability to send their money outside
Korea, and he compelled them to place their savings (and saving was encouraged
by state-sponsored campaigns) in government-administrated savings plans that
He also made sure the government controlled the flow of
capital into South Korea so it could be focused on growing industries and
technologies, on building infrastructure and education. It could not be used
for short-term speculative purposes such as is being planned for North Korea
There were positives and negatives to Park’s approach. What
we can say for sure is that South Korea’s government and business community are
not considering such a model for the development of North Korea. There has been
literally no mention of how the education level of North Koreans will be
increased through long-term projects, or how civil society will be developed,
or green zones established. The need to cultivate a new generation of North
Korean intellectuals is not even mentioned. Perhaps this is true in part
because intellectuals have become so disposable in South Korea.
The fact that conglomerates are involved in discussing North
Korea’s development at all is a major conflict of interest. After all, those
business interests are by their very nature focused on short-term profits and
have no role to play in planning for North Korea’s future. It would be entirely
appropriate to limit the discussion about North Korea’s development to
government officials and specialists with no conflict of interest and a
commitment to ethical governance.
Let us turn back to the Germany’s unification in 1990. This
took place a long time ago, in a distant universe. At that time, the economic
system and industrial production in Western Europe supported a far broader
distribution of wealth and unions and government regulation made the exploitation
of citizens (at home and abroad) that we see today virtually impossible. The
check on the economy enforced by the communist bloc meant the concentration of
wealth did not become as radical as it has become today.
What was ballyhooed as the triumph of capitalism in 1990 was
rather the sign of the relative strength of a strong social welfare state
compared with bureaucratic socialism. But that welfare state would never have
developed in Germany (or in France and Scandinavia) without the constant
pressure and critique from those committed to a radical or revolutionary
socialist agenda. That is to say that the capitalism that won the day in 1990
was a modified and watered-down capitalism. The absence of the challenge from
the communist bloc meant that it would degenerate back into its original lethal
form over the next 30 years.
That nightmare world of concentrated capital that pushes an
empty consumer culture on citizens cannot be separated from the onset of
radical climate change. Unfortunately, when the media mentions climate change
at all, it is suggested to be something many years in the future, even though
scientific experts suggest that we have very little time left.
The response to climate change must be at the center of
unification policy; and yet government officials and businessmen blithely
assume that North Korea has a few dirty decades to develop without any concern
for the environment. Such language is a dangerous fraud, but it is no worse
than encouraging the use of coal in South Korea, or in Southeast Asia.
Another myth is that the divided Korean Peninsula, and
specifically North Korea, is the last remnant of the Cold War. But is North
Korea the last remnant of the old socialist system that lingers on in a new
order powered by the freedom of open markets, the open exchange of ideas, and
the realization of one’s own potential through a democratic process? Those
fighting in the streets of Paris against the government in France today
certainly do not see the world that way.
Those who struggle against the massive agribusinesses that
are destroying our natural environment and that are driving traditional farmers
into destitution do not see such a paradise in the Western world. Of course it
is true that North Korea has walked along the wrong path for too long, mired in
corruption and its citizens subject to oppression. But we can be certain that
the solution to this will not come from ruthless multinational banks that push
policy through think tanks and on to governments.
Consider the most powerful symbol of the tragic division of
the Korean nation: the
Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.
For the older generation, the DMZ represents the tragic
division between the socialist and capitalist worlds, between state control of
the economy and democratic and free societies.
For them the DMZ is a monument to the personal suffering and
the divisions of the past that have already been overcome in Europe and
elsewhere. The DMZ lingers on, strangely, in an age in which borders are
melting away in the age of the internet, of free trade and tourism and the
remarkable integration of the world by free trade over the last 30 years.
That is a powerful way of describing the DMZ. But might there
be other ways of looking at that wall?
If you asked someone from a younger generation, the answer
might be that this DMZ is not a remnant from the past, but rather a harbinger
of something that is coming ― the restriction of the movement of ordinary
people at a time that capital, products and the superrich are free to go
wherever they want, wherever there is a profit to be made.
We see the offspring of the DMZ in the walls put up around
Gaza in Palestine and in the massive wall that Donald Trump is erecting between
the United States and Mexico. These walls block out poor people, and they
resolve the economic conflicts created by global investment, through the use of
There are also walls going up right around us, the walls that
surround the gated communities where the rich live, walls that make sure that
those who enjoy a comfortable life can avoid running into people who are not
their equals. Those walls suggest a radical fragmentation within our society,
whether in Korea or elsewhere, into small groups that share narrow interests.
The hidden precedents for unification policy
As we dive deeper into the unification project, we need to
consider what exactly might be the model for unification that lurks in the
subconscious of the South Koreans in government and in business who are making
the plans. Of course, they may talk about German unification, but that process
is quite distant from the history of the Korean Peninsula and from their
The economic, political and social unification of Korea has
happened before. There were the previous unifications of the peninsula under
the Silla Dynasty or the Goryeo Dynasty, but those precedents for unification
are too far in the past to have an immediate impact on how Koreans respond.
But what is it that is hidden beneath the surface of the
Korean consciousness, just out of reach, but that deeply formed how Koreans
think about economic development and about what unification might mean?
The more recent precedent for a massive economic and
political unification project can be found rather in the 1936 “First
Agreement for Cooperation between Manchuria and Korea (dai ichiji mancho kyotei
第一次?朝協定) issued by the Japanese governor of Korea. This agreement set in
motion the “Manchuria and Korea as one” (?朝一如) vision for the rapid
industrialization of both regions and their effective economic and cultural
Korean newspapers in the late 1930s were full of reports
about how Manchuria offered a tremendous opportunity for Korean businesses to
take advantage of cheap Manchurian labor, and to exploit the natural resources
of Manchuria (coal, minerals and rich soil) to make a quick fortune.
When former President Park Geun-hye spoke of a
“bonanza” (daebak대박) to be found in unification with North Korea back in 2014, the
term she employed seemed a bit odd. But in fact, it was literally a modern
translation of the expression popular in Korea in the 1930s to describe the
economic opportunities offered by Manchuria to “snatch up a thousand
pieces of gold” (일확천금 一攫千金).
President Park probably was not thinking specifically about
economic and political integration between Korea and Manchuria in the 1930s
when she made that comment. But that process was the source of many Korean
family fortunes that continue to the present day. A subtle resonance was most
certainly audible. The concept was perhaps imbedded in her subconscious.
After all, her father, the former President Park Chung-hee,
learned about politics and economics, and found his path to power as an
ambitious young man who ran off to Manchuria to take advantage of that economic
boom. Just as many Americans were drawn by the siren call of “Go
West!” in the 19th century, so were Koreans drawn to Manchuria’s open
skies in the 1930s.
The parallels between how North Korea’s development is
explained to South Koreans today and how Manchuria’s development was sold to
Koreans in the 1930s are disturbing.
But we do not have to follow that tragic path this time. We
have the ability to find our own way and to create new models for the
development of the Korean Peninsula and of the region that do not depend on
exploitation or massive capital investment.
Unification must be a citizens’ movement. It must be an
exchange between people that allows them to realize their full potential
without any concern for the returns given to venture capitalists. Unification
should be a cultural movement that revitalizes culture and expression so
citizens can express a vision and then realize it. It should be a youth
movement that allows youth from across the peninsula to join forces and to
create a society in which they are empowered.
Unification should be a peace movement that seeks to direct
attention towards social issues, environmental issues and other concerns that
are shared by all, and away from militarism and great power competition.