Would Korea Survive a Reunification?

North and South Korea have been separated for over 60 years. Their economies, culture and social structures have diverged. With tentative steps taken towards de-escalating their decades of conflict, experts and analysts speculate on what this reunification would bring.


Korea economy

North Korea’s GDP is less than 1% of the South, which is the world’s 11th biggest economy.

Analysts predict that the reunification could cause hardship as it will require immense time and resources.

Over 20 million North Koreans who have been isolated under the communist regime would require a massive endeavour by South Korea to acclimate them to a capitalist state, and South Korea is already struggling with a small number of North Korean refugees today.

According to South Korean Financial Services Commission Chairman Shin Je-yoon, modernising North Korea’s economy could cost South Korea at least US$500 billion and will require tax revenue from South Korea citizens, and financing from the nation’s commercial banks.

Analysts at Morgan Stanley predict that a joint economy would cause a sharp reduction in productivity and output, thus leading to a 30% lower GDP per capita in South Korea than it currently has.

South Korea’s largest ally, the United States, would also be forced to mitigate the reunification process.

As North Korea has one of the largest biological and chemical arsenals, it creates strong parallels to the 2003 Iraq situation. If not carefully balanced, the US could become involved in a second Korean War.


Korea military

North Korea is believed to have an army of 1.1 million troops with 7.7 million reserves. According to a South Korean Ministry of National Defense report, Pyongyang boasts more than 1,300 aircraft, 300 helicopters, 250 amphibious vessels, 430 combatant vessels, 4,300 tanks, 2,500 armoured vehicles, 70 submarines, 5,500 multiple-rocket launchers, and up to 60 nuclear bombs.

Unfortunately, the locations of these arsenals are unknown, and preventing them from being sold off or proliferated would be a priority. Not to mention the nuclear and missile scientists that will be out of work. With skill sets to sell, they could potentially turn to criminal or terrorist groups.

The security architecture in East Asia is delicately balanced. South Korea and Japan are US allies, and North Korea is backed by China and Russia. The North Korean threat is a large reason why the US maintains 40,000 troops in Japan and 28,500 in South Korea.

Reunification would undermine the US argument for its continued military presence. Christopher Green, a senior researcher on the Korean Peninsula for the International Crisis Group said, “There would be voices raised with the question: why are the US troops still here if we have a peace regime in North Korea?” and that “it would certainly be politically very destabilising for South Korea.”


North and South Korea national flags

South Korea has spawned K-Pop and the K-Wave culture, but behind this glitzy facade hides a litany of social issues.

South Koreans work the second longest hours of all developed nations and have the highest rates of cosmetic surgery and teen suicide in the world. The contrast between this helter-skelter environment and the collectivised North Korea could not be starker.

North Korean defectors frequently struggle to assimilate, suffering depression, and sometimes even returning to the North. They would need to be provided with skills and opportunities to compete with their Southern peers, which risks stoking resentment and social unrest. North Korean military personnel with access to small arms, may also resort to petty larceny to get ahead.

On the flipside, 160 musicians and high-profile K-Pop stars visited Pyongyang on March 31 and were the first South Korean performers to head north on the peninsula since 2005.

The visit was seen as an achievement and could be one of the bridges to unite the country.

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