Korean Peninsula Walks A Tightrope
I just got back to Korea after several years absence for my world bicycle tour and a few other sundry things back in the States. Many people are surprised that I am glad to be back; Americans in general and those in the US Armed Services in particular more often than not have a sour attitude toward the place.
Politically, Militarily, Economically and Socially, Korea and its people walk a delicate path to a dynamic but uncertain future.
But I like Korea. And I like the Koreans. They are not the same and the basis for liking the two entities is different. I love Korea for its countryside; its rugged hills and ridges; dense forests that will soon turn brilliant colors to match any of my native New England; waterfalls and warm springs; tides higher than anywhere except the Minas Basin in Canada's Bay of Fundy. Glimmering cities and fashion stand amidst farmland where crops and good are still carried on A-frames. It is an intense country--never subtle, whether it is the smell of night soil from the rice paddies or the traffic jams over the Han river bridges. Their cuisine is intense, too: Kim chi can be an assault on the taste buds, not just a condiment.
And the Koreans are an intense people. What a contrast to the polite and deferent Japanese just on the other side of the "east Sea"---as Koreans call the Sea of Japan! See them dancing on the buses that go sailing down the nations highways (occasionally. They still dance while stuck in traffic, which is alot more often.) They are diligent workers putting in long hours, deferent to and respectful of authority, (in fact remarkably tolerant of heavyhandedness that would make americans cringe.) Life in the rural areas is still tough. Not only do you see grizzled men (who could easily pass as Confucious) bent and doubled from toiling all their lives on the farm, but there are still many left for whom the Korean War is a living memory; or more accurately, a living hell. And rural poverty is still widespread, especially in the "Cholla" provinces in the southwest. The beautiful people who pour into Seoul's Itaewon and Embassy districts never see this and wouldn't care even if they did, so as far as I am concerned I hope they leave the Koreans (and me) alone.
With Kim Il Sung's death, Kim Young Il's (supposed) overtures and feelers toward reconciliation with the south, there is more hope on the Korean Peninsula now than ever. This June's inter-Korean summit and tearful reunions in Seoul and Pyongyang seem to have set a momentum that will keep things moving forward, jerkily, toward unification in the foreseeable, if distant, future. Many people think this will be an economically costly and burdensome task--maybe an impossible one. Analogies to German reunification are widespread in the academic and political circles. But those analogies are dangerous, simplistic--an probably incorrect.
This is not an economics or political lesson...i'll go light on the jargon and stuff. But there are several reasons why Korean Unification will not be THAT difficult.
- First, the north Koreans are a fiercely proud and independent people as firmly committed to the policy of ju'che (self sufficiency) as people in the South are. OK..they are not as educated, not as up to date. We all have heard the stories (and they are only that...stories) that people in the north "don't even know we landed on the moon." [They sure as hell know we landed at In'chon, though....]. In any case this self sufficency and work ethic is a far, far cry from the nanny state and lack of initiative which businesses encounter when they try to work in the former DDR. (Deutch Demokratic Republik to you generation X guys) While I hardly expect that Pyong'yang will be the next Dot.com hotbed, there is every reason to suspect that, given the opportunity, they would be much like the former Soviet satellites in Europe (Poland, Czech republic, Hungary) that have seized the ball and started it rolling.
- Korea has the opportunity to learn from the mistakes the Germans made. Every one knew east German workers were inefficient, uneducated and unfamiliar with a market economy. These problems could be overcome if the wages they were paid were commensurate with their (lack of) productivity. But heaven forbid they should earn less than their West German counterparts! The Unions in west Germany chimed in--hell they make sure German workers are overpaid and underworked, so let's not set a precedent that might spread to the former Vaterland! And the German government, as well as a good number of their European neighbors, never has been big on the idea of competition determining wages (instead of the nanny state), anyway. Thus those wonderful people who produced the Trabant automobile and female olympic swimmers who could sing Bass with a blues band, got paid Deutschmark for Deutschmark with their busy beavers in the west.
"Everyone wins! Now everyone must get a prize," said the cat.
"But who is to pay for the prizes?" cackled the crowd back.
Hmmm..who is gonna pay for all these workers? Who's gonna give 'em real money for their wooden nickel labor? Why, the German Central Bank, of course. The money they printed to finance this scheme (where WAS Al Gore in all this, anyway?) set off a burst of inflation, tipped Germany in recession and only now has any recovery really begun. Last I looked east Germany (the Former east germany) is an economic albatross around the neck of the rest of the country, and heavy baggage for the rest of Europe to carry as well. Hopefully the Koreans will realize that the less efficient labor force in the north should be paid wages commensurate with their efficiency. In fact, the pool of labor could be exactly what Korea's economy needs as it continues to expand and wishes to dominate in traditional brick-not-click fields such as automobiles and hardware.
- Guess where 80% of iron ore, led, zinc and tungsten on the Korean peninsula are? IN the north...badly needed by South companies in mining, manufacturing, and production of iron, steel, power, and machines. Guess where are a large part of the peninsula's fertile farmlands are located? IN the South--badly neded by a north struggling to feed itself. Maybe we should beam down Adam Smith from heaven (just what Korea needs...another Task Force Smith...) to deliver a few lectures on comparative advantage and benefits from regional trade. The power hungry peninsula can benefit from numerous hydroelectric sites in the north. Tourism has already begun to trickle into the north's Diamond Mountains--wilderness areas throughout the rugged northern mountain regions offers untold potential, not just for Koreans but world visitors as well. Except for Berlin, what tourist sites are there in the former DDR? Maybe Nuremberg can hold a convention of arsonists....
- Korea is not bogged down in the "revanchophobia" that grips Europe every time they imagine a dominant, independent and militarily strong German state. Korea, united and independent, anchored into a northeast asia defense pact undergirded by US forces in the region, could make a tremendous contribution to regional stability. It would assume its traditional role: a buffer state between Japan and China, dependent on neither for economic or political protection. One of the hottest flashpoints of the cold war would be gone. While the issue of what would be done to the north's nuclear materials (the 20 or so Kg of reprocessed plutonium they have) might be a sticking point, surely solving this problem would be easier in a more relaxed setting that unification would bring.
Finally, the country walks a sociological tightrope that people, especially foreigners, who have lived here for a time are all to familiar with. The downside of Koreans strong work ethic, family structure, ju'che and individualism is a tremendous pressure on their young to achieve. Outside libraries before opening hours on weekends, youngsters stand in queues to wait for seats that will not be available inside for those show up later. Examinations are brutal...rote learning and memorization widespread..discipline ruthless and competition for spots at the top universities fierce. The result has been dynamic growth--an asian tiger-- but the social costs are great and will loom larger as these young people enter adulthood and realize much of their youth has been stolen from them.