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Why is reunification the jackpot?

Korean reunification will be a large-scale experiment in nation-building and innovation.

Mar 06,2014
Emanuel Pastreich
These days, there has been much talk among Koreans about the “jackpot” of unification. But when you speak with members of the international community who have no stake in Korea about the benefits of such a geopolitical transformation, the answer is less obvious.

Nevertheless, a successful reunification of the Korean Peninsula requires an excitement capable of mobilizing the world and generating a hope that would inspire a generation to build a new nation. Establishing a common cause that goes beyond culture and a nation - a unification that is about the future of our world - will be the key to long-term success of reunification and Korea’s new role on the global stage.

Of course, there are some obvious benefits from reunification, such as access to coal, gold and rare earth minerals available in North Korea, but the social implications of such benefits are ultimately ambiguous, as the use of resources will determine whether they have a positive impact on Korea’s economy.

Access to the highly trained and low-cost labor force of North Korea, whose language and culture makes them easy to integrate into the Korean economic system, is a plus. Nevertheless, although Korea might make more in the short term by paying those workers less, ultimately the whole purpose of unification will be to bring those workers up to the same standard of living found in South Korea. It would be a political mistake to predict a long-term competitive advantage based on cheap labor in North Korea.

But the true appeal of Korean unification for the international community is ultimately none of the above points.

Korean reunification will be a large-scale experiment in nation-building and innovation in government and society at the central and local levels that we have not witnessed in the last century. It will dwarf the reunification of Germany in the profundity of the transformation, and although many assume that the conditions are much worse than was the case for Germany, that is only when seen through a very narrow economic lens.

Although many worry that Seoul will be responsible for helping out millions of impoverished North Koreans, that is simply the wrong way to look at the challenge.

As John Feffer, author on international relations, remarked at a recent Asia Institute seminar in Seoul, “Reunification of the Korean Peninsula will be historic in that it involves bringing together a wealthy nation and a developing nation as one. If Korea can put forth a viable solution through its cultural and social innovations, it will become a model for the whole world.”

To assume that through some historical accident Korea alone is burdened by this radical differentiation in income is simply a misperception. Similar situations are found around the world within countries, and the situation is getting worse. The divide between the developing and the developed world, between the haves and the have-nots, will be the biggest challenge in the future.

Imagine if Koreans put the genius that they pour into designing smartphones and automobiles into creating a society in which we can bring together these two different societies in a manner that generates new energy and excitement, which creates a new civilization for the world. It is not merely that North Korea will undergo massive building that could stimulate the local and global economy, as well as providing Korea with some of the most state-of-the-art infrastructure in the world.

Many have written about how Korean unification is different from German unification in terms of the ideological assumptions and the economic situations, but the most essential difference lies with technological changes.

Technology is rushing ahead at a dizzying pace, with an exponential rate of change in the capacity of processors. Around the world, the modern nation-state is creaking and falling apart under terrible pressures because current systems of governance are so completely outdated that they cannot keep up with current shifts in technology and society.

But imagine if the governing system of the new unified Korea took on each of these challenges at the core of its very system of governance and created a new system that worked in a way few governments do anymore. Would not that historic opportunity to completely rethink the very nature of governance outweigh the short-term economic costs?

Reunification can be an opportunity for great creativity and promoting a liberal spirit dedicated to creating a model of good governance for the world, as Kim Gu once proposed. Just as the legendary agreement in the Magna Carta set forth in 1215 a model for what would become constitutional governance in England, a new unified Korea could introduce central institutional reforms that address climate change, an aging society and the vast impact of technology on democracy and privacy issues through the application of a highly innovative and inspired new system. Some might say that I am speaking in too idealistic a manner. But we need such a historic perspective if we want to be successful.

*The author is an associate professor at College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.

By Emanuel Pastreich






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