[OUTLOOK]Picking and choosing unification

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[OUTLOOK]Picking and choosing unification

Let's design a social and economic system for a reunified Korea. Since this is an exercise, let's not talk about how to get there -- just what elements both sides would contribute to the final unified nation.

South Korea's political regime is not perfect, but no democracy anywhere in the world is anything other than messy. If you accept democracy as a goal, you might want to add some polish to the South Korean system -- some stronger anti-corruption measures would be a welcome change. But I doubt anyone wants a northern political system with everyone wearing Kim Dae-jung pins on their breasts.

South Korea's "Miracle on the Han" is a fine economic model. You can't argue with a system that has brought a country from the third world to the first in a generation. The system is creaky around the edges, and it still depends more on external shocks than on internal pressure to stimulate needed reforms, but that can be taken care of. As soon as Seoul lets a major firm fail without bailing out the owners, habits will change. The North, on the other hand, is a basket case and no economic model.

Social problems? We'll have to tweak the education system, which is so badly broken that it threatens Korea's further development. When private educational institutes have to do the job that the school system should be doing, something is amiss. College graduates, for the most part, still lack ability in critical thinking and in making independent judgments based on their own reasoning. The health care system also has to be fixed, but none of the North's systems seem equal, much less better, than Seoul's.

So in our new world, what is left for North Korea to contribute? Its ideology of self-sufficiency? That doesn't seem to be working very well either, and is based more on han, the uniquely Korean feeling of grudge-holding sullenness, than on realities in the world today. And despite the Korean twist that Pyeongyang has put on communism, its system is still based on an ideology that says mankind is perfectible. The Christian or Buddhist theologies, which in different ways postulate that man is a flawed creature that must struggle constantly against the dark side of his nature, seem to be closer to the reality of human history.

Could we adopt North Korea's agricultural policies? International aid organizations say North Korea should solve its food shortages by building more factories and exporting to buy food. The South is not much better off in terms of arable land but at least is adapting, despite farmers' howls.

Think harder. Both partners should contribute something.

Patriotism? Some southerners do admire the North's spirit, and the North claims that it is the keeper of the Korean flame. "Kim Jong-il is the rifle and I am the bullet," one North Korean official screamed at me during a meeting in the North a few years ago. I prefer red shirts and "Dae Han Min Guk!" myself, and Koreans' anti-Japanese sentiment, much stronger in the North than here (really), is usually more a distraction than a unifying force.

Seoul's tycoons are licking their lips over the pool of cheap labor in the North, and that's something the North can contribute in abundance, but there are two problems: The quality of the labor force there is quite low, and the work ethic has died because there are no incentives to work hard. Resolving those problems will be difficult, and there must be something a bit more uplifting for the North to contribute than cheap labor.

A nuclear weapons capability? Although the prospect is appealing to some in the South who believe in their heart of hearts that their northern brethren would never use such weapons against them, a little rumination about a nuclear Korea, with two current nuclear neighbors and a third that would scramble to develop them quickly, leads to some uncomfortable questions.

How about the arts? North Korea is good at socialistic realism, but that went out of style outside the Soviet bloc decades ago. They are good at traditional Korean painting and dance, but so are southerners, so that's not a unique contribution that the North can make. Its pop culture is awful, and would bore southerners to tears.

Our little exercise seems to have come up dry. Some southern men dream about traditional northern women for brides -- and some of them are quite attractive -- but we're too modern to think such sexist thoughts, aren't we?

So what are we left with as the shape of our reunited Korea? Can you say, "Regime change in the North"?

* The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Daily.

by John Hoog

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