Cool head, warm heart

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Cool head, warm heart

Kim Byung-yeon

The author is a professor of economics at Seoul National University.

 
 
“Is unification necessary? If so, why and how?” Those are the most frequently asked questions I get from young audiences. Liberals will say unification is a must to bring the race together and the two Koreas must renew economic cooperation in any form immediately. On those questions conservatives do not have clear answers. Some believe North Korea is on the brink of collapse and therefore can be absorbed. Others vehemently oppose unification.
 
 
Since astrology cannot replace science, any theory based on a North Korea collapse cannot stand. They are all based on a wish, and as the saying goes, wishes aren’t a plan. North Korea may not survive the current regime, but few can predict when it will fall. A regime collapses from a number of unfavorable factors — a dictator keeping up policies that make worse serious structural weakness, say, or a system full of strong political opponents.
 
 
But predicting when a collapse will come is beyond human ability. I tell my students that if all the intelligence that can predict a regime collapse is presumed at 100, what we know now from all our research amounts to less than 10.
 
 
The collapse of the Soviet Union is the best lesson. The year 1991 was totally shocking for Soviet scholars in the West. All their work went down the drain. They were scorned for failing to see the collapse. In their book “Soviet Economy: Towards the Year 2000” published in 1983, American scholars predicted the Soviet bloc could be sustained if it could manage growth of 3 percent per annum. Eight years afterwards, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Some changed their majors to economics and others folded their research work. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) came under fire for failing to predict the collapse despite having spent uncountable millions analyzing the Soviet economy and society.
 
 
Selfish conservatism cannot win over the country. A posting on social media by a person pretending to be me has been spreading fake news under the title “Is Unification Really Necessary?” It claims that half of our salaries will be lost if the two Koreas become one. Exorbitant costs would be required in case of a rapid unification the likes of Germany’s. But an incremental unification across a lengthy period — and a steady economic integration — would cost less. Self-indulgent conservatives cannot admit the difference.
 
 
The unification hoped for by the liberal government could be an incremental one. The conservatives’ knee-jerk attack on the government could only backfire. The conservatives won’t be able to win over the young people with such shallow intelligence and passion.
 
 
We need conservatives armed with new visions. Simple opposition to the liberals cannot make a competent conservative. The conservatives have so far regarded North Korea and unification as an antithesis against the liberals. They argued for a breakdown in the Pyongyang regime to oppose the Sunshine Policy of the Kim Dae-jung administration. They also resisted unification to oppose the liberal administrations’ rapprochement with North Korea. Such a regressive and outdated approach won’t be able to broaden the support base or pave a new future for the Korean Peninsula.
 
 
If the liberals champion unification as the union of the race, the conservatives must emphasize a union of values — democracy, freedoms and market economics. Any unification neglecting these values would be catastrophic. The idea of sustaining two separate republics with their own political systems cannot comply with conservative values. The approach also lacks feasibility.
 
 
We must design policies so that market economy could be a basis for the process of economic integration. The idea of building a commercial reactor in North Korea that lately became a controversial issue is plausible if North Korea completely surrenders its nuclear weapon program and agrees to a transition to a market economy. Otherwise, the Pyongyang regime will use the electricity from a nuclear reactor to restore its state-controlled economy. Without a market economy, North Korea cannot recover and our aid would be wasted.
 
 
If the liberals pay attention to the Pyongyang leadership, the conservatives must focus on the people in North Korea. If the joint industrial park in Kaesong resumes operation in line with North Korea’s denuclearization commitment, the conservatives must demand that wages be paid directly to the workers, not to supervisors or the regime. North Korean workers must come to realize that they are working for their earnings and the state is being run on their taxes. A transparent tax system also must be adopted to motivate North Koreans. Instead of big economic cooperation projects, aid should be smaller in size to help support the livelihoods of the people in North Korea.
 
 
If young people ask about North Korea and unification, the conservatives must be able to answer with “cool head and warm heart.” Intelligence must guide passion and passion must let intelligence shine. We cannot leave our future up to idealistic liberals and fake conservatives.
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