Saturday, February 23, 2013

On North Korea becoming a place where people are from

Writing at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, Robert Farley linked to some interesting efforts being made to plan for Korean reunification. Reacting to this conference report, one Robert Kelly took issue with the idea that reunification could be managed as anything but a wholesale and terrible expensive takeover of the North by the South, on account of the North Korean state's lack of legitimacy compared to South Korea.

This will bring about numerous issues, especially he notes in regards to migration issues.

Getting NK up to speed ASAP is also necessary to forestall a massive migration southward with consequent North Korean ghettoes emerging around Southern cities and all the crime, resentment, and pseudo-identity politics that would create. The likely food shortages alone will probably drive Northerners southward. USFK/ROKA ideas of air-dropping food into North Korea are band-aids, and notions of a green revolution to improve NK agricultural production will take several years to fall into place. But the obvious attraction of Southern lifestyles will be the true driver as it was in Germany, a point I am surprised was not made in the report.

It is worth noting how much internal migration there was in unified Germany. Pusan National University had a German speaker on this issue of post-unification migration. He noted that it was 20% of the entire ex-GDR population, slowed only by moving the capital to the east, an option a unified Korea would not likely entertain. I have written this up on my blog (October 22, 2010), and the Project might like to contact the speaker.

Migration-deterring notions like an internal passport or temporary work permits for Northerners in the South would appear terribly immoral, suggest North Koreans are second-class citizens, embarrass Korea before global opinion, and fire revanchist Northern political entrepreneurs. Once the DMZ is open, it will be politically near-impossible to reclose it without North Korea turning into something like the West Bank, a semi-occupied wild west zone in legal limbo, or a gigantic SEZ for the chaebol. Either way, it would appear so immoral before global opinion, and ‘illegal internal immigration’ would be so persistent, that I cannot imagine it will work.

I've blogged here about South Korea's emergent status as a country of immigration, at least as early as September 2009 and most recently earlier this month. The idea that North Korea may become a major source of immigrants is something that makes perfect sense to me, given the dysfunction in the North as contrasted to the prosperity in the South and assuming the reunification of the Korean peninsula--as I wrote in March 2010, very many North Koreans will want to head south. I've also written in November 2010 about how the contrast between a relatively multicultural South and a North that prides itself on ethnic purity may already be complicating intra-Korean relations, and may complicate relations significantly if Korea is reunified.

South Korea, as I noted, is becoming a place that people are moving to. North Korea, in the 21st century, is going to be a place that people are from. I don't think economic convergence with the south if reunification occurs is going to proceed at anything like the speed necessary for anything but the maintenance of the inter-Korean border to prevent large-scale migration south. As I noted in March 2010, North Koreans can go elsewhere, too, whether to adjacent China, Russia, Japan or points beyond. Last September here in Toronto, local news media covered the mass wedding of 15 refugee couples from North Korea at Toronto City Hall--see the tabloid Toronto Sun and the broadsheet Toronto Star for examples.


Colin said...

I'm inclined to agree with Kelly that efforts to maintain the internal Korean border against migration would be both immoral and futile in the event of the collapse of the DPRK. The most the South could achieve is to turn the migrants into a large underclass of 'illegals' like in the US or EU. Either way, the result would be a great increase in inequality in South Korea, with an oversupply of unskilled labour relative to skilled labour. It's then a question of politics as to whether the state intervenes to restribute resources more fairly, or is co-opted by big business and does essentially nothing to stop the entrenchment of inequality.

Randy McDonald said...

One critical question might be whether or not South Korea actually _has_ the resources needed to prevent a great surge in inequality come reunification. The vast sums of money suggested as necessary, amounting to the trillions of dollars, make me wonder.

Colin said...

Well, there's clearly no way it can bring the average income in the North up to Southern standards any time soon. But that still leaves the question of how to regulate employment in the South, where employers will suddenly find they have access to almost limitless numbers of low-skilled workers who are prepared to work for extremely low wages and in very poor conditions. On top of that, how much will the rich and poor pay the cost of reconstruction through taxation? This is what I mean by political questions.

Randy McDonald said...

South Koreans may well want to maintain a two-state solution well past the point North Koreans may want to. I can easily see all kinds of terrible confrontations coming as a result of this.

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