On Tuesday we arrived at the Unification Education Institute, and were ready to stay for three days to learn about South-North Korean relations. At the Unification Education Institute, we received several lectures on the state of the Korean peninsula and various pathways to peaceful unification. Our first lecture was delivered by Jeong Eun Chan. Professor Jeong was born and educated in the North Korea and even received her master’s degree at a North Korean university before defecting to the south. In her description of North Korean society, we found most interesting the marketization of the North Korean economy. In the past, all jobs were assigned by the government and most people lived off of their standard government. While everyone there still has government assignment jobs, most people engage in other economic activities at illegal markets to supplement their government wage which is less per month than the price of a 5kg bag of rice. Kim Jong Un, the autocratic ruler of the DPRK, has allowed these markets to exist and even grow. This seemed like a huge deal to us because it represents North Korea breaking out of its communist shell that had held so firm for over half a century! While this change has increased the public’s favoritism towards Kim Jung Un, many of us wondered if this could be the beginning of the collapse of the regime as the citizens get a taste of economic freedom.
The subsequent lectures we heard at the Unification Education institute focused on the prospect of unification and the various ways in which it might occur. Due to the absence of polling or really any data on the public opinion of citizens of the DPRK, there was little discussion on what the feeling is in the north when it comes to rejoining with the south. However, it is undeniable that reunification would bring massive benefits to the 25 million people in the north outside of Kim’s inner circle. For one, if we assume that reunification means the entire peninsula falling under the republican government already established in the south, reunification would bring a plethora of new political freedoms to current citizens of the DPRK. They would finally be spared the human rights violations that are as bad or worse than anywhere else in the world. They would have a vote and a say in how their government operates. But perhaps even more important than the political freedoms would be the economic growth. This is because a stable source of food is the most basic need for a society. Throughout its history, millions of people have perished in the DPRK from starvation and malnutrition related illnesses during famines and crop shortages. The geography of the DPRK is largely mountainous and lacking land suitable for farming while South Korea, in addition to being a top ten economic power, consistently produces more rice than its population can eat. It is safe to say that after reunification, no one should ever starve in the Korean peninsula again. Thus, regardless of what public opinion of the north may be, unification is objectively a beneficial scenario for the people living in the DPRK.
On the other hand, there is plenty of polling data for South Korean views on unification. Surprisingly (to us at least), favorability towards unification largely correlates with age. The older generation, who remember the days of a single Korea and perhaps family remembers who were separated by the war, see reunification as a necessity. In contrast, the younger generation worries about the economic toll of developing the north would have on the south. Although it has been conjectured that reunification would bring long-term economic benefits to the entire peninsula, many young Korean professionals in the south worry about their already high taxes getting higher to foot the bill for building new infrastructure in the dilapidated north. These young Koreans don’t remember life before the war but instead remember a DPRK regime that constantly threatens and provokes the south. Noting the generational gap, our educational coordinator, Lee Seong Won told us that if reunification does not occur in the next 30 years, it is unlikely to happen at all.
Although we all had a great time at the education institute, we left with a dim picture of reunification. Thirty years seemed like a very tight window, and barring Kim Jung Un relinquishing his power willingly, reunification would almost certainly have to be precipitated by a collapse of the North Korean regime. How many people would Kim let starve or even kill before that could happen? It seems that the current administration in the South is doing their best to normalize relations with the north and maybe stronger ties between the two nations would lead towards progress to a single nation. In any case, there is a lot to learn from studying the political climate of the Korean peninsula and we were all grateful to be hosted at the institute and be taught by such wonderful professors.