Among the most oppressed countries on earth is North Korea. South Korean leaders, with support of other nations, have attempted at various times to open peace talks with North Korean leadership, although the consensus is that little has been achieved through these talks. There are many challenges facing any unification effort, including enormous costs of reunification and incredible cultural disparities between the nations.
The significant challenge of potentially reunifying Korea can be likened to the reunification of Germany, a work still in progress. Although it has been 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are still challenges Germany faces to become unified in the eyes of all it’s citizens. Many former East Germans still experience less prosperity than their former West German countrymen, and some still feel like “second-class citizens.” As they first entered West (reunified) German society, they expected that they would immediately reach the same level of affluence enjoyed by West Germans. This was not the case, and today there still exists a continuing effort to overcome the two economies’ differential. At the time of reunification, West Germans made ~2 to 3 times as much as East Germans.
Bringing this conversation back to the reunification of Korea, South Koreans today make nearly 25 times as much as the average North Korean – a staggering difference in the wealth of these two nations. The costs of overcoming this wealth gap would be undeniably massive – certainly in the many trillions of dollars.
A wealth gap is not the only challenge facing unification – another tremendous and saddening issue is the health of North Koreans. This was not a challenge experienced by Germany, and, as such, there is virtually no extant information on how one could appropriately handle such a challenge. Many North Koreans have diseases that are significantly less frequent in more developed nations with strong healthcare systems. Tuberculosis, parasitic worms, and Hepatitis C afflict a large swath of the North Korean population. Should reunification successfully be initiated, the government will have to create a plan to provide healthcare to and improve the health of the population of North Korea.
Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, the cultural disparities between North and South Korea must be overcome. Even in Germany, where the cultural differences were comparatively small, there remain distinct political divides between former East and West Germany. Alternative für Deutschland stands as a representative of this divide. The cultural divide between North and South Korea is far more severe. South Korea is a strongly developed democracy, while North Korea is a ruthless and brutal dictatorship, one that allows any of its citizens few, if any freedoms. One defector who occupied a high place in North Korean government was given virtually no choice in his life. He was told to attend a university, he was told what he would study there, he was told what his job would be. Even high-ranking individuals are given no choices in life. This man was unprepared for life in South Korea, and today still struggles with the many choices that most of us consider a normal part of day-to-day life.
Its humbling to realize how little I know – it’s a big world out there. As I researched this post, I was struck by how little I actually knew about North Korea – the challenges faced by the people, the fight for unification, and even the challenges facing successful unification, after the process is begun. I’m reminded that I ought to look out more – after all, it’s so easy to get caught up in your own (or my own) world, wherever that world might be. And regardless of anything else, this story made me realize that there are people, many people out there, in need of help. And I need to do something about that.