A reunited Korea in our future?

The head of the North Korea’s delegation, Ri Son Gwon, shakes hands with his South Korean counterpart, Cho Myoung-gyon, after their meeting in Panmunjom. Photo Courtesy of CBC News.

By Hanna Kim

Though the Koreans stood united against their Japanese oppressors only a few years before, the aftermath of the Korean War saw them separated on opposite sides of a concrete wall and electric wires.

The Korean War planted the seeds for bitter feelings that would grow over years of tension punctuated by violent outbursts. The North Korean invasion left fields littered with the bodies of hundreds of thousands people, many young, while the Han River overflowed with fleeing citizens. During the height of the war, the South Korean government secretly ordered the murder of suspected communists and buried their bodies in mass graves so that the evidence would be hidden. Hundreds of mass graves have been uncovered. However, according to the Telegraph, “at least 100,000 people were executed, in a South Korean population of 20 million.”

Some wars are so traumatic and transformative to their citizens that returning to the norm is simply unthinkable. For the North and South Koreans, where there were so many atrocities committed on both sides, it seemed that there was no going back.

However, in the seventy years since the end of the Korean War, there have been numerous efforts to reunify the two Koreas. The closest to a friendly relationship that the Koreas ever had was during the Clinton presidency, when South Korean president Kim Young-Sam planned to meet the North Korean president Kim Il-Sung until the latter’s sudden death and the former’s refusal to send condolences canceled the arrangement.

As much as this was a wasted opportunity to seek peace, the Koreans also let go of the chance at cutting down on their unreasonably high military budgets. Right now, both the North Korean and South Korean governments spend a large portion of their budget on defense, money that could be spent on improving the North Korean crumbling infrastructure or feeding their starving people.

Citizens of other countries have organized numerous non-profit organizations, most notably one called Liberty in North Korea (LiNK), that provide humanitarian aid to the neglected North Korean citizens. The Diplomat reported that the National Assembly approved a new defense budget of $34 billion US dollars for South Korea, demonstrating that the nation is compelled to spend a significant amount maintaining a large army to protect themselves from the looming threat in the north.

Also, male South Korean citizens between the ages 18 and 59 must spend two years of their lives serving in the military. If unification were accomplished, such extreme defensive measures would not be necessary.

And yet, one cannot ignore the most glaring problem: unification would have enormous economic ramifications on South Korea. Even now, South Korea’s economic situation is very vulnerable. Despite its reputation of having one of the most stable and highly-developed economies in Asia, thus confirming its membership as one of the Four Tigers of Asia, South Korea is struggling from a population that is only getting older as well as a rigid labor market that is affected by workers who are overeducated.

According to a study called “The labor market in South Korea: 2000-2016” from World of Labor, the long term trend for unemployment rates itself is unchanging in its low numbers. However, a closer examination reveals that unemployment among people of ages 15 to 29 is significantly higher than those who are older.

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