North Korea – A New “Pottery Barn”?
Julius Caesar once said, "In war, events of importance are the result of trivial causes” and there is no where on earth that this quote is more relevant than on the Korean Peninsula as tensions between North Korea and the U.S. have reached a boiling point.
While the conflict has resulted from a trivial cause that perhaps only Kim Jong-Un knows, it is important to note that if war does break out again, there will be consequences not only for the Korean Peninsula but also for the rest of the region. The US would be wise to plan for those “events of importance” as soon as possible in order to minimize both the military fallout and the political consequences on the peninsula if war was to break out.
Firstly, if North Korea is defeated and the peninsula is reunified again, there is the important problem of what to do with the North Korean population that has labored under the Juche regime of North Korea. While some have drawn parallels with the unification of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the situation in Korea is even more extreme than the divide between West and East Germany.
For instance, in their book Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoğlu and David Robinson point out that the nutritional divergence is so vast between the two Koreas that a people that were once phenotypically similar have diverged to such a great deal that North Koreans are much shorter than South Koreans.
Economically, the divergence is even starker as the per-capita GDP in North Korea was $1,800 in 2016 according to the CIA Factbook. In contrast, South Korea had a GDP per-capita of $37,900 in 2016. This division in productive capacity does not even begin to reveal the difference in technical skills and human capital between the two Koreas.
Germany, despite what many people think, was incredibly hard and expensive to unify, requiring constant cash inflows from the Western lander (states) to the East in order to make those lands productive.
This was so economically taxing that the West German economy, which had been doing reasonably well, ended up in an economic recession. Unifying the Koreas will be just as, if not more, difficult and expensive to do. This time, there is no country that is generous enough to pay the costs that this project requires.
Secondly, it is important to remember that when Germany was unified, there was a massive refugee flow from the East into the West as the citizens of the newly freed East Germany were able to be free for the first time since the Weimar Republic of the interwar period.
However, the former West Germany struggled to cope with an influx of poorer trained workers. In the case of a unification of the Koreas, it is very likely that most, if not all, of the refugee flow will be directed towards South Korea as neither of the two countries that also border North Korea, China and Russia, are particularly friendly towards refugees.
However, it is unlikely that South Korea has either the capacity or the desire to address this thorny issue, especially after seeing the problems that Europe is having with its refugees right now. This does not mean that the issue of what to do with North Korea is a quandary that can be shelved for another time. Rather, it is even more critical that a plan is developed now before the problem emerges in real time.
Many in the world would breathe a sigh of relief if Kim Jong-Un was removed from power and the threat of a global nuclear war would be greatly diminished. This does not mean that the problems inherent in that part of the world will be magically solved once North Korea is brought back into the international system and abandons its identity as a rogue state.
On the contrary, the events of the previous 20 years have shown that winning a war is only part of the equation to procure a lasting peace. It is necessary to win the peace as well and that means that a country or an international organization has to put in the time, money, and resources that are necessary to help the damaged state make the transition from pariah rogue state to a player on the world stage.
However, in today’s political and economic climate, the attention of the states that have this political and economic power are distracted by other affairs. If the United States was to go to war with North Korea, it is important that American policymakers take these problems into account when designing a military strategy.