As South Koreans are bussed across the border to meet their northern relatives, this is why reunification will probably never happen

Sean O'Grady

There’s a video that’s been released by the Seoul government of an old South Korean woman, Lee Keun-seom, talking about meeting her long-lost son during the Korean families reunion this week. She hasn’t seen her “boy” Sang-chul for 67 years, living as he has been in the north, one of many thousands of families torn apart by the war and its aftermath. He is now 71, and neither will be able to recognise the other. She says that for the first year after their separation “I went out to the river and cried every day”. She wants to give him a hug.

So quite the tear-jerker, as every one of the all-too infrequent family reunion exercises always are. These are, to use the old newspaperman’s cliché, the human stories behind the bluster and the geopolitics, and they are a timely reminder of another reason why the current Trump-Kim peace efforts are so crucial. A poignant one, at that, as so many of the participants in these exercises are so old. They have spent, literally, lifetimes apart.

What will the future bring for them?

Well, it could be relatively bright for the two Koreas. And, yes, there will still be two Koreas some time into the future, for that is the premise, unspoken but obvious, of the evolving US-North Korea deal. Whatever else, Kim Jong-un will be virtually guaranteed that the Americans will not pursue regime change, and that, necessarily, implies that full political union between the democratic south and the dictatorship in the North will not happen.

But that does not mean things need stay as they are. The key to a closer future for the peninsular lies in following two models for change – and avoiding a couple of others.

First North Korea will come under increasing pressure from the Americans and the Chinese (their only nominal allies in the world) to follow the Chinese model of economic development – a very gradual move towards a managed form of capitalism, but with the ruling communist party still enjoying a monopoly of political power, along with restrictions on human rights, media freedoms and censorship. That way prosperity lies, and that way Kim and his family can still retain control of their country.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea could keep all of its bombastic monuments and martial parades, as the Chinese do, but would become a more open and fluid society, trading more freely with the rest of the world, and permitting foreign investment. Hyundais, Fords and Mercedes could circulate around those gigantic statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

The second economic model the North and South Koreans could follow is, strange to say, the European Union. Imagine North and South Korea as members of a “Korean union”, gradually moving towards more free movement of labour, of capital, or goods and services across the DMZ (which would remain in place, a reminder of the dangers of a return to the past and a lucrative tourist attraction).

Of course, to prevent the north suffering huge outflow of its population, their transitional period would need to be long, but families could visit one another, and they could trade more freely too, once the north Korean currency goes convertible. Again, as a longer run aim, the two currencies could eventually merge into a single Korean currency. All the way along, though, the two could retain sovereignty, retain their own foreign and defence postures and of course flags and other symbols of national identity.

It’s important to remember, after all, that whereas the EU is attempting to bring ancient nation states together, with all the obvious strains we see, a “Korean Union” would be about bringing together a country that was once a nation, indeed a mighty empire, in its own right, with a common language and culture, until, that is, the cruel era of Japanese colonisation and the war and cold war divisions that followed.

What the Koreans should not do is copy what befell another nation divided by the Cold War and later re-united – east and west Germany. Only the economic and financial strength of the west Germans prevented that from turning into disaster, but even as it was the rush to freedom and unity after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 meant much pain and dislocation in the east.

The “Ossis” and their funny Trabants were in turn resented and ridiculed by the richer federal republic of the west. The generous exchange rate of one East German ostmark to one German mark was extremely costly for western German taxpayers. It was probably inevitable that Germany would undergo a rapid reunification, but it did create its own problems. As with Ireland and some other places – probably including Korea – some on both sides had little enthusiasm for national unity in any case.

In the case of Korea, the economic disparity between North and South would be even greater than it was between East and West Germany and the economic dislocation still more expensive and very possibly unmanageable. China fears a flood of North Korean refugees, and so should South Korea, now the world’s 11th largest economy. Far better to go down a gradual path to managed capitalism and national economic union. Koreans should also reflect – as the Chinese so obviously have – on the danger that was done when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, problems which reverberate down to the present day.

The “Korean union”, then, would allow families to travel more freely and very gradually, with a huge multinational investment programme, bring the living standards of the two Koreas more closely into line. It is hard to believe that, before the Cold War, it was the north that was the more prosperous, industrialised region. Then again, the south had a per capita income in the 1950s somewhere around Ghana’s; today it ranks alongside New Zealand and Spain.

A Korean union – seperate states but a single market like the EU – that enjoyed the same productivity as the south today would number some 75 million [people and have an economy almost as large as Britain’s]. It would be wonderful thing to see. It would certainly rank as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s greatest achievement. It would make a lot of families happy, too.