Should ailing North Korean leader Kim Jong-il die, a crucial window of opportunity for reunification could open, and South Korea should move to seize it, a German professor believes.
“Reunification for Korea will take place for sure. We don’t know when, but the next chance could be when Kim Jong-il dies,” said Ralph Michael Wrobel, economics professor at West Saxon University of Applied Sciences in Zwickau, Germany.
“His son Jong-un could take over after his father dies, or may not be able to. That is the next chance for South Korea. When Kim dies, there is a possibility of the regime collapsing.”
The reclusive North made essentially official its hereditary succession plan last week after appointing Kim’s third son Jong-un, believed to be in his late 20s, to high-level political and military position.
“If you are discussing the possibilities of two states in one nation and other alternatives before reunification, I think reunification will never take place. If there is a chance, you have to accept it. You will reunify with a very small window of opportunity,” he said.
Ralph Michael Wrobel
Wrobel, who has engaged in extensive research on German reunification for almost 15 years, visited Seoul last Saturday to attend a seminar reviewing the 20 years since German reunification. The seminar was hosted by the Korea Institute for National Unification and the Hanns-Seidel Foundation.
He also has in-depth knowledge on Korean unification issues, which he obtained through several visits to the two Koreas. He visited the North in 2006 and 2009, where he lectured on market economy and trade for North Korean scholars.
The 42-year-old professor underscored that enhancing social and economic exchanges with North Korea is crucial, as it could help the South introduce the merits of the democratic and a free society and bring about changes in the isolated North.
“One example may be economic cooperation in the Gaeseong Industrial Park. There are many North Korean workers who can learn firsthand about management and market economy. It will be very helpful to improve knowledge about South Korea, its economic and political system,” he said.
“With other kinds of cooperation, you can improve their knowledge, particularly for middle-class leaders. You need the middle management. If they know South Korea, democracy and market economy, they will be first interested in changing the system in the North and will be able to work within the new system after reunification.”
Wrobel also stressed the importance of improving infrastructure in the North to pave the way for reunification.
“If you improve it, you may help the system of the regime survive on one hand, but on the other hand, North Korea will be better prepared for this very difficult structural change that could happen within one year or a few months. In case of economic breakdown, they can survive in a better way with a better infrastructure,” he said.
Wrobel, however, pointed out that such cooperation will not be easy considering the North is a tightly-controlled state, which has been increasingly isolated from the international community, particularly with its nuclear programs.
“Most East Germans were able to watch West German TV programs before reunification. East Germans already knew a lot about West Germany. North Koreans do not know anything. To improve knowledge about the South is very important, but will be very difficult,” he said.
Touching on the idea of the “Unification Tax,” which President Lee Myung-bak first floated during his speech on Aug. 15, Korea’s Liberation Day, he said it is “not the best idea from the economic point of view.”
“The problem from the economic and fiscal point of view is that you don’t know when it will take place and how much money it will cost. It would be better to reduce debts of the state rather than collecting a new tax,” he said.
“From a political point of view, however, it is a very good idea. Politicians will never reduce debts in a democracy. But politicians in South Korea may agree on such a fund for reunification.”
Asked what lessons South Korea can take from German reunification, which came on Oct. 3, 1990, less than 11 months after communist East Germany opened the Berlin Wall, Wrobel picked “three major German mistakes.”
He first pointed out the “wrong” exchange rate for the East German currency, which was converted one to one in the West German Deutsche Marks.
“By this way, work has become very expensive in East Germany because wages were transferred one to one in Deutsche Marks. As a result, a lot of people in East Germany have lost their jobs,” he said.
The professor also said the government-led process of privatizing East German enterprises was not successful.
“West Germany invested too much money into East German enterprises, trying to sell them for better prices later, but it was not possible to sell them for better prices,” he said.
“Everything in the East German enterprises was very old-fashioned -- their technology, quality and education of employees. I think only the market can decide which enterprise should survive. We tried to decide that by state activities. But it would be better to let the market decide that.”
The third mistake was West Germany spending too much money on making the living conditions for East Germans the same as those for West Germans, he noted.
“Of course, you can help people to survive. Social subsidies are necessary and cost a lot of money. But you should not pay too much in subsidies. You have to accept that it is not possible to make the same living conditions,” he said.
Although Germany experienced such mistakes, there have also been many benefits, he claimed.
“East Germans are now free people. We have a wonderful infrastructure in East Germany including railways, highways and the internet. We also reconstructed cultural heritage such as old monuments, old houses and castles. The GDP per capita in East Germany is higher than all other Eastern European states with only one exception --- Slovenia since 2008,” he said.
Germany is still striving to address cultural, economic and ideological gaps between the two sides, looking forward to the time when Germans are completely united. He said it would take at least one additional generation “to grow as one nation.”
“Both are disappointed. East Germans are disappointed because living conditions are not the same as in West Germany. West Germans are disappointed because they have the feeling that they have to pay such a lot of money for East Germany and so they cannot improve their own infrastructure,” he said.
“But I think that feeling is wrong. West Germany also benefited from this reunification process. For example, recovering cultural heritage and establishing infrastructure -- this was done by West German enterprises. The money flew back to West Germany,” he said.
By Song Sang-ho (firstname.lastname@example.org)