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[Kim Myong-sik] Moon’s illusory ‘peace economy’ with North Korea

The physical world we live in is governed by constructive power and destructive power. Constructive power can be measured by the value of things that individuals or groups create over a period of time. They call it GDP on the national level. Destructive power is estimated by looking at the things that can be destroyed (annihilated) in a conflict; it represents security threats between adversaries.

North Korea is believed to have stored 20 to 30 nuclear bombs, each having the destructive energy of up to 250 kilotons of TNT. (The atomic bomb that fell on Hiroshima was equivalent to 16 kilotons.) It is quite an impressive destructive power the North has, although the international community has yet to recognize it as a nuclear power. On the constructive side, international researchers have arrived at widely differing but generally miserable figures for this enigmatic state.

The United Nations surprisingly ranked North Korea 198th among 211 countries and territories of the world in 2016, estimating its gross domestic product at $16.8 billion (or $654 per capita). On the UN chart for 2017, the North had risen to 115th place with $17,364 million in GDP. The US CIA World Factbook 2014 gave a somewhat higher estimate of $40 billion in GDP ($1,800 per capita) based on purchasing power parity.

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund ranked South Korea 11th in its 2019 world GDP projection, entering a figure of almost $1.78 trillion ($34,703 per capita). This is about 40 times larger than the most generous estimate of North Korea’s national wealth. We recall that North Korea stood neck-and-neck with the South until the 1980s when we started a global thrust with rapidly growing exports.

The North’s (comparative) economic decline over the past decades was truly phenomenal. But it now has something to say, pointing to considerable success in its nuclear and rocket programs. The US’ and world powers’ focus on al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, tepid cooperation from China and Russia in the six-party denuclearization talks, and the absence of viable diplomatic strategies on our part allowed North Korea to conduct nuclear tests and launch long-range missiles with impunity.

Kim Jong-un, the third-generation dictator in the Northern dynasty, has emerged as one of the prime movers of the 21st-century. And now he is being invited to what could be a dramatic combination of constructive and destructive powers here on the Korean Peninsula. It was none other than our president, Moon Jae-in, who last week revealed the idea of building a “peace economy” with the North.

He remarked that South Korea could win a trade war with Japan if only we could integrate our economy with the North’s. The president declared at a meeting with his senior secretaries that South Korea could overtake Japan “at a breath when we overcome the only comparative weakness” -- the smaller scale of our domestic market -- through economic unity with the North. The ongoing UN sanctions against Pyongyang were not hindering his vision.

“A peace economy with North Korea is a great advantage the future holds for us that no other country in the world can share,” Moon said confidently. “When the two parts of Korea make joint efforts with strong confidence, the South and North can achieve permanent peace on the basis of denuclearization and realize co-prosperity as peace reigns on the peninsula,” he went on.

These words reminded us of former President Park Geun-hye’s “unification bonanza” prophesy, which she introduced all of a sudden during her 2014 New Year’s press conference. She proposed closer inter-Korean economic cooperation, but there were no follow-up actions from either side of the border, while Pyongyang’s continued nuclear and missile tests drew broader UN economic sanctions.

People watching the Blue House meeting -- which was televised live, contrary to the usual practice -- instantly thought of the 40:1 economic disparity on the peninsula. The combined population of 76 million from the South and North would vastly expand the consumer market on the Korean Peninsula. But the moment the peace economy starts on this peninsula, the South Korean economy will begin to shrink, with 76 million people sharing a limited pie worth $1.8 trillion.

President Moon also spoke of guaranteeing equal and mutually beneficial international relations and displaying moral superiority as a mature democracy, no doubt preaching to the Japanese about concepts they abandoned in their latest act of Korea bashing. In the meantime, we could clearly see his ulterior motives for promoting a peace economy.

He was speaking only of economic unity with North Korea, but he must have hoped that everyone listening, particularly Japan, would see what he really had in mind. It isn’t necessary to stretch our thinking too far to guess what Moon envisions: the South combining its constructive power with the North’s destructive power to counter threats from Japan.

North Korea is a negligible component in the global economy, but its leader, Kim Jong-un, has sat face to face with US President Donald Trump three times in a year. This would be an impossible honor if he had no nuclear bomb or intercontinental ballistic missiles. Kim showed off his diplomatic acrobatics by completely snubbing Moon’s call for economic collaboration and instead test-firing missiles with ranges tailored for use on the theater of the Korean Peninsula.

Moon has displayed admirable persistence and patience in his peaceful approach to Pyongyang throughout the first half of his five-year tenure. On the domestic front, his major economic, industrial, labor, education, energy and security policies have encountered rough sailing, with disappointing outcomes seen in sector after sector. Worst of all, the protracted campaign to punish powerful figures within the previous government has worn people out, including those who initially supported Moon.

The president and his colleagues are holding onto a single rope of “peace” that they seem to take pride in having tied exclusively to the North. If South Koreans can credit Moon for the two-year hiatus in Kim Jong-un’s nuclear tests and for the suspension of the North’s intercontinental ballistic missile launches, his scorecard remains bleak on the economy.

Today, Aug. 15, marks the dual anniversaries of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule in 1945 and the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948. Another anniversary that falls today commemorates the founding of The Korea Herald, which started out as The Korean Republic in 1953. On this auspicious day, we would like to tell the president that people are not quite comfortable watching their leader bet so much on the North, especially in a gamble against Japan.

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.