1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Costly reunification

Julian Ryall, TokyoMay 12, 2014

While the vast majority of South Koreans say they want to see a reunited Korean peninsula, the eye-watering price of one of President Park Geun-hye's key policy aims is causing many to have second thoughts.

South Korean President Park Geun-Hye attends the first working session of the G20 Summit in Constantine Palace in Strelna near St. Petersburg, September 5, 2013 (Photo: REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin)
Image: Reuters

It was appropriate that Park Geun-hye, the South Korean president, chose the city of Dresden to outline her plans for a reunified Korean state in March. Since the process of reunification of the two German states began in 1990, one of the largest cities in the former East Germany has been transformed into a beautiful and bustling metropolis on the River Elbe. Park has ambitions on a similar scale for Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and the even more backward and benighted towns and villages across the North.

But not everyone shares that ambitious dream.

Pyongyang was, unsurprisingly, swift to angrily dismiss her plans for a "jackpot" that would bring about gradual reunification that made the most of South Korean capital and industrial knowledge and North Korean natural resources and manpower.

The state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper described the proposals as "a heinous doctrine of confrontation" that would inevitably lead to "nuclear disaster."

Tepid public reaction

Perhaps more surprising was the decidedly tepid response from South Koreans.

A new poll conducted by Seoul National University shows that while 45.8 percent of people are in favor of a unified Korea, the vast majority are only willing to make a token contribution to the cost of bringing the divided countries back together.

Park Guen-Hye and Angela Merkel (Photo: Soeren Stache/dpa)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pledged support for Korean reunificationImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The survey showed that 44.3 percent do not want to pay anything towards reunification and a further 31.9 percent would be willing to pay a maximum of W50,000 (€35.30) a year.

Of the remaining respondents, 11.7 percent would be happy to put up a maximum of W100,000 (€70.59) a year, and only 1.2 percent would consider contributing W1 million (€705.86) or more.

"I would love to see a 'one-Korea,' but I fear that the reality of reunification might be very different from the rosy image that we have," Lee Hyon-suk, a 42-year-old translator, told DW.

'Major economic burden'

"There will be a negative impact, I am sure, largely in the form of a major economic burden on the South," said Lee, who is originally from the town of Kyongsan. "Overall, I would say that it's going to be pretty messy and it will take a long time before a unified Korea can function in the same way that Germany is doing today."

A study conducted by the South Korean government has estimated the cost of reunification at a minimum of W55 trillion (€38.84 billion). Even more alarming is that the upper end of the estimate puts the price at W249 trillion (€175.84 billion).

Seoul could not shoulder that burden alone and there is the assumption that the international community would be required to help alleviate the pain of a unification that would be more difficult than the prolonged process that Germany underwent.

Under-developed North

Analysts point out that the former East Germany at least had functioning industries, an education system, a level of healthcare for all its people, a road and railway transportation system that worked and many other trappings of a modern state. It also helped that West German television was widely available in the East, meaning that the culture shock for residents of the East was not so dramatic when the frontiers came down.

The situation in North Korea, however, is very different. Outside Pyongyang, infrastructure is very limited after decades of neglect as successive members of the Kim dynasty siphoned off the nation's limited income to equip its military forces and, more importantly, pay for the construction of palaces, imported cars and expensive food, drink and Western baubles.

Correcting decades of economic mismanagement and waste is going to be an expensive undertaking.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) guides the multiple-rocket launching drill of women's sub-units under KPA Unit 851, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) April 24, 2014. (Photo: REUTERS/KCNA)
Pyongyang recently threatened to "pound all the strongholds of the enemy with [a] merciless shower of missiles"Image: Reuters

"Most people here are very leery when it comes to talking about the cost of reunification and they try to avoid discussing it directly," Daniel Pinkston, a Korea analyst with The International Crisis Group in Seoul, told DW.

"They do not want to come across as being against reunification and helping the people of the North, but they know it is going to bring a lot of new problems," he added.

Older generations - those that remember the 1950-53 Korean War - are more positive about reunification, he said, but younger South Koreans are "less engaged."

"It's a complicated issue and there is a degree of fatigue in thinking about it, but young people are also more concerned with day-to-day issues like school, exams, work and family," Pinkston said. "Those are their priorities."