While the popular uprisings in Egypt and the Middle East are unlikely to infect North Korea, they are still a reminder that sudden change is always possible. With this in mind, it’s clear that uncertainties surrounding the transition from Kim Jong-il to his untested son, Kim Jong-un, could precipitate a cascading set of events that ends with swift and unexpected unification.
Rapid unification would almost certainly rule out the soft-landing scenario so devoutly wished for by most South Koreans. That kind of happy reunion would likely require a gradual rapprochement based on increasing economic ties, security confidence-building measures and regular people-to-people contacts. A much more rapid transition would leave no time for such incremental steps, which could come about as part of a long process of confederation.
To be sure, abrupt unification would be intoxicating. Divided in 1945, when the northern and southern Koreas were both desperately poor, the pair would be reuniting with at least one of the two parts having achieved G-20 world-leader status. The streets of Seoul would be filled with euphoric nationalism. In addition, a historical accident would be rectified: namely, the fact that US and Soviet forces ending Japanese occupation in 1945 drew a line across the 38th Parallel as an operational expedient in order to divide responsibility for disarming combatants.
But ecstasy would soon give way to reality. The international community would be left with a stabilization and state-building nightmare bigger than Afghanistan and Iraq and much more dangerous than German reunification 20 years ago. Indeed, if unification were to come about this hastily, the cataclysmic event could well go down in history as one of the biggest missed opportunities of our century.
The problem is that Korea would be unified but not united, and there could well be a resurgence of long-dormant, historical inter-Korean turmoil. Few remember that in the post-1945 aftermath of liberation, deep social fragmentation and political polarization produced an orgy of mayhem and murder. The clandestine political societies that had evolved during Japanese occupation, many of which had been nurtured by outsiders, had free rein to vie for power. When one considers the massive economic disparities that would also be in play because of a South Korean economy more than twenty-fold that of North Korea’s, the technical end of the Korean War could well mark the beginning of another.