I was living in München, Germany around 1994 when a rather large tax was passed in effort to help pay for the heavy economic burden of reunifying East and West Germany. I had a pretty average German salary and I was surprised when my take-home pay dropped by 100 marks from one check to the next. That’s a pretty huge after tax pay cut! Pass such a drastic tax in the United States and people will march, barefoot, to Washington to protest it. So, I inquired with my colleagues what they thought of the new tax. After all, most of them we’re better paid than I and must be suffering too. ‘It’s for re-unification’ they’d explain, with resignation, as if that simple fact explained everything.
I was reminded of this experience while surveying a power plant outside of Seoul, Korea. Here in the United States, the media portrays a giant gap between South and North Korea. From president Bush labeling North Korea as part of the axis of evil to South Park’s satire of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, one could hardly confuse the North Korean nuclear threat with the friendly South Korean manufacturers of Hyundai’s and Samsung. There I was, looking north at the coal field and further to the DMZ and North Korea just passed the horizon, with the plant’s construction manager was explaining that they were adding two more units for another 1600 megawatts to this already large power plant dominating the little island off the coast. Where is all the power going, I asked, is Seoul still growing so fast? To the north, he pointed. But who is going to pay for it? North Korea doesn’t really have a thriving economy.
While we think of two distinct countries with widely different situations, economies and politics, it’s fairly clear when you speak to South Koreans that they do not share our view regarding the deep divide between the north and the south, save for the arbitrary, 155 mile long, 2.5 mile wide demilitarized zone. The line was drawn right between families and friends separating them for more than half a century. Today, the majority of both countries’ military stands opposed to each other on either side of the DMZ, while back at the power plant, the construction manager seemed a bit befuddled by my questions and responded that “I guess we will pay.”
The construction manager shrugged off the enormous impact of eventual reunification with the same resignation about a future already decided that I saw in Germany. Except it won’t be nearly as easy for Korea as it was for Germany. East German economy was hardly a stellar performer, but people weren’t exactly starving to death. In North Korea, they are. I got the impression that South Koreans imagine a reunified Korea where the North joins them. West Germans had the same expectation, and, for the most part, that is exactly what happened, but it was not without friction. Kim Jong Il does not seem nearly as conciliatory as the East German leaders were. Finally, East Germany didn’t exactly decide to join West Germany on its own. It was allowed to by Soviet President Gorbachov. North Korea, meanwhile, shares a border with China and the Chinese don’t seem nearly as forthcoming today as the Soviets did in 1989.
Exactly how South Korea will accomplish their reunification remains to be seen. Even if political forces somehow relent, their dynamic economy might just be able to survive the extraordinary burden that, like giddy West Germans a decade ago, few seem remotely willing to acknowledge.