Perilous Road to Reunification

TO SAY THE COLD WAR is over is to ignore a potentially dangerous reality: the final chapter is still being played out on the divided, heavily armed Korean peninsula. Korea, one of the true flashpoints of the post-Cold War world, is approaching a momentous juncture—one comparable to the partition of 1945 or the terrible war of 1950-53. For Korea is now heading toward reunification. The question is no longer whether the peninsula will be reunited, but when?

Plausible arguments support the proposition that a peaceful denouement to the division of Korea is within reach in the coming decade. (Among others, the presidents of both North and South Korea officially subscribe to that view.) But, equally, there are grounds for concern about violent eruptions on the path to unification, and reasons to expect full integration to be longer, not shorter, in the making. Though the ultimate outcome may be the same, Korea is unlikely to enjoy a replay of the happy, almost simple drama so recently witnessed in Germany.

Several factors promise to make the road to Korean reunification far more complex and protracted than that of West Germany swallowing up East Germany: the degree of military mobilization on both sides of the border; the question of North Korea’s indigenous nuclear weapons capability; the disinclination (and inability) of China—North Korea’s remaining patron—to cut a deal for reunification (in contrast to the multi-billion-dollar agreement struck between Bonn and Moscow under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev). That said, however, official Washington is not paying adequate attention to developments in this sensitive, strategically important region and is ill-prepared to foster an acceleration of the reunification process.

At the end of World War II, when the United States and the Soviet Union drew the fateful line dividing the country—a line intended merely to delineate temporary administrative zones for processing the surrender of Japanese forces—the Korean peninsula was so remote that officials at the State Department could hardly locate it on the map. Today the Republic of Korea is America’s sixth largest trading partner (ranking above France, Italy and all of Scandinavia), and the United States itself has over 35,000 troops stationed on South Korean soil. Almost a million American citizens are of Korean heritage. Yet America’s grasp or Korean affairs continues to be woefully inadequate.

Proof of this assertion is America’s record of postwar policy. Nearly all of the great events that have defined Korea since the peninsula’s partition have caught policymakers unprepared. America was surprised by North Korea’s sudden attack against and near conquest of South Korea in 1950; amazed in the 1960s when an impoverished aid-dependent South Korea embraced export-oriented economic growth; shocked in 1979?80 when South Korea’s authoritarian but seemingly stable government was convulsed by assassination, "constitutional coup" and provincial uprising (suppressed by the army at a heavy toll of civilian casualties).

America has also been surprised unpleasantly, but repeatedly, over the past two decades by the scope of North Korea’s ongoing military buildup. Only now has Washington belatedly realized that this country of barely 20 million may have more than 1.2 million men under arms (with many of its troops and much of its matériel forward?deployed) and a nuclear program capable of producing atomic weapons within perhaps a year or two.

If the United States is to avoid such further costly surprises it must prepare for Korea’s impending challenge. In this last bastion of the Cold War the circumstances of the reunion are impossible to foretell: they could be filled with joy and jubilation or, just as easily, with tragedy and suffering. The United States must be ready to contribute actively to a free and peaceful reunification in Korea and a successful reconciliation of Koreans, or to suffer the regional and possibly global repercussions that failure in this effort would portend.

From Father to Son: A Bleak Future

FOR A COUNTRY about which so little information is available the international picture of North Korea is remarkably clear. It is seen as an extraordinarily regimented society. It has fashioned a suffocating cult of personality promoting the "Great Leader" Generalissimo Kim Il Sung, and now his son, "Dear Leader" Kim Chong Il, who is designated heir apparent to Pyongyang’s communist throne. It extols an official ideology known as chuche, a doctrine with a crude racialism and a heavy emphasis on the national destiny of the Korean people. The regime and its agents, finally, are today perhaps best known internationally for their alleged complicity in incidents of terrorism, drug?smuggling and other unsavory activities.

Because North Korea presents such an unattractive face to the outside world, it has often been misjudged. Of all Asia’s communist states (including the U.S.S.R.), only North Korea avoided famine in the course of its collectivization of agriculture. For decades North Korea’s industry apparently outperformed South Korea’s. North Korea’s foreign policy skillfully played its communist neighbors—China and the Soviet Union—against one another for more than a generation, extracting aid from both while deferring to neither. Finally, Kim Il Sung’s talents may be inferred from his political longevity. He has held supreme power in North Korea for more than forty years; no other world leader has enjoyed such a tenure.

For all these indications of past success North Korea’s future is bleak. Its strategy for development—and for competing against the South—have led to a dead end.

At one point in the 1970s North Korea’s quest for international legitimacy looked promising. But North Korea has lost that diplomatic competition, and lost it badly. The very fact of the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and the broad international participation in those games, underscored North Korea’s growing international isolation. Even North Korea’s September 1991 entry into the United Nations is a sign of failure, not a mark of success: North Korea only applied for membership after learning that China, perhaps its most reliable ally, would no longer veto South Korea’s pending bid. (In the intervening months Beijing has normalized its relations with the government in Seoul.)

Pyongyang’s international fortunes have been set back still further by the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact states, and the simultaneous emergence of its most feared and hated enemy, the United States, as the world’s single and unrivaled superpower.

North Korea’s economic prospects are scarcely better. Rapid as its growth may have been in earlier years, opportunities for material advance are now exhausted. The "extensive" approach to economic growth has reached its limits. The adult population has been fully mobilized; there is no more "surplus" labor to direct toward factory, field or barracks. Additional investment, for its part, must come at the expense of military spending or consumption. But the former is inviolate, and the latter has already been assiduously squeezed. Additional burdens have been placed on the economy by massive showpiece projects of questionable economic merit, such as the West Sea Lock Gate near Nampo and the ongoing facelift of Pyongyang.

Per capita growth in North Korea may have stopped in the mid?1980s; Soviet sources say the economy was in absolute decline by the late 1980s. Thereafter—with the revolutions of 1989 in eastern Europe and the crisis of the Soviet state—the North Korean economy was shaken by an unexpected dislocation. With the end of the Soviet bloc North Korea’s trade with these former allies collapsed. Since the advent of hard currency terms of payment last year, for example, the former Soviet Union has all but ceased exporting to North Korea. Just before its dissolution the Warsaw Pact had accounted for well over half of North Korea’s trade turnover. The sudden end to this commerce has been devastating. It has deprived North Korea of both its foreign markets for low quality machinery and consumer goods, and of the spare parts and equipment necessary to keep Soviet bloc facilities and infrastructure functioning.

In theory Pyongyang could cope with this particular crisis by turning toward market-oriented economies. But North Korea has already poisoned its commercial relations with Western countries by its default on international loans in the 1970s and its intransigence with private creditors ever since. In effect North Korea is reduced to bartering for goods on the world market, and there is little scope for expanding such activities under current circumstances.

Yet in a tightly controlled police state neither declining standards of living nor food shortages should be presumed to presage an uprising against the government, much less its overthrow. Perhaps more unsettling to Pyongyang than the immediate impact of today’s economic woes may be the realization that there is simply no way out. Foreign economic resources might offer the regime some breathing space, but they are unlikely to be forthcoming in any volume. Even under the luckiest of circumstances the regime is unlikely to reattain its pre-1989 foreign balances—and economic prospects at that time were hardly enviable.

It is, of course, possible that the North Korean economy could be resuscitated through a far-reaching liberalization. But Kim’s government to date has completely rejected that option. For Pyongyang such a recalcitrant posture is by no means irrational. Far from it: the very measures that might rescue North Korea’s economy could doom its political system.

From Kim’s perspective it is economic experimentation that undermined the regimes of eastern Europe. Perestroika, in his view, not only occasioned economic deterioration in the U.S.S.R. but brought on the death of Soviet communism. Even the Chinese approach, while perhaps more satisfactory in its material outcome, made possible the Tiananmen protests. In the context of its mortal struggle with Seoul any such protests in Pyongyang would pose incalculable dangers to the regime.

For the Kim Il Sung regime the lessons of history are unequivocal: to "reform" is to die. Kim Il Sung may be a mysterious political personality, but he has never evinced suicidal inclinations. Desperate though his current situation may be he seems determined not to risk making it worse by false moves. Thus it seems likely that North Korea will forswear any reforms worthy of the name and instead simply attempt doggedly to hold on. As if to underscore this intention North Korea’s media are today full of talk about "the superiority of our style of socialism."

The 80-year-old Kim will have to relinquish power in the not-too-distant future, and, according to the official script, "Dear Leader" Kim Chong Il will assume his father’s mantle. Preparations for the succession have been underway for almost 20 years. From Kim Chong Il’s emergence as the celebrated (though never named) "Party Center" in 1973, through the 1980 congress that featured his formal elevation within the party, and on through his assumption of the rank of marshal over the country’s armed forces in April 1992, there have been continuous indications that "Dear Leader" was methodically consolidating power during his father’s lifetime. By the official version the transfer of supreme authority to Kim Chong Il will be little more than a formality.

Nonetheless Kim Il Sung’s exit from politics will be a shock and crisis for the regime—most assuredly, a greater one than the global events of 1989-90 that apparently sent Kim Chong Il into hiding. No matter how carefully or forcefully a hereditary transition is orchestrated, there is little reason at present to expect a reign by Kim Chong Il to be either stable or long.

Risks of Instability

IF ONE WERE TO JUDGE conditions in the peninsula solely by international headlines one might conclude that tensions in Korea have been markedly reduced over the past three years. After all, North Korea’s erstwhile benefactors, China and Russia, have developed diplomatic and commercial bonds with Seoul, while the Republic of Korea’s most important supporters, Japan and the United States, have currently entered into their highest level diplomatic dialogues with Pyongyang since the 1953 armistice.

After decades of frozen hostility Korea’s two governments signed an agreement on "Reconciliation and Nonaggression" in December 1991. They also have agreed in principle to reciprocal inspections of each other’s nuclear facilities and are now negotiating the details of such arrangements. Economic contacts between North and South are now officially sanctioned, and growing. Liaison offices for inter-Korean diplomacy have formally opened in the North and the South, and the two countries’ prime ministers have met eight times. In July a North Korean vice-premier visited Seoul and met with President Roh Tae Woo. There is even talk of a possible peace treaty to bring the Korean War to a formal end.

Such soundings may seem to offer hope for the resolution of Korea’s protracted conflict. But hope is a poor guide to policy. As students of Korea are all too well aware, the region’s political climate is characterized by seasons of recurrent—and deceptive—calm.

One of these seasons is presently upon us. For behind today’s promising atmospherics lies the fact that the Korean peninsula has entered into an era of dangerous discontinuity. After Kim Il Sung is gone the state that he built will lack viability—even while possessing a huge and aggressively poised military machine. There is no means by which external actors could guarantee the continued stability of the regime in the North, even if this were a desirable goal.

The risks of instability in Korea are further compounded by geography. North Korea shares its borders with both China and Russia; South Korea is separated from Japanese islands by less than 50 miles of ocean. It would be unreasonable to expect those three powerful neighbors to sit idly by if conflict should rage so near their territory. In the heat of such a crisis, however, their reactions and responses would retain an irreducible element of unpredictability. Chinese, Russian or Japanese involvement in an ongoing Korean conflict would not only complicate its solution; quite conceivably, it could strain, or rupture, the concordance among great powers upon which the emerging "New World Order" seems to be premised.

For the United States and its allies in the region, then, the paramount concern in northeast Asia in the years ahead must be to prevent war in Korea, and this by ensuring the continued effectiveness of deterrence in the peninsula. In recent years, however, both the nature of deterrence in Korea and the tasks necessary to provide for it have changed. One may appreciate these changes by examining them in greater detail.

Benefits of Going Nuclear

BEFORE THE END of the Cold War the Soviet Union had both strong incentives and some limited instruments for encouraging responsible—or at least predictable—behavior in Pyongyang. Global struggle in a nuclear environment, with its attendant possibilities for uncontrollable escalation, sharpened Moscow’s interest in controlling risks emanating from North Korea. During the height of the Cold War the Soviet Union could offer Pyongyang not only aid but the possibility of protection beneath the Soviet nuclear umbrella as inducements to influence North Korean policy. In 1969, for example, Soviet leaders privately assured Washington that they would not back North Korea if Pyongyang should provoke a crisis in the Korean peninsula. In 1985, when North Korea became a signatory to the Nonproliferation Treaty, it was widely believed that heavy Soviet pressure had been the decisive factor in Pyongyang’s membership. With the end of communism, however, Russia’s likelihood of becoming an inadvertent collateral casualty of a reckless North Korean initiative has been vastly diminished.

Deterrence has been further weakened by an accidental but fateful simultaneity within North Korea; for the departure of Kim Il Sung is coinciding with the arrival of a nuclear option for the regime.

Despite the Western intelligence community’s newly voiced alarm about the North’s nuclear drive, the program itself has long been in progress. Its genealogy, in fact, dates back to World War II, when Japan chose North Korea as the site for its attempt at a version of the Manhattan Project. Looking back on this program as it nears apparent fruition offers several pointers. First, the program’s history emphasizes Pyongyang’s longstanding desire and intention to develop nuclear weaponry. Second, it is unlikely that the regime would have marshaled the resources for this long and expensive quest if it had not also long believed that the acquisition of nuclear weapons would affect its balance of power with the South. Finally, it would seem most unlikely that the North Korean regime, as it currently exists, would negotiate away an instrument that was perceived to offer possible dominance in its struggle against the South—or to guarantee Pyongyang protection during a time of adversity.

It is perhaps from Pyongyang’s perspective that North Korea’s ongoing nuclear inspection negotiations—with Seoul, Washington and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)—should most properly be viewed. By indicating that it would agree to any inspections at all North Korea has already gained a great deal. As a preparatory confidence-building measure, all American nuclear weapons were reportedly removed from South Korea last year; for decades Pyongyang had striven for precisely this objective. As part of this agreement, North Korea also has obtained the cancellation of this year’s "Team Spirit" games—the annual joint U.S.-South Korean military exercise against an assault from the North. By agreeing to inspection, moreover, North Korea removed a major obstacle to better bilateral relations with Japan, bringing Pyongyang nearer to the official diplomatic recognition and the massive aid it hopes to obtain from Tokyo.

In return for these tangible and pending benefits North Korea has to date sacrificed precious little. The Joint North-South Commission is still working out details of a mutual inspection agreement; however close North Korea may be to the bomb today, it could be that much further along when these negotiations are concluded and finalized. IAEA officials have made three visits to North Korea thus far this year and have confirmed (adamant North Korean denials notwithstanding) that one of the facilities inspected was in fact a large plutonium reprocessing plant, designed to generate types of material that would be used in atomic weapons. Whether further IAEA inspections could provide insight into North Korea’s nuclear program is unclear. Such inspections are hobbled by their ground rules: by IAEA tradition only sites acknowledged by the inspectee may be visited, and even then the host is given time to prepare for the visit. Moreover, even if outsiders are able to identify every nuclear facility in North Korea (including concealed ones), and even if inspectors were permitted into these facilities, the fact remains that North Korea might well be able to prevent detection of weapons-grade nuclear materials if it so wishes, as Iraq succeeded in doing.

In short Pyongyang has found that even the prospect of obtaining nuclear weapons has produced immediate concessions from its adversaries, and at no immediate cost to the regime. This lesson is unlikely to diminish North Korea’s ardor to become a full-fledged nuclear power, or to deter it from completing its current nuclear program. Unexpected technical difficulties could slow the pace of development, and tactical considerations could prompt authorities in Pyongyang to order a pause in the program. But it would be unrealistic to expect the North Korean hierarchy to forswear the instruments of atomic diplomacy—especially if they view possession of nuclear weapons as a sort of insurance policy for the hard times that are sure to come.

Burden Sharing

THE UNITED STATES can contribute to deterrence in Korea. In some cases it can do so by actions in areas far removed from Korea itself: the fact of the American prosecution of the Gulf War against Iraq, for example, has surely reduced the chance that Pyongyang will soon gamble with opportunistic confrontation. But some of the policies and actions that might bolster deterrence in Korea must be taken in the peninsula itself and must be unilateral in nature. Reemphasizing the U.S. commitment to South Korea’s defense would be one of these.

Today the Pentagon estimates that it would have no more than 24-hours lead time in the event of an attack from the North. As the end of the Kim Il Sung era approaches the risk of conflict along the "demilitarized zone" is rising, not diminishing. It would be inappropriate at this juncture to instigate further reductions in U.S. force levels in South Korea, if Washington is to reduce the likelihood of the war it wishes to avoid in the region. With large cuts pending in both America’s global military budget and worldwide force levels the need to communicate an undiminished willingness and capability to support U.S. allies in Seoul may be all the more urgent.

But the task of deterrence in Korea also begs questions about America’s bilateral and multilateral arrangements. Perhaps most importantly it raises issues for the U.S.-R.O.K. security partnership. Close and warm as American-South Korean ties are, and effective as they obviously have been in assuring deterrence these past four decades, the relationship is nevertheless beset with problems. Most of these problems are not new, but their consequences are more obvious, and potentially more costly, at this delicate stage in North Korea’s history.

Three problems in the U.S.-R.O.K. security arrangement deserve special mention. The first relates to "intelligence sharing." For many years the sharing process has been virtually a one-way transfer: Washington providing extensive information gleaned from aerial reconnaissance and intercepted communications, with Seoul offering little more than interpretation of current events in the North in return. Meager though it may be, Seoul’s contribution has nevertheless been important; North Korea is a modern-day "hermit kingdom," and its capabilities and intentions can hardly be divined from photographs alone. But these lopsided intelligence arrangements no longer look so easy to justify.

A second problem has to do with the sharing of military burdens. Today South Korea is an advanced industrial nation. Seoul estimates the South Korean economy to be more than ten times larger than the North’s. To no small degree Seoul’s current security concerns derive from the fact that this threatened society has not allocated an adequate portion of its growing wealth to its own defense. Despite the imminent danger on its border, South Korea’s ratio of military expenditure to gross domestic product is actually lower than America’s (4 percent of GDP in 1990, versus 5.5 percent for the United States); its ratio of men under arms to total population is only slightly higher. America’s continuing defense commitment is arguably vital to the delicate balance that ensures the peace in Korea; at the same time, there can be no question that South Korea would pose a less inviting target to the leadership in the North (even during a period of internal instability) if it provided more for its own protection.

Finally, there is an issue that might be termed political burden sharing. South Korea can no longer be described as a helpless client dependent upon its American patron. Recent manifestations of Seoul’s "blame America" predilection are admittedly more benign than, say, during the Kwangju incident of May 1980, when the previous South Korean government suggested an American complicity, or even leading role, in the operation that culminated in the massacre of hundreds of civilians in that city. Nevertheless such tendencies raise questions about the degree to which South Korea is prepared to assume responsibility for the actions it judges to be vital to its own interests and security. By inflaming or creating anti-American sentiment among the South Korean public such tendencies also stand to drive a wedge between Washington and Seoul, thereby complicating security cooperation.

Longing for Reunification

DESPITE KOREA’S long tradition of factionalism, and the serious disagreements between organized groups in the country today, the longing for reunification appears to be virtually universal and nearly overwhelming among Koreans in the South. A gauge of such sentiment in the North is beyond reach for now. Even under the best of circumstances the challenges to a successful Korean unification will be great, and will run deep—far deeper and greater than those that Germany faced. By any number of criteria Korea’s situation as it approaches unification is less auspicious than was Germany’s. If American policy is to influence events constructively, its public and its policymakers must understand the likely differences between what they have just seen in Germany and what they may soon view in Korea.

Consider the issue of military demobilization. East Germany and North Korea have roughly the same population—16 million versus 20 million—but Pyongyang’s army is believed to be more than seven times larger today than was East Berlin’s Volksarmee on the eve of German reunification. Nearly every fifth North Korean male of working age is in uniform and under arms. A free and peaceful Korean unification would make for a military builddown of an utterly different magnitude from the one now underway in Germany; the strategic, political and social problems attendant to such a conversion would be correspondingly greater as well.

Moreover economic reunification could be considerably more difficult for Korea than it is proving to be for Germany. Five disadvantages may be adduced for Korea that did not obtain for Germany. First, North Korea is larger, relative to its divided neighbor, than was East Germany. Absorbing and providing for the postcommunist population thus stands to be a more massive task for Seoul than it has been for Bonn (and, here, it must be said, Chancellor Helmut Kohl vastly underestimated the costs, both in financial and political terms, of that absorption). Second, North Korea’s economy is even more distorted than was East Germany’s. Third, despite its material advance over the past generation, South Korea is not yet an affluent society. Its per capita output today is roughly a third of America’s and less than half of west Germany’s. Indeed intellectual and official circles in Seoul seem to be increasingly anxious about what Germany’s economic experience may portend for Korea. There are even those in Seoul who speak of the need to prop up the North and thereby postpone an over-hasty reunification.

Fourth, unlike East and West Germany, North and South Korea have had virtually no contact with one another over the past forty years. Apart from a tiny and privileged cadre North Koreans know virtually nothing about life in the South. With a rapidly reunified economy their exposure to this unknown society could coincide with massive layoffs and other social dislocations. At the same time a unified and free peninsula would presumably offer opportunities for millions of North Koreans to migrate en masse to the more materially inviting South. How a population raised in enforced economic innocence would respond to such a decompression is difficult to predict.

Finally, since North Korea, unlike East Germany, is no one’s satellite, Seoul cannot hope to ease or speed reunification through a well-placed bribe to an outside power; some future government in Beijing might well accept money for such a deal, but it would not be in a position to deliver on it.

Yet if there is a new and unexpected angst in South Korea regarding the economics of unification, it derives to some extent from a misreading of the purported "lessons of Germany."

The cost of unification for a divided nation is not a predetermined sum, fixed and immutable. It is a quantity, rather, determined by human action and government policy. For better or worse South Korea is not yet a welfare state, and its labor market continues to be exposed to and conditioned by fierce competitive forces. However else a Korean reunification may suffer by comparison with Germany, Korea would be free from the fiscal burdens and the sclerotic restrictions that necessarily devolve from the arrangements of a "social market economy." This difference speaks to an inherent Korean advantage in reunification—and hardly an inconsequential one.

Indeed one can imagine other ways in which integration of the two Korean economies could produce benefits for both. South Korea, for example, is today beginning to experience symptoms of labor shortage. Illegal immigrants are now a fact of life in Seoul: the main rail station downtown is now the site of an early morning market for foreign day-laborers, with Filipino, Bangladeshi and other workers negotiating temporary employment with local small businesses. (As many as 45,000 illegal immigrants are believed to have come to South Korea thus far to fill jobs South Koreans cannot or will not take.) With reunification the South’s incipient labor shortage could be immediately relieved. In theory it would be possible to raise purchasing power for workers from the North, reduce production costs and inflationary pressures in the South, and improve Korea’s overall competitiveness in international markets. Such opportunities, of course, might not be grasped for a variety of reasons. The point, however, is that these promising economic prospects and others would exist—and as a direct result of reunification.

The economic success of reunification in Korea will depend upon Seoul’s ability to establish an environment in the North that is conducive to high rates of return on both physical and human capital. Unfortunately it is precisely in its prospects for establishing such an environment in the North that Korea’s greatest disadvantage by comparison with Germany may be seen. For today the Federal Republic of Germany and the Republic of Korea are, at their essence, very different sorts of states. Whatever its imperfections the Federal Republic of Germany is a Rechtsstaat—a state administering and restrained by the rule of law. To date the Republic of Korea cannot be similarly described. It is this fundamental dissimilarity, perhaps more than any other, that will cloud Korea’s future if free and peaceful reunification of the peninsula is in fact achieved.

Holes in Rule of Law

THE REPUBLIC of Korea claims to be a democracy, and by some criteria may qualify as one. Certainly its polity has been evolving in the direction of pluralism. Under its current constitution both the president and legislators of the national assembly are selected by popular election. Since 1987 campaigns for these posts have been genuinely competitive, and tallied results appear to correspond with actual votes. It is no longer inconceivable for the ruling party’s presidential candidate to lose, or for incumbent members of the national assembly to be turned out of office. In and of themselves, however, universal suffrage and reasonably fair mass plebiscites do not betoken the rule of law, much less guarantee a civil society or a liberal order. Despite increasing pressures for accountability, the fact is that regular, impartial and limited governance remains an elusive ideal in South Korea.

Emblematic of the fragile foundations upon which civil society in South Korea currently balances are the troubles American and other Western businesses encounter in the realm of commerce. Though South Korea’s dazzling commercial performance and its outward economic orientation might have been expected to open great local opportunities for foreign concerns, the position of Western businesses operating in South Korea remains marginal, often tenuous. A principal factor in their plight seems to be that foreign corporations in Korea cannot expect protection under South Korean law and may be subject to arbitrary government-enforced restriction, sanction or punishment. In 1990, for example, Seoul initiated a "frugality" campaign against foreign consumer goods; foreign importers of those products and Korean citizens who purchased them were subjected to official, albeit extralegal, intimidation and harassment. Even more recently American and European firms in Korea formally complained that the country’s laws for protecting intellectual property rights (copyrights, patents and the like) continue to be largely unenforceable if the injured party is not Korean.

While foreign firms in South Korea surely suffer from the arbitrary exercise of government power, they are not the group most regularly and severely afflicted. That unwelcome accolade falls upon the Republic of Korea’s own citizenry. After all, next to the ordinary Korean, Western businesses in Korea have tremendous recourse if they feel they have been unjustly treated by the state. They have the financial wherewithal to pursue their case through the local courts. They can count upon their home governments to represent their interests through diplomatic channels. Denied all satisfaction, they have the option of withdrawing from Korea and relocating elsewhere. How much more vulnerable the ordinary Korean appears to be by comparison.

One can argue, of course, that the state is no more lawless in South Korea than in many—perhaps most—other Asian countries. Moreover, however lawlessly the South Korean state may have behaved over the past generation, its conduct quite obviously did not forestall rapid and sustained material advance for the populace under its jurisdiction. But as unification approaches, the risks and costs of failing to establish and abide by a rule of law will grow ever greater.

Overcoming Government by Grudge

WHATEVER ELSE may be unclear today about Korea’s eventual reunification, it is sure to be attended by turbulence, for which the Clinton administration must soon prepare. It will also be a time of widespread apprehension in the North. The population of North Korea has known scarcely anything other than harsh Japanese colonialism and communist dictatorship. To the extent that they are aware of their history, they know that government by grudge is traditionally Korean—and that grudges have in the past been perpetrated against entire regions. Despite the longing for reunification in Korea, regional bitterness in that divided nation runs deep and has been inflamed still further during partition. Over a tenth of Korea’s population perished during the Korean War: most Koreans today can name at least one relative lost to that terrible conflict, and memories of the atrocities committed during the fighting remain vivid.

If deterrence has made possible the opportunities for reunification that exist in the Korean peninsula today, it is the rule of law that offers the key to the nation’s alternatives for the future. Can American policy—and American citizens—constructively contribute today to the establishment of secure and uncontested rule of law in Korea- If so, how? The answers to these questions are not obvious. Even so, there can be no doubt about the importance of addressing them. For Korea’s success—or failure—in constructing a civil society and a legal order will not only affect the well-being of the Korean people long after the division of the peninsula is formally ended, but will shape the nature of international security in northeast Asia in the years to come.

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  • Nicholas Eberstadt is a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard University Center for Population and Development Studies and a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
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