A peep inside North Korea
If you ever happen to meet a North Korean government official and ask him about the size of his country and the population, do not be surprised if he gives the land area of the two Koreas combined and quotes the population that inhabits both North and South Korea. This is because he thinks that the division of the Korean peninsula into two countries is a temporary phenomenon and the two territories will return to be one country again.
The Korean war that broke out in 1950 was a conflict prompted by certain foreign power and interests. The hostilities ended with the declaration of an armistice in 1953. As no peace agreement was put in place that finalised borders, the land and sea territories that were actually occupied by each country till today remain the border demarcation between them.
Since the armistice, South Korea, with the help of the US, quickly reconstructed its war torn economy. Over the past decades, it morphed into a developed country. By 2004, South Korea was able to join the exclusive trillion dollar club of world economies.
But what was the situation in North Korea? The country which was initially aided by the now defunct Soviet Union and later by China kept up its preparation for a possible second round of hostilities in the peninsula. Its "Great leader" Kim Ill Sung concentrated on building its military might. At some point it did start to industrialise but soon had to abandon it largely because the Soviet Union itself broke up.
It must be remembered that between the two Koreas the North had more natural resources. The South was essentially an agricultural country. With the loss of the economic support from the Soviet Union the North had to fend for itself and developed self-reliant programmes. But because of a personalised system of governance, the resources available to it remained either unutilised or mismanaged. The South of course followed a separate course. It opened up its economy, introduced industrial conglomerates called "chaeobils," and allowed foreign investors and use of modern technology. The outcome is evident from the following figures.
North Korea, according to some estimates, had a GDP in 2009 (based on purchasing power parity) of $40 billion. Its per capita income in 2008 was $1,800. The GDP based on purchasing power parity of South Korea in 2010 was a whopping $1.45 trillion. Its per capita income rose to $17,000. In 2010, the real GDP growth of South Korea was 6.1% while for North Korea it was a negative 0.9%.
Due to inefficiencies in production in agriculture, North Korea also suffered from famine conditions almost annually. Inclement weather also added to its miseries. The image of the North was its malnourished children. In contrast, the South was able to mobilise its own resources and made up any food shortfalls through imports.
Yet the North pumped most of its resources to building up the fourth largest standing army in the world. Today, the North has over 1.1 million troops. It also has in its possession nuclear bombs and active nuclear programme which can deliver the bombs. The South does not have this immense military capacity and has to depend on the US to give it not only military support but also a nuclear umbrella.
So when the "Dear Leader" Kim Jong Ill, the son of the founder of North Korea Kim Ill Sung, suffered a stroke a few years back, many in the international community expressed their fear about the future of that country and were worried about who would succeed him. In any country where policy directions depend on individuals there is always deep apprehension when the leader dies.
So the"Dear Leader" selected his third son, Kim Ill Un, to succeed him to this powerful position. He was named the "Great Successor," and he had been groomed to take over during the last two years. He was bestowed with the rank of a four-star general before his father's death. In North Korea, the military takes precedence in all matters and a high position in the military hierarchy gives power and great influence.
Therefore, when Kim Jong Ill died the ruling group allowed this 29-year old successor to quickly take over the highest position in the powerful Military Commission. He was also made the Secretary General of North Korea's Workers Party. These positions enabled him to play the leading role in arranging the state funeral for his father. It is now a credible assumption that there is perhaps little or no resistance to the anointed successor to take over. But it is not yet clear whether he nominally heads a collective leadership or is the supreme leader. Only time will tell.
Thus, in the Korean peninsula, two contrasting systems of government operate. In the North power seems to lie in the hands of a few senior generals and party apparatchiks led by the omnipresent member from the Kim family. In the South a democratic form of governance has been taking roots.
But the people of the two Koreas are one and the same. They speak the same language and have similar aspirations. It, therefore, seems imperative that the two Koreas must unite in order to restore their past and move together to a prosperous future.
But what is preventing them from doing so?
First, the Korean war has technically not ended. A state of belligerence has been artificially propped up among the two people by interested parties. As the North has a huge army and nuclear bombs at its disposal it can afford to continue on the present path. The people of the North do not seem to have any say in the state of things.
The South on its part is heavily dependent on the US for its security. So it has lost its power of independent action. The US, in order to punish the North and make it keep up its belligerent behaviour, has also imposed economic sanctions to restrict its maneuverability. The result is that the wishes of the people of the two Koreas are ignored and lost.
A formal closure of the Korean war and signing an agreement to that effect would go a long way in reunifying Korea. This would perhaps stop the North from giving an excuse for maintaining such a huge army. It would also encourage the South to consider options other than those proffered to her by the US and its allies. The international community can then put pressure on the authorities in the North and South and bring them together.
There is an old Chinese proverb that a person who says that something is impossible should not interrupt the person who is doing it. In the case of unifying the people of Korea, the world must ensure now that no one should interrupt this process. Small steps need to be taken with the coming of a new leader in the North. Can it really happen?