Even in a Best-Case Scenario, North Korea Remains a Big Problem

As we all sit here hoping that North Korea does not launch an invasion force across the DMZ, or let some crazy guy get his hands on their nuclear weapons, we should try to remember that there's also a best-case scenario.  And that that best-case scenario is still really terrible:

Consider another, not wholly dissimilar case. In the late 1980s, just before reunification, it is estimated that per-capita gross domestic product in East Germany was approximately 30 percent lower than it was in West Germany. Joining the two countries together temporarily multiplied their disparities. Many of East Germany's inefficient and pollution-heavy factories were shut down, creating high levels of structural unemployment that were eased only by massive transfers and substantial migration from east to west. The problem was greatly helped by the fact that East Germany's five states contained only 20 percent of the population of the unified Germany. Nonetheless, by one estimate, the reunification of Germany cost about 1.6 trillion euros -- about $2.08 trillion.

But that project looks comparatively simple when you consider the problems that will face South Korea if its North Korean brethren start hankering for a family reunion. North Korea's per-capita income is among the lowest in the world. South Korea's is at least 15 times higher. Economically speaking, this is like the United States trying to adopt Haiti -- if Haiti were the size of Mexico. North Korea is a country in which the vast majority of people have no access to cars, cell phones, computers, antibiotics or an adequate food supply. How do you integrate 20 million new citizens who basically missed out on the 20th century?

The brutal efficiency of North Korea's totalitarian regime will make it even harder. Though one hesitates to praise the late-era Soviet Union, it had at least grown beyond the worst excesses of Stalinist control. By all accounts, North Korea has perfected one of the creepiest propaganda states in history. The faith in the superiority of the system -- and especially the "Dear Leader" -- is so high that a government website actually thought it could get away with claiming that Kim Jong Il did not defecate. It's tempting to dismiss this as so much propaganda, but many defectors say they genuinely believed what they were told ... and were shocked and heartbroken when they started foraging for food in China, and realized that even on the remote farms of Jilin province, dogs were given food like white rice and meat that ordinary Koreans hadn't seen for years.

If reunification happens, all the people who have been left behind will have to go through the same shock. It will be terrifying, and humiliating. North Korea doesn't have the infrastructure to support a modern economy -- and its workers don't have the skills. A 21st-century economy doesn't just require workers who can use technology; it requires workers with initiative, autonomy and flexibility. In other words, all the things that totalitarian regimes spend decades stamping out.

Noam Scheiber and I discussed whether Kim Jong Il's son might be more open to the West yesterday.  Answer: not necessarily. (the Wall Street Journal concurs).

Obviously, I am no expert on North Korea, though I don't feel too bad about this, because the experts readily concede that they're not very expert either.  If you want to know what's informed my limited thinking about what might happen next, I recommend that you listen to these interviews with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and William Easterly on dictators, and this excellent New Atlanticist article on the potential costs of North Korean reunification.  And I cannot recommend highly enough that you read Nothing to Envy,  Barbara Demick's incredible book on the lives of six North Korean defectors.  I reread part of it last night and it remains equal parts engaging, eye-opening, and heart-breaking.