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South Korean University Offers Rare Look at Reunification Issues


Since the end of fighting on the Korean peninsula in 1953, North and South Korea have gone in dramatically different directions. The North Korean leadership has presided over a failed economy, while the South has become one of the world's economic success stories. What will happen if the two countries are ever reunited? A graduate school in Seoul is one of the few places in South Korea where the subject of unification is discussed.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, several dozen students come to class at Kyungnam University's Graduate School of North Korean Studies, or SNS.

The classroom is a cross-section of South Korean society: middle-aged men and women who hold full-time jobs in both government and business; younger, full-time students; and at least one North Korean defector, who says he once held a high-level propaganda position in Pyongyang.

The students at the seven-year-old school choose from a list of courses that examine every aspect of North Korean society, from the inner workings of its political bureaucracy to the North's film and television productions.

The school opened in 1998. Its founding followed by just months the election of President Kim Dae-jung, whose "Sunshine Policy" introduced a new era of cooperation and engagement with Pyongyang, culminating in the historic 2000 summit between President Kim and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

But though the two Koreas were talking, the economic divide between them kept growing wider. South Korea's economy now ranks among the top 12 in the world. Per capita income in the South is close to $13,000, more than 12-times that of the North, where economic mismanagement has made North Korea one of the poorest countries in the world.

Speculation about a sudden reunification brought on by an economic collapse of the North has been gaining momentum ever since the country experienced severe food shortages in the 1990s.

SNS's dean of academic affairs, Ryoo Kihl-Jae, downplays the school as a training ground for unification, but at the same time is not confident about the long-term stability of the government in the North.

"I think the collapse of the North Korean government can come sooner than we expect," he said.

When asked how prepared South Koreans are for a sudden reunification, Professor Ryoo is quick to answer.

"Almost unprepared," he joked.

The Institute of International Economics in Washington estimates a sudden reunification of the Koreas would cost $600 billion within the first 10 years, dealing a seismic shock to the Southern economy. To avoid mass migration from the North, massive amounts of money would have to be spent making Northern living standards at least somewhat similar to those in the South. Economists say the North's entire infrastructure basically needs to be rebuilt.

While many South Koreans say they support reunification, they often add they prefer that it does not happen during their working years. This way, they hope to avoid the enormous financial burden that would accompany reunification. Researchers say that hesitancy to embrace the practical aspects of reunification may partly explain the absence of public discussion about it.

SNS student Park Ji-Woong says young South Koreans welcome the idea of unification but they do not often discuss what it would entail.

Ji-woong says from an emotional perspective, South Koreans yearn for reunification, but in terms of specific solutions to policy problems, they are definitely not ready.

The experience of approximately 1600 North Korean defectors who have resettled in the South may foreshadow some of the difficulties of unification. Many of them complain of being treated as second-class citizens, and experience psychological difficulties in making the adjustment from a totalitarian command economy to a competitive market economy.

To ease the pain of a possible future unification, South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-Young pursues what he calls a "common sense" policy of integrating with the North. He, along with President Roh Moo-hyun, supports gradually building the North's economy through cooperation and engagement.

The current government hesitates to speak openly about contingency plans for a sudden collapse, which might anger the North Korean government. Seoul's approach to Pyongyang is less confrontational than that of Washington, where President Bush has referred to North Korea as part of an "axis of evil." And many human rights activists, while not as blunt as Mr. Bush, describe a prospective end to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's regime as a positive event, which U.S. policy should aim to hasten.

In spite of its economic problems, North Korea has adroitly managed to ensure that no one takes it lightly. Its ambitious nuclear program is perhaps the best example of this.

One SNS student, a South Korean government official who asked not to be identified, says South Koreans should not think reunification will come soon. He says North Korea has shown staying power, despite repeated predictions of collapse over the last 15 years.

The official says South Koreans don't have any fantasies about when reunification will occur. He says common sense tells them there will be big problems if unification is carried out too quickly.

However, some South Koreans, with their finely tuned business sense, detect opportunity in a prospective reunification.

Lee Jin-il, a student in his 40's, is an executive in the construction industry.

Mr. Lee says having been in the construction business for 15 years, he can foresee the kind of capital investments North Korea will have to make when it opens up to the rest of the world. He says his studies at SNS will have been a good investment when his company starts winning some of those contracts.

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