SEOUL: In 1947, the year India supposedly embarked on an “independent” policy, Korea was a divided and impoverished nation. Seven decades later, it is still divided, but the southern half has evolved into an economic powerhouse, with per capita income comfortably within the “developed country” range, and a public health and welfare system that is better than that of the United States, a country that has been its patron since the 1950s. Although blessed with an abundance of intellectual gifts, the Koreans have lacked that essential ingredient of success, Lady Luck, for long stretches of their history, and have consequently come under the sway of foreign powers, the most recent being Japan for a couple of centuries till Tokyo’s military defeat in 1945. While the people of North Korea still suffer the bad fortune of being dominated by a single family, a scion of the third generation of which is presently running the northern part of the peninsula, the South has leaped forward since the 1960s, although to the present, economic power has been concentrated in a half-dozen mega enterprises (or chaebols). Given the way in which the internet can empower individuals with knowledge and opportunity, it is clear that South Korea needs to free itself from the chaebol grip, so that its talented entrepreneurial class gets a level playing field in order to grow their enterprises. In a way, this is a situation similar to China or to India, where the state-owned enterprises and crony capitalists, respectively, use their control of the political class to promote themselves at the expense of those without similar patronage.
In 1990, West and East Germany got unified, not because of any exertion by the people of the two zones, but because the USSR collapsed, and with it, the only power that was separating the two sides of a single country. Once Mikhail Gorbachev made it explicit that military power would not be used to keep East Germany going, that country was doomed. The USSR, since the passing away of Josef Stalin, is a textbook case of a global power whose ruling establishment was too pusillanimous to use the immense military assets that were in their control. Afghanistan is where the US ensured the defeat of the USSR through the assistance of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (thereby unintentionally creating the spectre of Wahhabi radicalism, which has today assumed the toxic form of ISIS). However, had Moscow the strategic boldness to use its assets against Pakistan, thereby blocking that country from helping the Mujahideen, it would not have had to concede defeat. By allowing Pakistan to do its worst unobstructed, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union showed to the world that it was hesitant to use its military power even in situations where such an exercise of capability would mean the difference between defeat and victory. In many respects, NATO headquarters is similar to the post-Stalin leadership of the CPSU, in the phenomenon of immense military power used only against much weaker opponents, and without much success even in such instances.
That North and South Korea will someday unify is a given. The Koreans are a people justifiably proud of their culture. Indeed, the folklore of the country has it that 5,000 years ago, the people of the peninsula were enjoined by their gurus to work not for their own benefit, but for that of humanity as a whole, a philosophy identical to that of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”. Will the present ruler of North Korea make history by decreeing the unification of the divided country, or will the rule of his family get dissolved in chaos, thereby creating an opportunity for the millions on both sides who seek to come together? Such issues were not discussed at the conference on Korea’s Peaceful Unification and Economic Development organised by the Global Peace Economic Forum on 8 October (coincidentally the day the two Germanys merged a quarter-century ago). The purpose of the meeting was to prepare an economic roadmap, so that unification would result in a sharing by both sides not of the poverty of the North, but the prosperity of the South. Ideally, Supreme Leader Kim in Pyongyang should create history for his people by opting for unity with the South, but for that to happen, Seoul will need a diplomacy much more creative than what has been on display over the past five years. The greater the people-to-people contacts and the commercial investment by the South in the North, the closer will unification be. What is clear is that war is not an option. Not only would it devastate both sides, but it would create a wound within a society that prizes harmony and peaceful outcomes. It needs to be remembered that although Korea itself has been colonised in the past, this is a nation that has never itself enslaved another people. Since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Park talked trade and investment together a year ago, South Korean delegations have been visiting India in large numbers, although as yet Delhi still needs to work to ensure a dissolving of the bureaucratic maze, which has made investing in India a nightmare, especially for domestic industry, but also for those from outside. Even a matter as easy to solve as permitting more flights between South Korea and India has been held up for a decade, so that those wishing to travel to either country have to transit via Singapore, Hong Kong or Bangkok. Fortunately, the embassy of India in Seoul is business savvy, and has been working hard to ensure that Modi’s “Make in India” goal acquires a significant Korean component. South Korea is a country that cannot be ignored, even in a global rather than a purely East Asian matrix.