In the wake of the March 5 assault on U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert by a pro-reunification activist, feminist icon Gloria Steinem plans to trot across the demilitarized zone that divides the two Koreas, calling it an event of “huge importance.” Steinem, along with other women, is working with the United Nations, North Korea, and South Korea, hoping to garner their blessing for this event. Its aim is to officially end the Korean War and promote reunification. Yet, they did not say what would be their secondary plans, if any, should either side reject their proposal. Additionally, they seem to be having trouble finding North Korean women to participate in this gathering. North Korea is arguably one of the largest prisons in the modern world; I can probably think of a couple of reasons off the top of my head (via Stars and Stripes):
Organizers of the effort called WomenCrossDMZ.org on Wednesday [March 11] said they hope for 30 women, including two Nobel Peace laureates, to cross from North Korea to South Korea on May 24, which is International Women's Day for Disarmament.
The walk also marks the 70th anniversary of the division of the Korean peninsula.
The women say they are still seeking approval from both countries and the United Nations. Kim Song, a diplomat with North Korea's mission to the U.N., said that the proposal "is under the discussion in my capital." There was no immediate response from the U.N.
"It's hard to imagine any more physical symbol of the insanity of dividing human beings," said Steinem, a longtime advocate for women who has visited the South Korean side of the DMZ. "To me, to walk across it has huge, huge, huge importance."
The women said they also soon will launch an online petition calling on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a South Korean, as well as President Barack Obama and the leaders of North and South Korea to take the necessary actions to finally end the Korean War with a peace treaty. The war ended in 1953 with the armistice.
The women would not say how or whether they would go ahead with the march, from either side, if permission from either North or South Korea does not come.
Christine Ahn, co-coordinator of this march and head of the group Women Demilitarize the Zone, told reporters that they received a letter last year from North Korea's U.N. mission that said its officials "understand the significance of this occasion and the important peacemaking role that women have played throughout history."
But so far, she said, she has been unable to communicate with any women inside tightly controlled North Korea about joining the first part of their planned march, from Pyongyang to the border.
This is purely symbolic. Does anyone actually believe Kim Jong-un, the Supreme Leader of Democratic People’s Republic (HA!) of Korea, will just give up power because some women from the evil, capitalist West took a stroll across the 38th parallel? As for reunification, that’s another shot in the dark (literally) due to the lack of facts and data about North Korea’s socioeconomic situation, which most can figure out is probably a notch or two above dismal.
South Korea is one of the world’s largest economies. It’s part of the trillion-dollar club concerning its GDP, and half of that will be eaten up if some reunification event occurs in the future. In 2013, Reuters reported that reunification could cost 7 percent of South Korea’s GDP every year for a decade. In dollars, that’s about $81 billion, but those projections only go up until 2020. They’re short term, but the South Korean government sees more positives than negatives with reunification:
Despite the risk of an enlarged debt burden, the government sees more good than bad in the unification, with the ministry saying it would act to off-set the swift ageing of the South Korean population.
The ministry also pointed out the benefits of increased cooperation with neighboring countries, including the development of a gas pipeline linking South Korea and Russia.
Plans for the pipeline hatched during the administration of outgoing President Lee Myung-bak have been shelved indefinitely because North Korea has not cooperated.
The ministry also said the elimination of the North Korean risk factor would result in increased offshore investment and South Korea would benefit in the long term from mineral resources in the North.
Yet, these are government figures, which are usually lower than originally projected and change dramatically over time. Such budgetary dynamics aren’t just a hallmark characteristic of Washington. In 2014, it was projected that South Korea would have to dole out $500 billion over the next two decades to bring North Korea out of Medieval Times. Additionally, there’s the looming risk that such an endeavor could bankrupt the South, inflicting disastrous economic consequences akin to the collapse of the Lehman Brothers in 2008 (via Bloomberg):
About $500 billion would be needed to develop North Korea’s economy over 20 years after reuniting, according to a report released this week by South Korea’s Financial Services Commission. By contrast, the West German economy was 10-times larger than East Germany’s when the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago, the financial watchdog said. West Germany spent about $2 trillion rebuilding a single country, some estimates show.
Shin Je Yoon, the FSC’s chief, said he is embarrassed about the unreliability of its calculations, using a photo of the open sea at a conference in Seoul on Nov. 19 to illustrate how speculative they are.
Other estimates for the cost of unification range from $50 billion to more than $3 trillion.
As long as South Korea knows little of its neighbor’s economy, sudden unification could create a shock as big as the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in 2008, Shin said.
The process would weaken South Korea’s public finances, put pressure on the won and raise borrowing costs, according to Hong Jung Hye, a Seoul-based fixed income analyst at Shinyoung Securities Co. Kwon Goohoon, chief Korea economist at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., said potential unification wasn’t one of the main attractions for investing in South Korea.
Nevertheless, Steinem and company might see an ally in South Korean President Park Geun-hye who announced a government plan for reunification last year, though its an issue that has depreciating value amongst her citizens. Bloomberg noted that in 2012, Park’s predecessor Lee Myung Bak tried to raise funds for a “joining of the nations;” the costs of the government marketing campaign exceeded that of the donations.
Bruce Klingner, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former Korea specialist for the CIA, told the International Business Times last year that reunification is losing popularity amongst South Korea’s younger generation, who are fiscally conservative and wary of such monumental economic projects like reunification. I don’t blame them; it sounds like the “Money Pit” version of nation building.
Lastly, how are the people of the North Korea? Psychologically? What do we know about South Korea’s potential new partners in democracy? Of course, it’s contingent that Kim Jong-un abdicates power and other sociopolitical events. Well, for starters, they’re brainwashed, deprived of expression, and they have a dress code on steroids (via the Guardian):
Yeon-mi did not testify before the UN inquiry, but became a YouTube sensation last autumn, following her emotional speech at the One Young World Summit in Dublin. Looking like a fragile porcelain doll dressed in a flowing pink hanbok (traditional Korean dress), Yeon-mi took the podium and, fighting to keep her composure, told a harrowing and heartbreaking story: “North Korea is an unimaginable country,” she began in halting English. “We aren’t free to sing, say, wear or think what we want.”
She said she believed the dictator could hear her thoughts, and she described the hideous punishments meted out to those who broke the rules or expressed doubt about the regime. When she was nine years old she saw her friend’s mother publicly executed for a minor infraction. When she was 13, she fled into China, only to see her mother raped by a human trafficker. Her father later died in China, where she buried his ashes in secret. “I couldn’t even cry,” she said. “I was afraid to be sent back to North Korea.”
Last year, the UN report on North Korea’s abysmal record in human rights included “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
Frankly, Steinem should scrap the walk, and South Korea should keep its money.
As for Mr. Lippert, he says he’s “lucky” to be alive. His attacker, Kim Ki-jong, attacked him with a 10-inch kitchen knife declaring that North and South Korea should be reunified before attacking Lippert, causing wounds to his hands and face that required 80 stitches. Kim, who could possibly face an attempted murder charge, is known for his anti-American, Korean unification antics. He tried to build a funeral altar for his fellow cities to mourn the death of Kim Jong-il in 2011. That turned out poorly (via NYT):
Kim visited North Korea seven times from 1999 to 2007. But those visits were approved by the South Korean government and took place during a period when many South Koreans, including government officials, journalists and scholars, were allowed to visit the North under Seoul’s “Sunshine Policy” of encouraging exchanges and reconciliation.
Yet Mr. Kim was also among a small minority of progressives in South Korea who tried to build a funeral altar at the center of Seoul to encourage South Koreans to express condolences over the death of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il in late 2011. The progressives said such a gesture would help promote reconciliation with the North, but their attempt crumbled in the face of protest from conservative South Koreans, who denounced them as “jongbuk,” or North Korean sympathizers.
Yeah, I really don’t see the point of this little rendezvous on the 38th parallel. North Korea did send their thanks to Kim, calling his assault a "righteous punishment."