Sokeel Park, the Seoul-based director of research and strategy at Liberty in North Korea (LINK), a defector assistance group, said for many refugees, “transitioning from North Korea to South Korea, especially if you’re from a provincial town in North Korea, is like coming out of a time machine into the future.”
Many North Korean defectors struggle to get employment and adapt to life in South Korea. If integrating North Koreans into South Korean society one at a time is hard, the task of full reunification seems next to impossible.
“We really haven’t had this debate on a formal level for years …What happens in terms of unification?” said Wol-san Liem, director of Korean Peninsula affairs at the Korean Public Service and Transport Workers’ Union (KPTU). She said some are now talking about a potential two state system — “separate but equal countries with good relations” — that would once have been unthinkable.
“For a lot of young South Koreans, the idea that we are one with the North Korean people is becoming a kind of ancient fiction or myth,” said Park. Most are “basically happy living separate” and unwilling to face the huge costs of reunifying with North Korea.
Economically disadvantaged North Korea, cut off from the world by decades of sanctions, would always be the weaker partner to the South, and there are fears this could lead to South Korean corporations and private interests running roughshod over their northern neighbor. A sudden flood of cheap labor could negatively effect South Korea too, driving down wages and allowing employers to cut benefits.
Estimates of the cost of reunification to South Korea range from around $500 billion to several trillion dollars, and putting even that specific a price on it is difficult, given the impossibility of guessing how the process would play out.