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Heads Up

July 31st, 2003 - 1:13 am

Here’s a smart move by the US Senate which could just hasten along the coming collapse of North Korea:

The Bush Administration is expected to back plans to provide thousands of North Koreans with asylum in America, supporting efforts to transport them out of China, in a significant policy shift.

“We will see the United States adopt very generous provisions for North Korean refugees, including relocating them from China and South Korea into processing camps in the region and into localities in the US,” said Chuck Downs, a long-time Washington consultant on North Korean human rights.

The US Senate recently passed a measure that would allow North Korean asylum seekers to apply for refugee status in the US, a move that is expected to be supported soon by the full Congress.

The story goes on to compare allowing North Koreans to come here, with the effect that free travel to the West had on East Germany (remember them?) in the summer and fall of 1989. But the comparison can go only so far.

If you’ll recall, after Soviet Premier Gorbachev declared an end to the Brezhnev Doctrine, Czechoslovakia and Hungary started to freely hand out travel visas for points west — even to East Germans. The floodgates were opened, and, before long, East Germany looked on the weekends like a Old West ghost town made of bad concrete. Not long after that, of course, the Wall came down and we had a single Germany.

It’s hard for a totalitarian state to allow just a little freedom, as China and Iran are also discovering. But I worry about the eventual Korean reunification in a way I never worried about the Germans.

Not that there wasn’t (or isn’t) anything to be concerned about by having one Germany around rather than two. Dennis Miller said it best in his “Black and White” special 14 years ago:

I feel about that the way I feel about Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; I didn’t particularly care for any of their old stuff, and I’m not looking forward to any new material.

Funny stuff — because all good comedy is based on a nugget of truth. However, that’s not my concern with North and South Korea.

Unified Korea isn’t going to be a threat to anyone. Who are they going to invade? Japan? China? Russia? Hardly. Korea is the Poland of Northeast Asia — a small nation trapped between bigger, and often antagonistic, neighbors. No, a single Korea would likely have a smaller (although still very potent) military than does just South Korea today.

So what’s the problem?

Let’s go back to 1989 once more. West Germany had 62 million people, and the world’s third-largest economy. East Germans numbered a mere 17 million, and by Communist standards, they were quite rich. In fact, the old DDR was the richest Communist nation ever, period, full stop. So while reunification was an expensive proposition, West Germany could afford it without too much pain. Also, East Germans had been under the Communist yoke for “only” 45 years. There were still people alive with some memory of how a civil society functions. Easing matters, East Germans could often watch Western TV, and many were allowed limited travel to the west.

South Korea has fewer than 50 million people, and while they’ve made great strides, their per capita income is still only up to that of modern Poland. They aren’t poor, but they aren’t nearly as rich as West Germany was. In addition, their economy isn’t as mature or robust, as the Asian Financial Crisis of a couple years back showed.

Up north are 22 million of their starving brethren. Before the Communist dictatorship, they lived a brutal existence as virtual slaves of Japan. “Chosen,” as Tokyo called Korea, was annexed by the Japanese Empire 93 years ago. It’s safe to say that there is no one in North Korea with any experience living in a politically modern, free, democratic, or tolerant state. Travel is forbidden. Only a small handful of South Koreans are allowed north. There is only one radio station, and it runs nothing but the foulest sort of propaganda. And according to a story in US News & World Report a few weeks ago, North Korea even has concentration camps bigger than the District of Columbia.

Through no fault of their own, the people of North Korea simply aren’t ready to enter the modern world, and South Korea can’t afford to feed, house, re-educate, and re-civilize them all.

Whether or not there’s a war, when North Korea collapses there’s going to be a humanitarian crisis on a scale the world has never seen — 22 million scared, hungry, and desperate people left without any semblance of anything familiar.

And whether or not there’s a war, the United States is going to have to spend an awful lot of treasure and troops to help set things right.

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