Lurking in the background of yesterday’s interesting Robert Farley post on North Korea is a point that I really think doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves, the fact that in some ways the real nightmare scenario is a North Korean collapse rather than a North Korean attack. West Germany pursuing reunification with East Germany with a great deal of enthusiasm, and it turned out to be a pretty enormous economic catastrophe. It caused a lot of dislocations in the West German economy, inspired the government to try extensive fiscal stimulus that didn’t really work, etc.
And yet East Germany was in much better shape than North Korea is. East Germany was, by most measures, the wealthiest and most successful of the Communist countries. There’s also a substantial time difference. The end of World War II to the fall of the Berlin Wall was 45 years. That was 20 years ago, meaning that if North Korea collapses in the next few years the DPRK regime will have lasted about 50 percent longer than East Germany. North Korea’s population is bigger relative to South Korea’s than East Germany was to West Germany, and North Koreans have been much more brainwashed and cut off from outside information. The upshot is that a North Korean collapse could put a nearly intolerable burden on the South if they tried to reintegrate the countries. And there are no real plans in place for international assistance, and no real way for South Korean politicians to disavow the claim to represent the entire peninsula.
I don’t have any novel solutions to this problem, but it’s important to keep in mind as part of the background to how these various North Korea crises are dealt with.