About a hundred miles north of Bangalore, India, in the village of Thimmamma Marrimanu grows an eponymous banyan tree. There are all kinds of records for trees: the tallest, the stoutest, the oldest, and so on, but the record for the largest canopy, at an astounding five acres, is held by this banyan. And it also holds the key to the Korean enigma.
North Korea recently released University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, who was comatose and substantially brain-dead, and who has now expired. He had the misfortune to become tangled up in an incident while visiting there.
Every so often it also fires off a test missile or more, and President Donald Trump, although dormant on the issue at the moment, can be expected eventually to erupt. The resulting Far East chaos could be catastrophic.
Not too long ago, news agencies including the BBC reported North Korean claims of a plot orchestrated by the CIA to kill Kim Jong-un through bio-chemical attack – a plot foiled apparently by North Korean security. For sometime now the CIA has been severely circumscribed in any assassination endeavors involving foreign leaders, but then there might be ways to bypass the legal restrictions. Whatever the truth, the disturbing fact of unrestrained bellicosity from both sides did have some effect on the May 9, 2017 South Korean election.
The opposition leader Moon Jae-in, who lost the last presidential election to conservative Park Geun-hye, won. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, the late President Roh Moo-hyun, he advocates the ‘sunshine policy’ of openness and closer ties with the North, initiated originally by Roh’s predecessor President Kim Dae-jung – who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for improving relations with the North.
Mr. Roh’s tenure was less than successful leading to the election of a right-wing, notably religious successor. President Lee Myung-bak wanted nothing to do with the irreligious regime in Pyongyang and quickly reversed direction, ending the then decade old sunshine regime. The North’s subsequent anger and feeling of betrayal had predictable consequences. We now have a nuclear-armed North Korea that believes strongly the South and its protector the U.S. just cannot be trusted.
Talk of reunification then is clearly premature given the present confrontational stance, and Mr. Moon in deference to the US president has cooled off a little. Yet even if he were to coax Kim Jong-un’s cooperation and reinstate the sunshine policy, further progress is hampered by the very different economies. More so, the North’s ruling elite is unlikely to voluntarily relinquish power.
The North is a militarized economy, the South a successful commercial one. Beginning in 1980, South Korea has surged in research. No longer an imitator of mature products, it is now (latest data 2015) among the top three countries granted US patents, behind only the US and Japan, and far surpassing Italy (17,924 vs. 2,645) for example. Its GDP is almost on a par with Canada and ahead of Russia; in 2016 its relatively new Hyundai (4.38% share) and sister Kia (3.69%) branded cars held over four times the market share of long-established Volkswagen (1.84%); and its Samsung cell phones, along with Apple, dominate the market. In comparison, North Korea is a commercial pygmy.
So, is there an answer to the Korean enigma?
In India, the banyan tree is revered and, dating from 1433, Thimmamma Marrimanu especially so. Shielded from the hot sun under its forest-like canopy is a temple. Monkeys, also revered in Hindu mythology, roam freely enjoying the figs – the banyan is a fig tree.
The fig seeds settle in the branches of adjacent trees. A seed sprouts sending down a tendril to the earth below. When it reaches the soil it roots. Dozens of these roots and coiling leaves eventually strangle the host and the tree’s canopy enlarges. Economic tendrils into North Korea can take many forms and need not necessarily strangle the host to continue their presence.
The South has already had the Kaesong Industrial Park six miles across the border in the North. Up to 124 South Korean companies ran factories and businesses there making shoes and clothes primarily. Although diminished by the time it was shut down in 2016, it still employed 55,000 North Koreans. The China model is another example. Training North Korean workers and setting up assembly and eventual manufacture of higher end products will profit both North and South economically; the North in growing a commercial economy and the South in increased profits and more competitive products due to cheaper labor and other costs.
In due course the vast economic canopy will ensure mutual prosperity, and prosperity is addictive. Inevitably it opens the doors to reunification. The sad history of a divided Korea, prey to global forces and fractures beyond anyone’s control will have come to an end.
Arshad M. Khan is a former professor and occasional contributor to the print media and the Internet.