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The Technological Ups and Downs of a Korean Reunification

This week’s revelation from WikiLeaks of China's willingness to accept a South Korea-controlled peninsula in the event of North Korea's collapse and a year of boastful and often violent behavior by North Korea has prompted many experts to speculate that the two countries are closer to reunifying than ever before.

When that reunification does occur, be it tomorrow or a decade from now, one of the world’s most technologically advanced countries will find itself in possession of one of the world’s most isolated and backwards societies. Yet, while that technological disparity will complicate integration between the countries, it will also present new, intriguing opportunities for growth.

"South Korea is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, with [high] broadband penetration and very active cell phone providers. In many ways, it’s more advanced than the U.S.," said David Kang, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, and co-director of a project looking at Korean reunification.

"North Korea, on the other hand, depending on where you look, is still in the 19th century. Many of its farms still use horses and cows to plow its fields. But the reason they aren’t so advanced isn’t because they don’t have the capacity, like so many poor countries, but because the government really fears that increased access will result in a loss of government control."

One foot in the space age, one foot in the stone age

The Republic of Korea’s technology exports are currently a trillion-dollar-a-year business, and it maintains the world’s largest WiFi network and holds computers in such high regard that South Korean professional videogame players date fashion models.

In contrast, most citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have a very different relationship to technology than their southern peers. Pervasive poverty and a cliquish, authoritarian regime have effectively divided North Korea into three zones of differing, but uniformly antiquated, technological penetration, said Changyong Choi, a researcher at Syracuse University who has interviewed North Korean defectors.

In Pyongyang, the capitol of North Korea, sufficiently loyal citizens have access to facsimiles of modern technology. People walk around with cell phones, the city hosts the DPRK’s only Internet café, and defectors who have escaped to South Korea even report hearing rumors of teenagers in Pyongyang with iPod-like devices.

Of course, in keeping with North Korea’s tight restriction on all information, the iPods could only have officially sanctioned music, the cell phones can’t make international calls and the "Internet" in the café is actually a walled-off intranet consisting entirely of websites produced by North Koreans for North Korean consumption, said Stuart Thorson, a professor of political science at Syracuse University.

The area along the Chinese-DPRK border forms another region. There, smugglers bring illicit Chinese technology into North Korea, equipping locals with computers from the 1990s and televisions that, free from intervention by DPRK officials, allow North Koreans to watch South Korean movies and television shows, Choi of Syracuse University told TechNewsDaily.

Then there’s the rest of North Korea. Cut off from both internal elites and external products, rural North Korea faces periodic blackouts, no Internet access and little in the way of personal appliances.

The cost of reunification

When reunification begins, integrating North Korea into South Korea’s technology-based economy and culture will prove as daunting as it is vital, experts say. More than anything else, extending the power grid that enables the ROK’s high-tech culture and industry into the North will hinder the development of technological parity.

"The biggest barriers will probably be financial and infrastructural, which is really the same thing. The demand on the grid would be enormous if everyone started to get a real TV and an X-Box. We did a back of the envelope calculation just for public health, and the cost was in the billions,” said Kang. "For everything, you’re talking trillions of dollars."

Right now, the power grid in the DPRK remains so antiquated that the regime plans blackouts to conserve power. This lack of energy can even be seen from space, as nighttime satellite photos of the peninsula show a radiant ROK beneath a pitch-black DPRK.

"Reliable power is a problem in North Korea. In South Korea or America, you plug something into the wall and expect it to work. That’s not true in North Korea," Thorson told TechNewsDaily.

However, integrating the North into South Korea’s vast cellular and Wi-Fi network will prove considerably easier than building rail, road and electrical capacity, Thorson said. And it’s that access to information technology that could unleash the prime benefit of reunification: cheap, educated labor.

The new workforce

Unlike many similarly impoverished and technologically deprived countries, North Korea sports a very well-educated population, particularly in math and science. The backwards state of the country reflects poverty and a paranoid government obsessed with total control, and hides a significant potential for growth after reunification.

"Information technology will play an important role in unifying the two Koreas, because it is universal. Economically, South Korea has the culture of high technology, and North Korea has smart, cheap labor," Choi said. "Together, it can create a synergistic effect. There’s a positive side."

Using information technology to integrate an educated and eager North Korean workforce into a vibrant South Korea economy not only benefits both parties, but provides a cost-effective alternative to other industries that require more expensive infrastructure improvements, said Choi.

The current ROK and DPRK governments have tried to marry North Korean labor with South Korean business before in an industrial park right over the DMZ in North Korea. Although the joint venture opened to modest expectations, it generated profits far beyond any prediction, Kang said. Although political tensions ended that experiment, reunification would simply expand the cooperation to the entire country.

North Korea is "a country that has a well-educated population, so there’s the potential for leapfrogging technology in a way not possible in other, more poorly educated developing nations," Thorson said.

"But there are all kinds of protocols that need to be standardized. There’s a lot to do as far as bringing everything together."

Stuart Fox currently researches and develops physical and digital exhibit experiences at the Science Liberty Center. His news writing includes the likes of several Purch sites, including Live Science and Live Science's Life's Little Mysteries.