Is Reunification Still Possible? Victor Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo on Korea

Victor Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Victor Cha is a professor of government at Georgetown University and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is a former director for Asian Affairs at the White House National Security Council. Ramon Pacheco Pardo is a professor of international relations at King’s College London and the KF-VUB Korea Chair at Free University of Brussels. They are the authors of Korea: A New History of South and North.

Listen on SpotifyListen on AppleListen on Google

Access Bonus Episodes on Patreon

Make a one-time Donation to Democracy Paradox.

North Korea is stable up until the day it’s not… The day that it collapses, there’ll be a lot of people out there who will say this was inevitable.

Victor Cha

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:45
  • Korea as a People and a Place – 2:25
  • Korean War and its Aftermath – 11:44
  • Democracy – 23:23
  • Is Reconciliation Possible? – 40:55

Podcast Transcript

Last week Kim Jong-Un met with Vladimir Putin to discuss supplying weapons to Russia for its war in Ukraine. It stands in sharp contrast to South Korea whose own defense industry has resupplied armaments of American allies who have devoted their own supplies to Ukraine. It’s yet another reminder of how the two Koreas continue to pursue divergent paths in their politics, economics, and foreign affairs.

Most of us take for granted the division between the North and the South. It’s difficult to imagine a reconciliation between the two and reunification is almost unfathomable. But both North and South Korea continue to believe reunification is not only possible but inevitable. In order to understand whether this was possible, we need to better understand the history and the culture of Korea.

So, I reached out to Victor Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo. They are the authors of a new book called Korea: A New History of South and North. Ramon is a professor of international relations at King’s College London and the KF-VUB Korea Chair at Free University of Brussels. Victor is a professor of government at Georgetown University and holds the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He is a former director for Asian Affairs at the White House National Security Council.

Our conversation touches on the history and culture of Korea. But the question we continue to return involves whether reunification is still possible. It’s a conversation that touches on ideas about democracy, national identity, and international relations.

If you like this episode, please support the show any way you can. Currently, the show is looking for partners or sponsors. I know a lot of organizations want to start their own podcasts, but most find it is harder than it sounds. Rather than starting your own project from scratch, consider becoming a sponsor or partner of Democracy Paradox. If you’re interested, please email me at But for now… This is my conversation with Victor Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo…


Victor Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Thanks for having me.

Victor Cha

Thank you for having me.


Well, Victor and Ramon, it was a very impressive book. It’s the first book that I can recall reading that was really a history of Korea, especially one that combined both the North and the South together. And something that I didn’t realize until I really read your book was that I don’t think that I’ve really thought of Korea as being unified. My entire lifetime they’ve been separate. They’ve been two distinct countries and your book really kind of still thinks of them… I mean, one of the key themes of the book is that you can’t tell the history of the North or the South without telling the history of both of them. So, where I’d like to kind of begin is to just tackle the elephant in the room. Why is it that we should still think of Korea as a single entity or a single country after 70 years of division at this point?

Victor Cha

So, thanks for the question and thanks for having us on the podcast. The first way I would respond is to say that it’s been 70 years of division, as you say, but it’s 70 years out of thousands of years of Korean civilization. It wasn’t that long ago – we’re still talking about within the 20th century – when Korea was unified. It was occupied by another country, but it was unified at the time.

So, our perspective on it was that this 70 years, although it’s been quite significant for each Korea, both North and South in both good and bad ways, is still an aberrant period in the overall history of the country. We thought it was important to talk about the histories of both of them as one. In particular, Ramon did a great job on the chapters from the 1960s onwards, where he told the stories of the two Koreas in dialogue with each other.


You described the Korean peninsula in the early chapters particularly as valued strategically, but not intrinsically. I thought that was really important to help us understand how that shaped Korea’s early history. Can you explain what that means and how it really shaped how we think about Korea and how Korea developed?

Victor Cha

When we say Korea was valued strategically, but not intrinsically in the late 19th century in the world of balance of power politics that were taking place in East Asia at the time, what we meant is that you had these countries with ambitions, Japan, Imperial, Japan, Russia, China, that were vying for influence over the Korean peninsula, but in many ways they’re vying for influence, not because they valued anything in particular about Korea, as much as they valued it in the sense that they didn’t want the other competing powers to have it. So, that’s what we mean when we say it was valued strategically, not intrinsically.

Japan valued influence over Korea so that China didn’t have a land bridge or a sort of dagger pointed at the heart of Japan, which was the way they often described the Korean peninsula. China wanted to continue to maintain Korea under its empire to avoid allowing Japan to get a foothold on continental Asia. Russia was interested in Korea for similar sorts of reasons. So, the idea was that they weren’t necessarily valuing Korea as we value Korea today for its pop culture, for its cutting-edge technology, for its defense industrial complex. They were valuing Korea at the time largely to keep it out of other people’s hands.

It was the ultimate pawn in great power politics and I think what we do in the later chapters is show that that’s not the way Korea is today. Korea is a very important country. It’s the 10th largest economy in the world. The sixth strongest military in the world, cutting-edge technology, cutting-edge pop culture, these sorts of things make it something that’s valued in and of itself. In many ways, a leader or a trendsetter in these areas.


So, Ramon, do you feel that Koreans feel that they’re valued intrinsically now, or that their country is valued intrinsically, or is there a little bit of that legacy that’s left over that they still feel a little bit left out as if they’re still just valued strategically rather than for what the country itself can actually do?

Ramon Pacheco Pardo

I think that’s a great question, because it’s something we discuss with Koreans, especially South Koreans, of course. Today, I think there are still some Koreans who don’t understand how their country is perceived overseas. They still think… There is this famous saying in Korea that they’re a shrimp among whales. Some of them still feel this way. That when you have this competition between the big powers, for example, the US and China, that Korea is not at the same level, but also that it’s not being valued. By any of the two in its own terms. But I think more and more Koreans see it differently. I think more and more Koreans, when you talk to them, do realize, certainly when you talk to business people, foreign policymakers, politicians, that their country has been valued for what it can offer and this goes way beyond pop culture.


Korea is in an interesting neighborhood. It’s next to China, which is the largest country in the world in terms of population, second largest in the world in terms of its economy. It’s also near Japan, which is the third largest country in the world in terms of its economy. It’s sandwiched between two enormous economies, two enormous populations and even though Korea, South Korea is now the 10th largest economy, like you said, it’s still dwarfed by two of its neighbors economically and definitely dwarfed by population by China. Ramon, is there any sense from people in South Korea that having those two large countries near it makes it feel less important geopolitically or does it make them feel more important geopolitically for where it exists in terms of its neighborhood today?

Ramon Pacheco Pardo

I think that the mindset is changing because as we were conducting research for this book and also when talking to Koreans about how they felt in the 70s and the 80s, many of them believe that they would be sandwiched within a high-tech developed Japan and low-cost China, so their economy wouldn’t be able to survive. All the low-cost production would move to China and all the high-tech products would be made in Japan. But we have seen that this is not the case. We have seen now Korean companies competing at the cutting edge, not only with Japanese firms, but also, of course, with American and European firms depending on the sector – semiconductor, electric batteries, green shipping, for example – centers in which Korea is at the cutting edge.

But the pop culture, I think has helped a lot. Koreans have realized that their pop culture is well known globally. They have realized that they’re able to compete at the global level in certain sectors. But I think the lingering fear that the economic rise of China that continues even though it has slowed down with China moving up, the value of the chain, and Japan, of course, is still technologically very advanced, that this could be detrimental to the Korean economy.

So, I think there’s this change in mindset, as I said, but also the lingering fear that who knows in 10, 20, 30 years’ time – Is Korea still going to be able to survive amidst the economic competition between the big two powers in the region, plus, of course, the US at the global level, not only in the region. So, I don’t think there is a single idea about where Korea is in this competition with the two big powers, but I do think that more and more Koreans think that they are able to compete in many different sectors.


So, Victor, I want to take us backwards to go back into history once again and I want to revisit that quote where we began: the idea of Korea being valued strategically, but not intrinsically. I think that there’s no better example of Korea being valued strategically than the United States getting involved in the Korean War. The way that you portrayed in the book, the United States didn’t see Korea as important in and of itself. It saw it as just a chess piece in its conflict, its Cold War conflict, with the Soviet Union. Can you help us understand better why Korea was so important for the United States to get involved in or why it thought it was important to get involved in the Korean War in the fifties?

Victor Cha

So, I think for listeners, the best way to understand this is that North Korea invaded South Korea in June of 1950. As of December of 1949, so literally only six months earlier, the United States had made a decision about how it was going to treat Korea, which was essentially to disengage from Korea. The decision was made by George Kennan and others that the US position after World War II in Asia would be focused largely on maritime Asia because they needed to contain Soviet force projection capabilities from the land via sea and via the air. The best way to do that would be with some sort of maritime orientation of allies that included Japan as the centerpiece with Australia and New Zealand, the Philippines and possibly Indonesia.

So, for this reason, two particular territories were not included: the Korean Peninsula, South Korea, and Formosa or Taiwan at the time. These were decisions made by Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and others. They were institutionalized in an NSC memo in December of 1949. What’s astounding about the Korean War and the North Korean invasion is within a period of a couple of weeks, the United States basically completely reversed their strategic policy when it came to Asia. They became fully engaged on the Korean peninsula. They devoted massive amounts of resources and troops to fighting a war in Korea even though the main concern was Europe and they were also basically completely changed their relationship with the newly communist China by interposing the seventh fleet in the Taiwan Straits and signing a defense treaty with Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of Taiwan.

So, these are major changes in US policy that were driven by a North Korean invasion of South Korea at a time when the United States had said we really see no interest in the Korean Peninsula. Their interest in the Korean Peninsula, again, was largely strategic. It was not intrinsic. They saw this, as Truman said, as the first ripple of communist waves that would eventually show up on US shores. They fully believed at the time in something called the domino theory which was that if you let one of these small countries fall to communism, they will all start to fall one by one.

So, what they saw was first, of course, China going communist in 1949. Then they saw this effort at turning all of Korea communist. All of a sudden, Korea became a very important central piece in the Cold War puzzle in Asia that caused the United States to devote tens of thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars again, largely for the strategic value of Korea, not necessarily the intrinsic value of Korea.


Looking back on it, do you think that that was the right decision? I mean, at the time it was incredibly controversial and remained controversial for years. Do you think that we made the right decision, especially as we look at how South Korea has developed and really been one of the stars in Asia?

Victor Cha

Oh, yeah, sure. I think so. I mean, if the US had not intervened in June of 1950, all of Korea would be under communist rule right now. There’s no denying that. The South Koreans were underdeveloped, underprepared. The North Koreans had the support of China, Mao, and they also had a lot of support, material support and air support from the Soviet Union. There was no way Korea could have survived on its own. So, we would be talking about a peninsula that would be entirely communist at this point, which would probably have had an effect on the security of the region, including Japan, Taiwan, and others.

That would have been the choice versus having, again, one of the most prosperous democracies, certainly in East Asia, if not the world that is at the leading edge of biotech, artificial intelligence, quantum computing. Things where they are partners now with the United States and Japan, not junior partners, but equal partners, and then of course, in terms of pop culture and music. Korea is a trendsetter now. It was entirely the right choice to make.

For me, I think, and I still teach it this way, South Korea is an example of why the Cold War was fought. It’s often remembered in the United States as a so-called forgotten war, because in the end it was a stalemate. The dividing line between the two Koreas didn’t change. But in the end, the success of South Korea across every spectrum that you can imagine. That’s the living example of why we fought the cold war.


You mentioned that North Korea had the support of the Russians and had the support of the Chinese, but you also mentioned in the book something that I did not realize, which was North Korea was actually much more industrialized than the South and had a huge economic head start. So, in many ways, North Korea already had just an advantage economically, industrially to be able to attack South Korea. Can you explain a little bit about the economic advantages that the North had over the South?

Victor Cha

I mean, the thing the listeners have to remember is that we’re talking about the period before the Korean war, the period of the war, and the period after the war, when we’re talking about the relative economic development of the two Koreas. In the period before the war, during the Japanese occupation, the Japanese colonizers put all of the industry in the North because that is where all the mineral deposits geographically on the Korean peninsula are located – rich in coal, nickel, iron ore, all sorts of minerals. So, the Japanese built all of that industry in the North and the South was largely the rice basket or bread basket of the country such that after the Japanese left the Korean peninsula the northern portion of the Korean peninsula was very developed in terms of infrastructure, industry, telecommunications, road infrastructure, that put them in a very strong position.

The war came, of course, and that advantage was completely destroyed, because the United States and UN forces basically carpet-bombed North Korea to the point where there was nothing left to bomb. Targeters actually ran out of targets in North Korea because they had basically completely leveled the country. But after the war, both the Chinese and the Soviets put a lot of effort and help into rebuilding North Korea. Again, relatively more than what the United States was doing at the time. The United States was providing some assistance, but certainly not on the level that the North Koreans were receiving from the Chinese and the Soviet Union, which allowed the North Korean economy to develop and be actually, by most metrics, doing better than the South Korean economy up through the 1970s.

But then we see the gap widening as South Korea begins to develop first an import substitution economy, then an export-oriented economy. They start to develop such that by the late 1970s and the early 1980s, the trend lines are very clear where South Korea is now taking off economically and North Korea is starting to stagnate and eventually decline.


It’s shocking that it’s that late in the history that we’re talking about, the 70s and 80s, before we see this split between the North and the South economically. Ramon, can you talk a little bit more about why the South overtook the North economically? I mean, is it really just as simple as the North was communist and had bad economic policies and the South embraced capitalism? Is it that simple or is there something more to the story?

Ramon Pacheco Pardo

The truth is that simple to an extent. In the sense that by the 1970s, the North Korean economic model was exhausted. Not only the North Korean one, of course, the main patrons were China and the Soviet Union and we saw by the 1980s that the Soviet model was also exhausted. China, of course, looked to grow and started to open up late 1970s. But in the case of South Korea, it did embrace capitalism. Of course, with a degree of state interventionism that continues to this day. It obviously had access to the US Market and US Capital as Victor said, in the 1950s.

Maybe US economic support was not as strong as Soviet support and Chinese support was for North Korea, but later on, more American capital started to come into the country, also Japanese capital after the normalization of relations between South Korea and Japan in the 1960s. South Korea started to be able to export to the US market, which was open to certain allies and partners. It was also able to start exporting to Japan and to Western Europe. The use of factories were open in South Korea to firms from these countries. But it has to be said from the beginning, at the same time, South Korean leaders, political leaders, business leaders, were very clear that they had to be able to compete with firms from other countries. It wasn’t enough to be the factory of the Western world, so to speak, and producing cheap goods.

That’s why you saw, as I mentioned before, this state interventionism. This idea that you need to have a long term economic plan that would allow Korean firms to move up the value of the chain, that would be able to move beyond textiles and shoes and later on moving to sectors such as steel, for example, later on moving into what we see today, semiconductors, for example, electronics as well and all these sectors that Korea is well known for today. But it is true that it was a very capitalist model. There was competition. There was protectionism within the country. But the country also opened up to competition from foreign firms in a way that North Korea never did. Also, Korean firms were encouraged to export.

The idea was, okay, if you export to other countries, you will have to compete to an extent that consumers in these countries will want to buy your products not only because they’re cheap, but at some point, because they are good and they can compete with local products. That’s what Korea was able to do. So, going back to your question, you can maybe oversimplify, but say it was a question of capitalism in this case. It was better than communism and it actually worked for South Korea when it came to a competition with North Korea.


So, along with economic differences between North and South, there are obvious political differences between the two. However, for the first few decades. South Korea was mostly a dictatorship, although there was a false start in terms of democracy within those years, Victor, why did democracy not take root in South Korea in its early years?

Victor Cha

So, technically South Korea in those early years was a constitutional democracy. The constitution itself set out democratic principles. There were elections. But the problem was the practice of democracy was not well practiced. Elections were often corrupt, power grabs, or the desire to continue to stay in power by two of the longest leaders in these early years in South Korea, Syngman Rhee and then Park Chung Hee. The words were about democracy and the documents even talked about democracy, but democracy was not practiced. This was different from North Korea where very clearly they were an autocratic dictatorship from the start. There may have been voting that took place in North Korea and the Supreme People’s Assembly, but everybody knew what the outcome would be.

The political competition that took place in the South under this framework of democracy was also open to a lot of corruption and other sorts of things to try to win that political competition, even cheating to win that political competition. So, in the end, the practice was not democratic, but the institutional framework tried to remain democratic. But also, when we talk about these early years being nondemocratic, we also have to remember the political turmoil that took place in Korea during these early years. It was about the most forthright demonstration of democracy that you can imagine.

The protests by students, by labor leaders, by other social leaders was democracy in practice. People protested what they saw as corrupt election results or corrupt behavior on the part of the government or the corrupt use of development assistance that was being provided by the United States to Korea. The way that political opposition politicians and grassroots protest movements emerged was the epitome of the practice of democracy in Korea. Of course, it led to the political turmoil that was South Korean politics in these early years. But that was democracy in action, if you will.


China often makes the case that democracy doesn’t work for its country because it has Confucian values. Korea is a country that I would assume would also have Confucian values, but has adopted democracy and has flourished democratically. You’ve just explained that part of the reason why it’s flourished democratically today is because it has a history of adopting democracy culturally, even before it formally democratized later on. Can you explain a little bit about how Korean culture is able to accept and embrace democratic values?

Victor Cha

So yes, there is an argument that’s been out there that some different thought leaders have put forward about how Confucian values and Western democratic norms do not go well together and that the best way that Confucian Asian societies manage the notion of democracy is not through Western liberal democratic principles, but through the notion of good governance where the social goods that are provided to society are provided by the government.

But at the same time, the society is willing to give up some values or a sense of the collective as opposed to the individual. The Korean example shows that we should not simply accept that particular argument about discounting the value or the application of Western liberal democracy to Confucian societies like Korea. First of all, Korea is about the most Confucian society in all of Asia. I think Ramon would agree. There was a time in Korea’s history when they were part of the Chinese tributary system. The saying was that they were more Confucian than Confucius. They were more Confucian than the Chinese in terms of their support and respect for Confucian principles. I think that’s true. If you look at family hierarchy and the ways social mores exist, there’s that element.

But I would say the other thing about Korean culture is that in addition to being Confucian, it is deeply, deeply egalitarian in the sense that no Korean thinks another Korean is better than they are. So, you could be the guy working on the construction site and you could be the conglomerate Chaebol businessman and that construction worker doesn’t think he’s any different from that Chaebol. There’s a deep egalitarian streak, even in Korean Confucian society, that I think helps explain the willingness to stand up and protest, not accepting that they should accept what the political elite or the business elite tell them. There’s a willingness to stand up and stand up for rights.

Again, people describe the 60s and 70s as a period of Korean dictatorship and illiberal politics. But the turmoil that we saw in Korea at this time, to me, again, was a demonstration of democratic principles in practice. I mean, you look at North Korea. There was illiberal politics in North Korea, but you didn’t see any demonstrations. There was nobody out there in the street or opposition politicians out there demonstrating and leading rallies against the government. You didn’t see that in North Korea. So that’s truly illiberal. What we saw in Korea was deep strains of egalitarianism in the context of a Confucian society that was expressed in these democratic principles and this contestation for political power in Korea that was very turbulent in the 60s and 70s.


So, Ramon, does the South Korean experience then demonstrate that democratic principles are really universal or universal values, if you will?

Ramon Pacheco Pardo

So, yes, I do think that there’s a truth to what you say. That there’s this argument that authoritarian leaders make in different parts of the world that democracy is something from over there, from the West, from the US, Western Europe. Then we have seen how this is not the case. I think it’s quite interesting f you talk to younger South Koreans, what they feel most proud of is not the economic development of the country or the international culture of the country, it is the democratization process that took place within the country, how this has been uprooted, but also how they’re able to make their leaders accountable through demonstrations more often than not. How they’re able to have influence, not only politically, but also with business leaders.

This idea that you are not better than me and if you’re not doing your work properly, we’re going to come out. We’re going to demonstrate. Then we’re going to make our displeasure with your behavior known. Again, this is replicated in other countries. My own home country, Spain, has a strong protest culture as well. It’s the same feeling that if the leader is not doing their job properly, then you’re not going to wait for the next election. You are going to go out to the street and let them know.


So, Ramon, why don’t we just take a second and give the account of how South Korea became a democracy. Can you give the short version of that story?

Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Yes. I’ll shorten it, as you say. In 1979 Park Chung Hee passes away and we see many South Koreans felt that maybe the time for democracy had come. He had helped to propel economic development, but the time for democracy had come. There was talk in Korea with the so called Seoul Spring in parallel with the Prague Spring in the Czech Republic. They said they were going to push for democracy. But then you have Chun Doo-hwan, the leader who replaced Park very quickly. He held a coup and he was able to rule as a dictator. In 1987, he promised that he wouldn’t stand for reelection in 1987. Normally, there had been elections to the National Assembly during this period of time. He had said after 1987, my seven-year rule is over. I’m not going to run for election again.

But then it looked like he was preparing Roh Tae-woo, who was one of his lieutenants, to take over without a direct election. The protests we had seen throughout the 1980s, going all the way back to the moment when Chun Doo-hwan had his coup, by 1987 became a daily, constant occurrence. So, every day the labor movement that Victor mentioned, we also had the student movement, of course, the feminist movement joined in, because by the 1980s you start to the feminist movement in South Korea becoming more politically important. You also see normal white collar workers, who in the past may have been more reluctant to join the protests, who would go to their office and then afterwards they would come out and join the protest as well.

So, it became this movement that essentially became impossible to stop for the regime. A couple of students, one of them was tortured and then killed, another one was shot with a tear gas bomb and he passed away as well. So, this helped even further rally South Koreans to say, ‘Okay, this cannot stand anymore.’ So, basically, the government, through Roh Tae-woo, who gave a famous speech in the summer of 1997, had to admit that democracy was the way to go and there were elections in December 1997.

Very quickly, democracy took hold in South Korea, because in other countries, we know after democracy, there were coup attempts and there were doubts about whether democracy would survive. Of course, in South Korea itself, there were questions about it, but very quickly took hold throughout 1997-98. Then we saw how elections have been taking place ever since and there has been no coup attempt in South Korean history.


So, Victor, the story that I’m hearing about democratization in South Korea is that the South Korean people played a very important role in making sure that its country followed through and became a democracy. Why is it that the North didn’t have a similar moment? Because I would think that North Koreans come from a similar culture. I mean, again, these are Koreans just on the other side of the border. Why is it that there hasn’t been a moment that they’ve tried to take their country back?

Victor Cha

So I think, as Ramon said, there was a political moment in Korea where the people thought that they wanted democracy. That they did not want any more illiberal political practices. But I think that political moment also coincided with a long-term trend of economic development and growing affluence among the Korean people where the traditional priority of fast-growing economies based on the producer and producer rights at the expense of consumer rights changed where Korea became big enough and became economically developed enough that the focus then became not just what’s good for the companies, but what’s good for the consumer, what’s good for the people.

So, I think it’s a combination of both the political moment as well as the economic development that created a more affluent middle class that thought about rights that they deserved as consumers, both political and economic consumers, and not just what was good for company, the state and big business. Which was what was prioritized in the double-digit economic growth we saw in Korea in the seventies and into the mid-eighties. Why doesn’t that happen in North Korea? Well, for one, there isn’t economic growth in North Korea and if there is economic growth, all the benefits were going to the state. They weren’t going to the people. In addition, North Korea didn’t have a patron ally as the South Koreans did that was quietly very supportive of individual rights, free and fair elections, and the promotion of democracy.

What is so interesting about the story of democracy in South Korea and the transition that took place in 1987 is that the United States was fully supportive of it, but it played a very subtle but significant role in preventing the imposition of martial law by the incumbent government at the time. The incumbent government had to make a choice with all these demonstrations that were raging nationwide. That, as Ramon said, were not simply the traditional radical students and radical labor. These are middle-class white-collar workers, gender rights activists, doctors and nurses, professors that were all out there on the streets protesting. The role that the United States played was quiet, but significant in saying whatever happens in South Korea there should not be any violence, which essentially was not the imposition of martial law.

That, I think, played a very important role in the incumbent government’s decision not to roll tanks through the streets like the Chinese did in Tiananmen Square. North Korea didn’t have any sort of patron ally like that that was supportive of democracy and democratic principles and free and fair elections and things of that nature. On the contrary, its two patrons, the Soviet Union and China, if anything, were patrons that were anathema to those sorts of ideas. So, that’s why I think we see it develop in South Korea, but we don’t see it develop in North Korea. Of course, it has to do with political evolution, but it also has to do with economic development and the role that the patron ally played.

Korea in many ways was one of the key models for this notion of democratic development in the East Asian economies where you see economic growth first that then precedes the demand for political rights by a growing middle class that then leads to democratic transition. As Ramon knows well, there are theories of international relations and democracy that are developed based on what we saw in places like Korea and Taiwan.


1987 is an interesting year because it’s a couple of years into Mikhail Gorbachev’s term. He came to power in 1985 and he institutes Glasnost and Perestroika. I think technically those came into force after ‘87, or really kind of picked up steam after ‘87. But just four years after South Korea democratizes, the Soviet Union collapses and you have what many people thought was going to be a democratic Russia coming to power. What was really the impact on North Korea? I mean, I don’t get the impression that there were any demands to be able to democratize or really any demands within North Korea to be able to bring an end to the North Korean state. Was there any effort to be able to fight back against the Kim dynasty during that period?

Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Not that we know of, actually. So, North Korea is very opaque, as we all know, not only today, but also back then. But from what we know, there was no real movement to try to change the regime, even in the 1990s when we see the death of Kim Il Sung, the founding father of North Korea who North Koreans really supported as their leader, were really thankful to for creating the country and the view of prosperity, especially until the 1970s, early 1980s, at least. Even during that period of time when he’s in the process of being replaced by his son, Kim Jong Il and when North Korea is going through the so called Arduous March or Great Famine when hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of North Koreans perish because of malnourishment, the patron states stopped providing energy, stopped providing food…

We’re talking about the Soviet Union after they disintegrated, China as well. We see this period of real hardship in North Korea, but there are no accounts of a move to get rid of the political, in this case, the Kim family, even during this period of time. So, from what we know in North Korean history, there hasn’t been a mass movement, a citizen movement, trying to push for democracy. There have been back in the 50s and the 60s, attempts within the party to maybe try to remove the Kim family from power – unsuccessful and fairly easily stopped back then by Kim Il Sung. So, there hasn’t been this type of movement and other than the reasons that Victor mentioned, I think the domestic level of repression that you have in North Korea is almost unparalleled in contemporary history or world history.


So, Victor, just a few years ago, the Trump administration was trying to negotiate with North Korea and we’ve seen multiple administrations try to negotiate with North Korea. Every single one of them has really failed. I think that’s really a big problem when we start thinking about whether there is any opportunity to be able to unify the North and South. The fact is we can’t even negotiate with the North. Do you think that there’s any hope to negotiate with North Korea in the near future?

Victor Cha

There’s always hope, I would say. Of all the possible paths for negotiation with North Korea, the one that is the most often attempted is the notion of trying to set aside some of the security issues and focus on inter-Korean economic cooperation, different ideas and projects to marry up South Korean capital and technology with North Korean cheap and illiterate labor. The idea being that practical economic cooperation is politically neutral. That’s in quotation marks. That trust could then be built through the mutually beneficial economic cooperation that could then potentially lead to other forms of security, tension reduction, political compromise, things of that nature. That is the view that has been put forward by different political groups and others that express inter-Korean rapprochement as the priority for South Korean national security.

But it has not been successful thus far. It doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t keep being tried, but it has not been successful thus far. My own view on this is I don’t think there is really a chance to have any sort of meaningful negotiation with North Korea along those lines until the Kim family regime is no longer in North Korea. That is because the Kim family regime is not just a political dictatorship, it is a cult of personality, a totalitarian system in which the most important thing that matters for the leadership is the political rule of the family. When that’s the case, it makes it very hard for the government of North Korea to make rational economic decisions or rational economic choices.

They make the choices that make the most sense for the family and for the continued leadership of the family and the elite. Not necessarily the decisions that are in the best economic interests of the country. People always ask, ‘Well, if China could economically modernize under Deng Xiaoping, why can’t the North Koreans do the same thing?’ The answer very clearly is that there is no Deng Xiaoping in North Korea and for the Chinese, the choice was between economically modernizing or dying, literally dying as a nation. In North Korea’s case, if they don’t economically modernize, they suffer, but at the same time, they will not die. Because going back to the very beginning of our discussion, there is a country out there that will make sure that it doesn’t die and that is China, because China values North Korea strategically.

They do not want the North Korean buffer between South Korea and the United States and Japan to disappear. If there is unification of the Korean Peninsula, China now has a democracy that is most likely a US military ally directly on its border. For that reason, China will never let North Korea die. North Korea doesn’t face the same choices that Deng Xiaoping faced in the late 1980s. So, to go back to the original point I think this idea of trying to negotiate with North Korea, eventually using the economic lever as the way to get the foot in the door. It’s a viable strategy, but it’s not one that’s going to work with the Kim family still in power.

If this family were eventually to be removed from power and North Korea had its own version of Park Chung Hee, what I mean by that is a military dictator as a leader. Still a dictator, still illiberal in a liberal system, but a military dictator, then I think there’s a better chance of having that sort of conversation than when the family is in power.

Park Chung Hee, the military dictator in the 1970s in South Korea who ruled over some of the most politically repressive years of South Korea’s government, could make rational economic decisions, such as normalizing relations with Japan so that he could get access to heavy industry, chemical industry, low interest loans to build a South Korean economy, ship building, car building, all this sort of stuff that got the Korean economic miracle started. That was a rational economic decision made by a military dictator. That’s what North Korea needs right now and it’s not going to happen with the Kim family in power.


So, I’d like to be able to bring the conversation back to the original question, which was about unification of North and South Korea. Victor just laid out a number of reasons why it’s not going to happen in the near future. One of them was it cannot happen so long as the Kim family is in power. China is going to fight tooth and nail against reunification between the North and the South and that doesn’t even touch on the fact that there’s an enormous economic divide between these countries and possibly just a cultural divide at this point, political, cultural divide at this point between how they would even relate within a democratic Korea that unified the North and the South. So, I’d like to bring this back to the idea of whether there’s still hope for unification between North and South Korea.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo

I think there is in the sense that it is true that South Koreans, especially younger South Koreans, are becoming more skeptical of outright unification like we saw in Germany for example. But of course, there are ways of trying to reunify the countries and South Koreans still have a model of one country, two systems, with freedom of movement. Some others think gradual rapprochement between the two Koreas until we get to reunification. Of course, if there were to be a collapse of the Kim regime, it would probably lead to the absorption of North Korea by South Korea.

But I think more importantly is that even those Koreans, South Koreans, that may be more skeptical of reunification, when the time comes if the choice is between reunification and continuing where we are with North Korea under the patronage of China… And if the Kim regime collapses, for example, China would send in its troops. It’s a scenario that we have to think of to take control of North Korea. I think clearly South Koreans are going to want reunification. I think this matters because we don’t know what the opinions from North Korea are for sure. Of course, in the book, we talk about a survey that CSIS conducted of some North Koreans and it seems that North Koreans would want reunification. I think most experts would agree with this idea.

So even without knowing for sure, because of the opacity of the regime, we assume that North Koreans would at least be okay with reunification. I think that it would happen. It’s also quite interesting to know that when we look at defectors from North Korea to South Korea, younger defectors, those in their teens, in their twenties, find it easier to adapt to South Korea than older ones that are growing up in a completely different system. This is because many of them grew up in the so called jangmadang, which are the markets that we see spread throughout North Korea going back to the 1990s following the famine that we mentioned. So, this is an incipient market system at the very local level, obviously not at the national level, in North Korea.

But they kind of understand how the market should be working and that it’s not the state providing for you. They don’t expect that from the state. So, there are North Koreans who have grown up in this system who would find it easier to adapt to a reunified Korea, which most certainly would be democratic and capitalist than older North Koreans who grew up in a completely different system who may still feel thankful to the Kim family, the cult of personality that Victor mentioned before. That this is still quite important for older North Koreans, but we’ve seen it’s not necessarily the case for younger North Koreans who know that they don’t live in paradise. So that’s why I’m positive that if the time comes, I think reunification would actually happen.

Victor Cha

I would agree, not in the short term though. I would say that there’s always hope that unification will happen. It doesn’t look like it today, certainly in the short term, because the North Korean regime still seems to be fully in control and it’s not like South Korea is going to go communist anytime soon. But a couple of caveats. The first is North Korea is stable up until the day it’s not. In other words, we always talk about how the regime manages to hold on despite the collapse of the Soviet Union despite the collapse of all these Eastern European countries. So, they seem to have a firm grip on power. You know, the day that it collapses, there’ll be a lot of people out there who will say this was inevitable. The writing’s on the wall. I don’t think we can rule out that fact.

The biggest known unknown when it comes to the future of North Korea is the health of the leader. Kim Jong Un is what, 30, 40 something years old and in very poor health. The entire political system is based on him. If he were to go, there is no successor. I mean, he has a younger sister and then he has some very young kids. We just don’t know. I mean, he could keel over a heart attack tomorrow or a stroke just as his father and his grandfather did. So, we just don’t know. This is the first country that we know of where they’ve had a third-generation transition of leadership within the family in a dictatorship like this. Could they possibly pass on to a fourth generation? Sure. It’s possible if there’s a clearly designated leader in line, but right now there certainly doesn’t look like it.

So, I would say that it’s stable up until it’s not and that the biggest known unknown when it comes to the future of North Korea is the health of the leader and he’s not very healthy. The last thing I will say is that I do think that much as everybody would like to see what’s called a soft landing in Korea, that is a well-integrated, long transition period, moving from two countries and two systems to economic cooperation, eventually one country, two systems, and eventually one country, one system. That sort of planned out transition is what everybody would like to see, but I don’t think that’s what will happen in Korea.

The history of Korea is that it goes from one major shock point to the next, whether it’s occupation by the Japanese, liberation, then war, then democratization, the financial crisis which we didn’t talk about in the late 1990s. It has gone from one crisis to another. That is sort of the history of Korea. So, my own view is I think history doesn’t always repeat itself, but it often rhymes as that famous American writer once said. I think that if it does happen in Korea, it will happen suddenly with the collapse of North Korea.

But as we talk about in the very last line of the book, we believe that as chaotic as that might seem, in the end, Korea will persevere. They will survive. They will not just persevere. They will prosper. Because that has been the history of the Korean people, they have faced one hardship after another, one hopeless situation after another. Through grit and perseverance, they have not only survived, but they have prospered.


Well, Victor and Ramon, thank you so much for joining me today. It’s a great book. In fact, I didn’t realize how much I needed to read a book like this because it really taught me how much more I needed to learn about Korea. So, it’s called Korea: A New History of South and North. Thank you so much for writing it. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Thanks for having us.

Victor Cha

Yeah, thanks so much for having us on the podcast. We really enjoyed it and we’re glad you enjoyed the book and we hope your listeners will read it too.

Key Links

Korea: A New History of South and North by Victor Cha and Ramon Pacheco Pardo

Victor Cha at the Center for Strategic & International Studies

Ramon Pacheco Pardo at King’s College London

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Deng Xiaoping is Not Who You Think He is. Joseph Torigian on Leadership Transitions in China and the Soviet Union

Hal Brands Thinks China is a Declining Power… Here’s Why that’s a Problem

More Episodes from the Podcast

More Information

Democracy Group

Apes of the State created all Music

Email the show at

Follow on Twitter @DemParadox, Facebook, Instagram @democracyparadoxpodcast

100 Books on Democracy

Democracy Paradox is part of the Amazon Affiliates Program and earns commissions on items purchased from links to the Amazon website. All links are to recommended books discussed in the podcast or referenced in the blog.

Leave a Reply

Up ↑