One of the things that worries North Korean leaders the most is the realization that decades of propaganda, which kept most North Koreans believing they were better off than South Koreans, has been undone by videos illegally brought in on CDs, DVDs and memory sticks that revealed what was really going on in the south. In the last decade this has undone all that energetic and expensive propaganda work.
In South Korea there have been so many North Koreans arriving in the last decade that it has become possible for polling companies to conduct surveys that provide an accurate view of attitudes up north. For example over 90 percent of North Koreans know the South Koreans have a higher standard of living. One defector attributed that insight to the fact that while he was in the army his unit was shown a propaganda film depicting the depraved conditions in South Korea. Once scene showed a neighborhood that had all sorts of night clubs and bars, complete with many bright lights (as are common in most East Asian cities). For many of the soldiers this did not indicate South Korea was depraved (which has a certain appeal to young men everywhere) but rich. Most of these young troops had never seen so many lights at night. The only city that has a lot of outdoor lighting at night in North Korea is the capital. Space satellite pictures show clearly what was happening. Most of North Korea is dark in these photos, except for the capital and small blips of light at some other cities. In contrast South Korea is lit up like any Western country. Refugees from the north, on seeing these photos, are not surprised because they lived in the dark spaces for years.
The surveys also indicate that despite the difficulty adjusting to life in the fast-paced south, most of the northern refugees are adapting and most want to save money to pay the bribes required to get their families out of North Korea. The northern refugees also agree that North Korea is close to economic and government collapse.
Collapse in North Korea makes South Korea and China nervous and, according to opinion surveys more South Koreans are agreeing with China taking over up there. That’s because since the 1990s South Korean reunification experts have been studying what happened in Germany (after the communist East Germany was absorbed by the democratic West Germany). That cost the West German taxpayers over two trillion dollars. Estimates of what it will cost South Koreans to absorb North Korea are now over five trillion dollars. Then there was the fact that Germany had a GDP four times that of South Korea, meaning that the average South Korean will have to pay ten times what the average West German paid to rebuild their lesser half. This could cost South Koreans up to ten percent of their GDP for a decade or more. Many South Koreans fear that rebuilding the north could wreck the South Korean economy. No one knows, and everyone is scared. But someone will have to pay, and the most likely candidate is the South Korean taxpayer. Unless, of course, China is allowed to take over. This is something China is not only willing to do but is kind of insisting on.
Meanwhile South Korea is seeking ways to deal with the discrimination issue. This was a problem when communist East Germany was absorbed by democratic West Germany. Most South Korean see North Koreans as different, more passive and less economically successful. This was not unexpected by government planners. This social distance was a big problem when East and West Germany were reunited in the early 1990s. The easterners had lived under communism for 45 years, and that made them different, and not in good ways. The western Germans often avoided, or mocked eastern Germans. These tensions still exist more than two decades after the unification.
For a long time it was popular to believe that reunification with the north could be done gradually, by making peace with the communist dictatorship up there, and gradually merging the two economies. But the northern communists have proved unreliable, incompetent and seemingly out-of-touch with reality. So now, South Korea believes that unification will come in the wake of economic and political collapse in the north. In other words, the worst case. South Koreans tend to agree on one thing, that the cost of cleaning up after a collapse will be huge. Leaving China to take over and turn North Korea into an extension of northeast China, while practical, bothers a lot of South Koreans. That because for a long time the southerners will be accused of abandoning their fellow Koreans in the north. Korea has a long tradition of resisting Chinese aggression and control. As a result there are no easy outcomes to this mess for all Koreans.