Worlds Apart: The Two Koreas After Seven Decades of Separation

(Bloomberg) -- While tensions have eased with the signing of an historic pact by U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, any prospect of unifying the divided peninsula remains distant and daunting.

Since being divided at the end of World War II and ravaged by conflict in the 1950s, North and South Korea have taken radically different political and economic paths. The South is now a robust democracy that plays a key role in the world economy, while the North is an impoverished dictatorship that presents an outsize military threat.

Click here to see a set of maps on potential economic linkages.

The Kim dynasty in Pyongyang has a history of coming to the bargaining table dangling the prospect of cooperation, only to walk away after extracting economic concessions. The present round of diplomacy again coincides with stresses in the North’s economy.

Yet at times like these the question of reunifying Korea looms large. And as these graphics show, along with huge challenges, bringing the two sides back together would also bring enormous benefits.

A united Korea of 76 million people could become more powerful and prosperous, at least in the long term. The South’s aging population is one of its greatest economic challenges, and North’s lower median age and higher fertility rate would greatly improve the demographic picture. It would also bring a host of problems, given the malnourished state of many of North Korea’s people and its poor health system.

The gap between the two Koreas today is far greater than that between East and West Germany when the Berlin Wall came down, and it will get wider if the international community keeps pressing sanctions. A 2015 report from South Korea’s National Assembly Budget Office estimated that even under a peaceful scenario in which Seoul expanded humanitarian support ahead of a hypothetical reunification in 2026, it could cost about $2.8 trillion to help bring the North’s gross domestic product to two-thirds that of the South’s. That’s almost 8 times South Korea’s 2017 annual budget.

North Korea is more endowed with natural resources, ranging from coal to rare earths, which would complement South Korea’s industrial output.

Military costs could be cut substantially on both sides of the 38th parallel, allowing the money to be funneled to other areas that lack sufficient investment, like social welfare. According to a U.S. State Department report in 2017, military expenditure accounted for between 13 percent and 23 percent of North Korea’s GDP during the years 2005 to 2015. For South Korea, it was only 2.6 percent of GDP during the same period.

The challenge of rebuilding North Korea’s infrastructure would be huge. Its rail lines are old and in disrepair and highways are scant. Yet it would be an enormous opportunity for the South’s world-class engineering and construction firms, and provide employment for many of the masses of soldiers from the North who would need to be redeployed.

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