Late last year, CSIS released a short paper by Stephen J. Morrison on the impact of Korean unification on North Korea’s health systems. It is a brief but solid analysis and I encourage everyone to read it.
In the article, Morrison makes a number of points, but one in particular resonated with me:
“Health reform is a powerful ‘soft power’ tool to win ‘hearts and minds,’ bring quick tangible gains, and consciously help legitimize a new order. … Attention in the first instance should be paid to the most vulnerable victims of the current failed system. In the North Korean context, that means targeted attention to children; pregnant and lactating mothers; the elderly; orphans; and populations newly pauperized, in urban settings as well as marginalized regions such as the northeast.”
Morrison argues, and I agree with him, that the quick reconstruction of North Korea’s dilapidated health care system could play a critical role in stabilizing the political process of reunification. When Korean reunification occurs, whether through the unlikely event of peaceful political transition or the violence collapse of the North Korean regime, it will be imperative for the South and her allies to help reestablish a governing institution seen as legitimate in the eyes of North Korean citizens. This is no easy task, political legitimacy is hard to develop in the best of circumstances and even more difficult in situations of extreme political stressors such as regime transition or collapse. We only need to look to Afghanistan to see the difficulties of building legitimate national governing institutions.
The benefit of focusing on health as a means of building political legitimacy in post-unification North Korea is twofold. First, improving health care is one of the few short-term actions available to South Korea that is relatively immune to misinterpretation. Second, due to the massive disparities between North Korea’s and South Korea’s health systems, a health access benefit can be provided to North Korean citizens relatively cheaply. Extending the South’s health system a few hundred miles to the North would be difficult, but certainly less so than rebuilding a national health institution from scratch. Furthermore, the South Korean health system would face fewer of the cultural and linguistic barriers usually seen during international health reconstruction efforts. Compared to other methods of gaining political legitimacy, rebuilding the health care system of the North is, for lack of a better phrase, low hanging fruit.
Morrison, J. Stephen. 2010. Health Reconstruction in North Korea. Washington, D.C.: Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Christopher R. Albon is a political science Ph.D. specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy.