Yemeni Unification: Implications

A hundred and fifty miles off Cape Horn, wrapped in the dusty breezes of the western Indian Ocean, lies the isle of Socotra. Socotra is bizarre. It has dragon’s-blood trees, roses that look like elephant legs, and plants bulging rootless out of bare rock. Six to seven million years of isolation have created an island where one-third of the plant species are found nowhere else on Earth


The dragon’s-blood tree, which oozes dark red resin, grows only on Socotra. Photo credit Piotr Kot via

Although those strange plant species were able to resist the influence of seeds from elsewhere, the island’s inhabitants weren’t so lucky. They were tugged this way and that by Christian missionaries, Portuguese explorers, the Mahra Sultanate, the British Empire, and finally, in 1967, the new state of South Yemen.

Just as the island’s citizens must have felt themselves to be subject to the winds of political vicissitudes, so did (and does) South Yemen. I delved into the brief history of North and South Yemen in my last post. Basically, North and South Yemen unified in 1990, but the poor and unpopulated southern provinces have since felt themselves unfairly controlled by their northern brethren. Efforts to secede continue to this day.

So here’s a country that unified two decades ago in a peaceful process, but has seen anything but peace since then. Reflecting upon the Yemeni experience, what may, then, can we expect for the Korean peninsula?

That’s what Gabriel Jonsson, author of the 2006 book Towards Korean Reconciliation: Socio-Cultural Exchanges and Cooperation, wanted to find out. I found his book on the 7th floor of Emory University’s library, and was fascinated by his discussion of Yemeni unification and its implications for Korea.

From the first stirrings of unification in the late 1980s, there were concerns that South Yemen (relatively poor, with a low population and an underperforming economy) would be dominated by North Yemen if a rapid unification took place. So the leaders tried to be responsible; they sought a laissez-faire approach to joining the two countries. Israeli professor Joseph Kostiner reported that the North and South Yemen leaders “intended to follow a natural course of unification as set out by ‘the people’ and not a previously imposed, overbearing state-building system, as had been the case in the unification of East and West Germany.” They hoped the political system would regulate itself, creating an organic approach to unification without unnecessary impositions or domination by either party.

Although the process at first was rapid and peaceful, the consensus is that their approach was a bit too laissez-faire. There was considerable mutual distrust, and in post-unification elections the political parties closely reflected the old split between North and South. Soon, economic difficulties proved divisive too: the South Yemeni, accustomed to a state-run socialism, had difficulty implementing a market-run economy. Finally, little thought was given to integrating the two armies; they remained separate, and were one of the direct causes of the civil war in 1994.

The Korean newspaper Hankook Ilbo concluded in a July 9, 1994 article: “The Yemen crisis teaches us that a unification achieved by artificial and mere political means will not be successful and that there must be a relatively long transition period to eliminate mutual distrust and antagonism before unification.” The article went on to advise that “steady interaction should be pursued across the divided land to resolve the sense of heterogeneity among ordinary people.”

Jonsson agrees with that editorial; he draws a clear line between the “political unification” that took place in Yemen, which was at least somewhat successful, and the “human unity” that, he argues, is still not present.

In essence, unification happened too quickly. The “now-or-never” attitude that made unification possible also hamstrung it; in Yemen, it meant that the country was politically unified before its separate political, economic, and cultural systems could be brought in harmony together.

Yemeni citizens protest against the government on April 4, 2011. These “Arab spring” protests spread rapidly due partly to vestigial resentment in southern Yemen cities. Photo credit Email4mobile via Wikipedia.

Jonsson argues that the key to successful unification is greater pre-unification understanding between the common people of each country. I think he’s right. East Germans had ready access to West German TV. North and South Yemen had large numbers of workers abroad, who could interact with each other informally and then transmit information to their counterparts back home. Even then, neither Germany nor Yemen had a completely successful unification. North and South Koreans, on the other hand, lack any kind of informal knowledge exchange, and Jonsson argues that it’s a major obstacle to achieving effective political or human unification.

So, what lessons to draw? The main one is that there needs to be more contact between the two countries. South Koreans need to learn from defectors and be understanding of them. This miniature integration will prepare them for a larger one. North Koreans will need more chances to learn about South Koreans and their way of life.

Yemen unified suddenly. Anthropologist Paul Dresch tells us that in October  1987—less than three years before unification actually happened—a senior  government official in the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) declared that “except by some historic accident, unity [with South Yemen] will only come about over a long period of time.” This suggests that, even if we think Korean unification is far away now, it could be a real thing much sooner than we think.

But without much greater informal contact between North and South Korea, the chances for a successful human unification—even if events justify a sudden political unification—are slim.




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