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June 23, 2017

When a Banyan Tree Hides the Secret to a Korean Enigma

Arshad M. Khan Posted on June 22, 2017


About a hundred miles north of Bangalore, India, in the village of Thimmamma
Marrimanu grows an eponymous banyan tree. There are all kinds of records for trees:
the tallest, the stoutest, the oldest, and so on, but the record for the largest canopy,
at an astounding five acres, is held by this banyan. And it also holds the key to the
Korean enigma.

North Korea recently released University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, who was
comatose and substantially brain-dead, and who has now expired. He had the
misfortune to become tangled up in an incident while visiting there.

Every so often it also fires off a test missile or more, and President Donald Trump,
although dormant on the issue at the moment, can be expected eventually to erupt.
The resulting Far East chaos could be catastrophic.

Not too long ago, news agencies including the BBC reported North Korean claims of a
plot orchestrated by the CIA to kill Kim Jong-un through bio-chemical attack – a plot
foiled apparently by North Korean security. For sometime now the CIA has been
severely circumscribed in any assassination endeavors involving foreign leaders, but
then there might be ways to bypass the legal restrictions. Whatever the truth, the
disturbing fact of unrestrained bellicosity from both sides did have some effect on the
May 9, 2017 South Korean election.

The opposition leader Moon Jae-in, who lost the last presidential election to
conservative Park Geun-hye, won. Following in the footsteps of his mentor, the late
President Roh Moo-hyun, he advocates the ‘sunshine policy’ of openness and closer
ties with the North, initiated originally by Roh’s predecessor President Kim Dae-jung –
who was later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for improving relations with the North.

Mr. Roh’s tenure was less than successful leading to the election of a right-wing,
notably religious successor. President Lee Myung-bak wanted nothing to do with the
irreligious regime in Pyongyang and quickly reversed direction, ending the then
decade old sunshine regime. The North’s subsequent anger and feeling of betrayal
had predictable consequences. We now have a nuclear-armed North Korea that
believes strongly the South and its protector the U.S. just cannot be trusted.

Talk of reunification then is clearly premature given the present confrontational
stance, and Mr. Moon in deference to the US president has cooled off a little. Yet
even if he were to coax Kim Jong-un’s cooperation and reinstate the sunshine policy,
further progress is hampered by the very different economies. More so, the North’s
ruling elite is unlikely to voluntarily relinquish power.

The North is a militarized economy, the South a successful commercial one. Beginning
in 1980, South Korea has surged in research. No longer an imitator of mature
products, it is now (latest data 2015) among the top three countries granted US
patents, behind only the US and Japan, and far surpassing Italy (17,924 vs. 2,645) for
example. Its GDP is almost on a par with Canada and ahead of Russia; in 2016 its
relatively new Hyundai (4.38% share) and sister Kia (3.69%) branded cars held over
four times the market share of long-established Volkswagen (1.84%); and its
Samsung cell phones, along with Apple, dominate the market. In comparison, North
Korea is a commercial pygmy.

So, is there an answer to the Korean enigma?

In India, the banyan tree is revered and, dating from 1433, Thimmamma Marrimanu
especially so. Shielded from the hot sun under its forest-like canopy is a temple.
Monkeys, also revered in Hindu mythology, roam freely enjoying the figs – the banyan
is a fig tree.

The fig seeds settle in the branches of adjacent trees. A seed sprouts sending down
a tendril to the earth below. When it reaches the soil it roots. Dozens of these roots
and coiling leaves eventually strangle the host and the tree’s canopy enlarges.
Economic tendrils into North Korea can take many forms and need not necessarily
strangle the host to continue their presence.

The South has already had the Kaesong Industrial Park six miles across the border in
the North. Up to 124 South Korean companies ran factories and businesses there
making shoes and clothes primarily. Although diminished by the time it was shut down
in 2016, it still employed 55,000 North Koreans. The China model is another example.
Training North Korean workers and setting up assembly and eventual manufacture of
higher end products will profit both North and South economically; the North in
growing a commercial economy and the South in increased profits and more
competitive products due to cheaper labor and other costs.

In due course the vast economic canopy will ensure mutual prosperity, and prosperity
is addictive. Inevitably it opens the doors to reunification. The sad history of a divided
Korea, prey to global forces and fractures beyond anyone’s control will have come to
an end.

Arshad M. Khan is a former professor and occasional contributor to the print media
and the Internet.