The current conflict between the Koreas illustrates a broader global trend toward chaos along borders separating rich and poor countries. Ultimately, this reflects the resentments of a poor neighbor against a richer one. Feeling it has little to lose, the poorer neighbor engages recklessly in the hope of gaining some sort of tribute or recognition from the better-heeled neighbor, or at least boosting its own self-respect.
The Korean situation epitomizes the fundamental danger when rich and poor countries live adjacent to one another. According to 2006 statistics, South Korea has a per capita income of roughly $18,000; the North’s stands at $1,300. Clearly, the threat of leveling Seoul, a wealthy and successful city, has limited South Korea’s ability to respond as it might otherwise to its nasty, militaristic neighbor, whose people live on the brink of starvation.
Conflicts between poorer peoples and richer neighbors have been part of human history since antiquity. In ancient Mesopotamia the rough Semites attacked and eventually overcame the wealthier, more sophisticated Sumerians. This pattern was repeated throughout the ancient world, for example, pitting Chinese against the peoples of the Steppes, hurling German and Hunnish barbarian races against the Romans, and in countless upheavals throughout Meso-America.
Although the wealthier neighbor can beat back the threat through better organization and technology, often it’s the poor neighbor who ultimately triumphs. The Great Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, a student of Mid-east and Mediterranean politics in the 14th century, even developed a theory positing that the poorer, hungrier neighbor often held the long term advantage Of the more affluent countries, he writes, “Time feasts on them, as their energy is exhausted by well-being and their vigor drained by the nature of luxury.”
As the settled, wealthier nation becomes soft and “senile,” Khaldun observed–and ultimately either unwilling or incapable of overcoming the threat from their more savage neighbor. You can people off only so long before you drain your own treasury and self-respect. If Khaldun is right, the world is going to become a more unsafe place in the coming decade as the great unwashed seek to crash the gilded gates.
Other changes have made borderlands more dangerous in recent decades. During the Cold War era, such conflicts were often mediated by the two great super-powers. There were clear zones of influence. But in an increasingly chaotic multi-polar world, where power is diffused and technology sometimes favors the rogue, it become increasingly difficult to manage these conflicts. In Korea we can see this in the gamesmanship of China, which further limits any strong American and South Korean response.
But Korea is hardly the only place where borderlands have become hot zones. There are many places around the world where rich nations abut poorer ones, creating serious potential for major conflict. Among the most worrisome:
The Saudi/Yemen border. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia boasts a per capita income over 13 times greater than that of its southern neighbor. Criminal elements, illegal immigrants and a growing al Qaeda presence, cross the porous border. These could ultimately undermine the country with the largest proven energy reserves. Over 130 Saudi soldiers have been killed this past year along this 1,100 mile long desolate border region–so desolate it was only demarcated in 2000.
Israel and Gaza/Palestine. Ancient hatreds make this a particularly worrisome set of borders. There are huge gaps not only in ideology and religion but income. Israel’s 2006 per capita income was just shy of $18,000, while Palestine’s was under $800 and Gaza’s under $500. Such huge gaps, as can be seen in the Koreas, tend to exacerbate already great tensions.
Spain/Maghrebian countries. The flow of immigrants from Muslim North Africa into southern Europe has become a major international flashpoint, particularly as Spain, Italy and countries continue to experience major economic dislocation. There are well over 1 million Muslim immigrants in the country. The income difference between these two adjacent worlds can be immense; Spain’s per capita GDP is more than ten times that of Morocco, its closest Arab neighbor. The flow of immigrants and far higher fertility rates among them can be unsettling to some. ”Tomorrow Europe might no longer be European,” Libya’s Leader Muammar Ghadafi suggested recently.
U.S./Mexico. Although relations between the two countries have been cordial under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the ground level violence in Mexico–claiming 26,000 deaths since December 2006–is both driving Mexicans north and driving Americans away from the border region. With U.S. per capita incomes over six times that of Mexico, the temptation for criminals, as well as illegal immigrants, to cross the border can be overwhelming, and unsettling. Border violence is way up, leading to calls for tighter controls over immigration.
Two recently discovered tunnels for drug smuggling near San Diego, complete with rail cars, indicate how inventive some cross-border entrepreneurs can be. But it is a mistake to see borderland as only bastions of criminality and unrest. Until recently the U.S./Mexico border constituted one of North America’s fastest-growing economic regions, marrying U.S. technology and investment with hard-working Mexican labor.
Perhaps the most positive model of harmonious border relations can be seen along the border of Singapore and Malaysia. Although Singapore’s per capita income is more than five times that of Malaysia, there are ambitious plans to build a vast new business complex in the Iskandar section of Malaysia’s Johore State The Malaysians envision “a strong and sustainable metropolis of international standing.” Right now the most obvious signs of mega-development in the area are somewhat oversized government buildings.
If the cross-straits development materializes, this region would both expand the economic footprint of the predominately Chinese city-state and its largely Muslim neighbor. Instead of worrying about drugs, terrorists or illegal migrants, some well-placed Singaporeans see Johore as a base to expand its manufacturers and those of foreign firms.
There is also a swank upscale “Leisure Farm” that offers green-tinged amenities for Singapore’s often crammed and stressed residents. Some Singaporeans privately doubt the ability of Malaysians to compete with them in higher-value-added fields, but others wonder if their growing investment across the straits may be creating a tough competitor.
Ultimately, the planet’s future depends on successfully integrating the economies of rich countries and poorer ones. Aspiring countries have much to offer their rich neighbors–in terms of markets, labor and entrepreneurial energy. One hopes the world will see more of the commerce-driven model of Malaysia, and less of the kind of potentially dreadful military conflict now brewing along the Korean frontier.
This article originally appeared at Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.