Preparing for Korean Unification?

A growing number of policymakers and experts in South Korea, the United States and other countries now presume that the best solution in principle for the North Korean nuclear problem and the larger “Korean issue” is unification, implying a peaceful takeover of the North by the South. This has been especially true in the latter half of Park Geun-hye’s presidency; where since her Dresden speech, this issue has been at the forefront of government and public discussion. Some commentators in Seoul have concluded that unification is not only desirable but also quickly achievable, as evidenced by indications that the North Korean regime is about to collapse. Though I see no signs of brewing instability as I write this in Pyongyang, South Korea’s only reasonable course of action is to prepare for the possibility that international pressure will someday bring the North to its knees, as analysts assess the plausibility and desirability of such a scenario.

NORTH and SOUTH KOREAExpert predictions about unification belie the inevitable complexities that the process would entail. Pundits argue that the international community could locate North Korea’s nuclear weapons and materials, and a nuclear power—likely the United States—or a multilateral organization such as the International Atomic Energy Agency[1] would take charge of the assets with the ultimate aim of destroying them. They suggest that North Korea’s population would welcome South Koreans—including the flood of South Korean soldiers who would arrive first—and North Koreans would eagerly adapt to their new reality (though they would likely have limited freedom to move to South Korea or elsewhere). In a matter of years, natural resource development and labor-intensive production facilities would help to integrate North Korea into the larger Korean economy, giving a tremendous boost to the undivided country’s economic performance in the global market. The international status of the unified Korea would become qualitatively different, probably making it a new Asian power center. At the same time, such a development would benefit Asian security by removing a major military threat, eliminating the proliferation danger and helping all parties to generally feel safer.

The Korean people’s dream to unify their country is understood and supported around the world, but the above scenario appears unlikely. Negative fallout from even a “peaceful” regime collapse[2] could be significant, far outweighing any benefits and potentially exceeding the burdens that the global community has endured from regime change in Iraq and Libya. This preliminary analysis will consider several caveats that planners must take into account.

The consequences of Korean unification may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • One or more rogue countries or non-state actors could illicitly obtain North Korean-origin weapons of mass destruction (WMD), missiles or related production technologies. An exodus of fighters and refugees may facilitate a massive, uncontrolled outflow of conventional arms.
  • A civil conflict or even a guerilla war may take place in the North, with subversive activities spreading to the South and supporting countries. It is naïve to expect that North Korea’s entire population would welcome the “liberation from tyranny” that unification offers; such an expectation is simply not based on a sober analysis of what North Korea’s existing social strata would gain or lose from the arrival of South Korean governance. The elite and the middle class—possibly about 1 million people or roughly 5% of the population, including members of the party, security apparatus, military and a considerable portion of their brainwashed supporters and families—would have no exit strategy and no place in a South-dominated Korea. Moreover, they could reasonably expect repercussions for their roles in the previous regime. If even a portion of this group (including trained personnel) resorted to armed resistance, the results could be disastrous. This is not just speculation: the regime has spent decades preparing for a guerilla war, and it likely has a network of well-equipped bases concealed throughout its territory for use by dedicated fighters.
  • A possible massive refugee exodus, especially in the event of a prolonged simmering conflict, could extend not only to neighboring China and Russia but also to other countries along sea routes. In addition to the humanitarian catastrophe that may follow, longer-term consequences from a mass refugee migration could include the appearance of transnational organized crime rings with North Korean connections. Such organizations could pursue business in areas such as arms sales, human trafficking, drug smuggling and counterfeit currency production.
  • If significant civil conflict ended quickly or were completely avoided (which is doubtful), new social tensions would emerge from a growing sense of inequality. North Koreans would likely come to be seen as second-rate citizens, or as “servants” to their South Korean “masters” (or, at best, as “pupils” to their South Korean “teachers”). The present “haves” in North Korea would be relegated to the lowest social status if not direct prosecution, fueling resentment and opposition. Even members of North Korea’s working class might in time grow dissatisfied with their subservient position and their inequality to South Koreans.
  • South Korea would suffer a huge drain on its resources as it reformed the North Korean economy, virtually building it anew. Meanwhile, North Korea’s population would face a difficult period of adaptation to new market realities. (To understand the magnitude of this adjustment, consider the difficulties that past North Korean refugees have encountered after voluntarily immigrating to the South.) These economic and cultural transitions would likely slow any increase in productivity from the introduction of modern technology and management practices.
  • The collateral damage to South Korea’s economy may be significant enough to reduce its international competiveness. A unified Korea could prove less attractive to foreign investors, and it would face the impossibility of swiftly re-educating the North Korean labor force. As a result, Korea could cede its place in global value chains to newly emerging economies in Asia and elsewhere. The resulting change of fortune for South Koreans may in turn lead to a growing social dissatisfaction in the South and contribute to a political crisis.
  • The DPRK’s spontaneous submission to the ROK could severely damage or disrupt the existing system of international security governance, with the supposed central role of the UN Security Council (UNSC). It is difficult to imagine that China and Russia, with their respective geopolitical interests and roles in implementing international law as permanent UNSC members, would approve the de facto, involuntary takeover of one sovereign state and UN member by another. While the ROK Constitution considers the whole Korean peninsula to be ROK territory,[3] that view does not correspond with international law. The UNSC would set a dangerous precedent if it approved South Korea’s annexation of the North,[4] but a lack of international approval would cause the new state to be “illegal” for at least some time.
  • In the unlikely event that China allowed such a takeover, Beijing would face a transformed geopolitical situation. Korea’s unification under the ROK would likely result in the deployment of allied US troops close to its border with China, a development that would be seen in China as a major strategic defeat. “Giving away” its former ally, for which thousands of Chinese soldiers sacrificed their lives during the Korean War, would be widely perceived in Asia as a sign of China’s weakness and indecisiveness. It would undermine China’s position not only in Asia, but also as an emerging superpower.
  • In addition, this outcome may produce a totally new stage of confrontation between China and the United States. Beijing would have to upgrade its military in Northeast China in order to counter the grave challenge to its military-security interests. It could act in response to a perceived US strategy of “encirclement,” similar to Russia’s post-Cold War behavior in Europe.
  • In an alternate scenario, China could react to an impeding unification by taking preventive measures, potentially seizing North Korean border territories and/or installing a pro-Chinese government in Pyongyang. Such steps would generate a tremendous geopolitical shift, leading to a lasting geopolitical confrontation between “continental” and “maritime” powers. The ensuing militarization of China and deepening conflict with the United States would encourage arms buildups throughout the region in response to the threat that many countries would see in an increase in Chinese capabilities. An arms race with new blocs could result, causing inconceivable damage to the global economy.

In short, the strategy of bringing down North Korea’s regime could backfire to the world’s ultimate detriment, no matter how much nuisance the country’s WMD programs currently pose. A comprehensive analysis is necessary before any application of more sanctions, which in fact are meant to suffocate the Pyongyang regime, not change its behavior. A new US administration should conduct a fundamental policy review of this nature.

Koreans may well have to wait to pursue unification until more opportune times, when new generations can reconcile on mutually agreeable terms and seek out an eventual national convergence of one form or another.

[1] The International Atomic Energy Agency currently has no capacity to support such an endeavor.

[2] This discussion does not refer to an open military conflict, which might include the use of nuclear weapons. Rather, it specifically addresses “peaceful scenarios” that might include turmoil resulting from leadership strife, a “people’s uprising” launched in reaction to economic troubles from sanctions or a government crackdown brutal enough to invite South Korean or international intervention.

[3] Notably, the DPRK Constitution does not include such a provision.

[4] One reason for China and Russia to oppose such a scenario in the absence of a proper procedure (i.e., a referendum) is its potential to raise questions about the results of World War II in the Pacific. It could open a Pandora’s box of mutual territorial and other claims in Asia and beyond.

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