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.

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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

Full article: Preparing for Korean Unification? (38 North)

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