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Prospects from Korean Unification

Authored by Colonel, Australian Army David Coghlan. | April 2008

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Throughout the 1990s, predictions of Korean reunification were rife. Since then, enthusiasm for such predictions have faded, and although the underlying assumption of reunification remains, forecasts of when and how this will occur have been more subdued. Reunification poses two distinct yet interdependent conundrums: reunification itself, which is the immediate challenge; and the strategic landscape that emerges from reunification, which has the potential to fundamentally transform strategic relationships in Northeast Asia. Within this context, this paper examines the prospects from Korean reunification. Initially, it will establish the framework from which such prospects will emerge: the nature of the North Korean regime, the cost of reunification, and likely reunification scenarios. From this framework, a raft of challenges and opportunities present themselves to the stakeholders in the region; and South Korea, China, the United States and, to a lesser extent, Japan and Russia will be examined to determine prospects from Korean reunification. The paper will suggest that China, at the expense of the United States, has positioned itself to profoundly influence the nature of reunification, the ?tilt? of a unified Korea, and with it, the future Northeast Asian strategic environment.


The enthusiasm for Korean reunification that was evident throughout the 1990s has faded due primarily to the resilience of the Pyongyang regime, which appears set to survive and muddle through for the foreseeable future, and the realization of the enormous cost of reunification and the impact that it will have on South Korea. Within this context, the how of reunification will set the scene and transform the long-term strategic relationships in Northeast Asia for the foreseeable future. None of the scenarios discussed envision early reunification, and it seems that for the foreseeable future, the status quo on the Korean Peninsula will remain. As such, how the key powers in the region prepare and respond to reunification and beyond will set the future strategic landscape in Northeast Asia.

In view of the huge impact it would have on South Korean society, short-term reunification is not in the interest of the ROK, and Seoul has no intention of encouraging it. Comfortable with a medium- to long-term status quo on the peninsula, South Korea would appear to have an adequate amount of time to comprehensively plan the enormous reconstruction task that lies ahead when reunification is eventually realized. Such planning needs to be open and should provide the basis for an accurate costing of reunification projects that in turn could serve as the basis for securing international commitment to such projects. From a security perspective, of the options Seoul faces, neutrality or autonomy are impractical, and alliance is the likely option that Korea will pursue. To a marked degree, which way Korea tilts will be influenced by which scenario delivers reunification. In the unlikely event of war, the U.S.-based alliance will probably continue. However, should reunification occur through other scenarios, Seoul will have to make a strategic decision. Such a choice will be primarily influenced by national sentiment, and in this area Korean attitudes are changing as renewed pan-Korean feelings emerge, anti-American sentiment increases, and favorable perceptions of China rise.

As such, with the current course of events, China holds and will do so for the foreseeable future the initiative to influence events on the Korean Peninsula. By underwriting North Korea, China secures its strategic buffer, allowing a stable environment in which trade and investment with South Korea can flourish, while at the same time and at the expense of the United States, Beijing gains kudos and influence among South Koreans. However, the wildcard of war, which would most likely result in consolidation of American influence over a unified Korea, is Beijing?s worst scenario. To avoid such an outcome, China will need to continue on its current course and even consider intervening in the DPRK in order to prevent such a war or regime collapse and by doing so will gain a strategic initiative on the peninsula to a degree that the United States would be unlikely to be able to counter.

This situation has come about because of Washington?s declining influence on the peninsula primarily due to its inconsistent policy approach toward Korea, and on the reunification issue in particular. Conversely, Chinese Korean policy appears successful to the extent that should events continue on their current course, the United States faces a distinct possibility of a unified Korea tilting toward Beijing. To regain the initiative and by doing so delay or reverse this situation, the United States must set realistic policies with the long-term intent of retaining Seoul as an ally. In the short term, this can begin by improving the quality of debate on Korean matters and by resolving some of the rub points that are currently fuelling anti-American sentiment in South Korea. Closely following such action should be open discussions with Seoul on the nature and type of post-unification alliance with parallel efforts to establish and maintain a constructive dialogue with Pyongyang. Finally, the United States should commit significant funding to the post-unification rebuild of Korea, and facilitate other like-minded nations to do the same. By doing so, Washington can demonstrate an enduring commitment to the region in one of the few ways that Beijing cannot.

The current Japanese approach to Korean reunification and beyond is counterproductive to Tokyo?s long-term objectives involving Korea. This can only be resolved through policy change that allows Japan to reconcile with its history and to effectively address Korean concerns in this area. Japan should then embark upon a range of initiatives toward Korea that seeks to build trust between the two countries, including a commitment to finance a substantial amount toward the cost of the post-unification rebuild of Korea. However, Japan has to be realistic and hedge its bets should a unified Korea lean toward China. Tokyo needs to actively pursue a closer alliance with the Washington. Such an outcome, although domestically difficult to sell, may help assuage Japanese concerns of the impact of a nationalistic Korea and reduce the burden on an economy that will be increasingly focused on servicing an aging population.

Meanwhile Russia is quietly working at regaining lost influence on the peninsula to ensure its own security and position itself to take advantage of significant economic opportunities that reunification of the peninsula would present. As such, Moscow supports the status quo and, should reunification occur, Russia would prefer, as a hedge against China, a unified Korea that tilts toward Washington.

In sum, and cognizant of Nicholas Eberstadt?s caution that attempting to predict the future on the Korean Peninsula is ?in the realm of art,?113 some conclusions can be drawn from this discussion in respect to the prospects from Korean reunification. In the short term, none of the stakeholders on the peninsula have an appetite for reunification?the sum of the known risks and the unknown variables are simply too high. Therefore, the prospect of short-term reunification is low. Although the wildcard of war cannot be ruled out, it is highly unlikely. Rather North Korea, for the foreseeable future will muddle through and survive. In the longer term, prospects suggest that the United States has the most to lose from a unified peninsula, while China has the most to gain, with the possibility emerging that a post-unified Korea may tilt in alliance toward Beijing. Should this occur, the strategic landscape in Northeast Asia will fundamentally change, with a commensurate reduction in U.S. power and influence in the region. Such a possibility has emerged because U.S. policy toward Korea, when compared against Chinese efforts, has been unsuccessful: Chinese influence and support in the ROK has grown considerably at U.S. expense. Should Washington seek to reverse this trend, it must develop and implement a policy approach that acknowledges the changing dynamics on the peninsula, effectively addresses Korean perceptions of the United States, facilitates better Korea-Japan relations, and, above all, demonstrates a long-term commitment to a unified Korea. Such a commitment should include a pledge of significant financial support toward the cost of rebuilding a unified Korea?this is one of the few areas where China will be unable to compete with the United States. If successful, such policies can demonstrate to the Korean people that the United States, rather than China, offers them the best strategic partnership for a post-unified Korea. However, given current prospects, this will not be easy.


113. Nicholas Eberstadt, ?The Persistence of North Korea,? Policy Review, October and November 2004, available from www.hoover.org/publications/policyreview/3436436.html,2008, p. 1. Internet, accessed January 11,