However difficult, unification must be the ultimate objective.
As the U.S. and its allies frame plans for dealing with North Korea in the aftermath of the recent sinking of a South Korean warship, political leaders must recognize that security will depend not just upon deterring Kim Jong Il today. Northeast Asia’s future security—and America’s—will be profoundly affected by the government presiding over the northern half of Korea in the long run.
For this reason, Korean unification—under a democratic, market-oriented Republic of Korea that remains allied with the U.S.—must be the ultimate objective. Today that looks like a daunting and risky prospect. But to paraphrase Churchill: Unification would be the worst possible outcome for Korea—except for all the other alternatives.
Consider first an indefinite continuation of the Kim Jong Il regime. This means on the one hand terror and grinding immiseration for its people. But on the other, it means a regime that poses a continual threat to its neighbors and to the world.
North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is integral to the international military extortion racket by which Pyongyang has been financing its state accounts since the end of the Cold War. More atomic bombs, better missiles by which to deliver them abroad, and a permanently warlike posture are indispensable to the regime’s own formula for long-term security. This is why a voluntary denuclearization by Kim Jong Il’s North Korea is fantasy—no matter what bribes outsiders including the U.S. offer—and true détente with the Dear Leader’s regime can never be in the cards.
North Korea’s present leadership will surely wish to ratchet up its threat to America and the Western alliance in the years ahead. It is entirely reasonable to anticipate Pyongyang’s eventual sale of nukes to hostile powers or international terror networks. The regime has already marketed abroad practically everything in its nuclear warehouse short of user-ready bombs. Even worse, there are troubling signs—repeated nuclear tests, continuing missile tests, and attempts at cyberwarfare probing American and South Korean defenses—that the regime is methodically preparing to fight, bizarre as it sounds, a limited nuclear engagement against the U.S.
What about an independent, post-Kim Jong Il North Korea? A number of scenarios can be envisioned—none of them pleasant. If succession proceeds on the lines apparently envisioned, the state’s existing “military-first politics” game-plan will continue on its current trajectory, with nuclear proliferation and nuclear war front and center in state strategy.
Another future for an independent North Korea could be internal instability, with vicious infighting between rival, heavily armed factions. Under such conditions, a civil war—with nuclear weapons—is by no means out of the question. A national elite that had no qualms about the hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths from famine in the 1990s is unlikely to be troubled by the prospect of mass domestic death from atomic radiation. Such a civil war could all too easily spill into adjoining territories—necessitating intervention by outside powers, and possibly prompting military confrontation.
Then there is the potential for Chinese suzerainty. This notion has been floated by Chinese authors in recent years, in the form of “academic” but officially sanctioned studies that depict an ancient kingdom—conveniently stretching from Manchuria to the current-day Korean DMZ—which was once historically part of greater China. In February, Beijing reportedly offered Pyongyang a massive investment program, valued at $10 billion by sources for Seoul’s Yonhap news agency. But China is apparently interested in North Korea’s natural resources—mines, mineral extraction, and the transport systems to ship these commodities home—not its human resources. Uplifting the beleaguered North Korean population does not appear to figure in these plans.
Chinese suzerainty might put an end to the North Korean nuclear threat. But it would change the security environment in East Asia—perhaps radically.
Immense pressures would build in South Korea for accommodating Beijing’s interests. Depending on China’s preferences (and how these were parlayed), accommodation could mean an end to the U.S.-South Korea alliance. Japan would find its space for international maneuver correspondingly constricted; continuation of the U.S.-Japan alliance could even look risky. Much would depend upon Beijing’s own conduct—but a Chinese hold over northern Korea would have devastating implications for the current U.S. security architecture in East Asia.
It is in the context of the alternatives—not in the abstract—that the pros and cons of an eventual Korean unification must be weighed. Even under the best of circumstances, a full reintegration of the long-divided peninsula should be regarded as a painful, wrenching and (at least initially) tremendously expensive proposition. That much is plainly clear—and helps to explain why a growing fraction of the South Korean public is unwilling to think about reunification at all. But a successful Korean reunification, in conjunction with a robust alliance with the U.S. security alliance, affords a whole array of potential benefits that no alternative future for North Korea can possibly provide.
Apart from the nontrivial question of human rights and living standards for the North Korean people, these include the promotion of regional and international security through a voluntary partnership with shared core principles and values. Furthermore, unification over the long haul can enhance security throughout Northeast Asia, generating dividends for this dynamic region and the world.
Western political leaders—in America, South Korea, Japan and elsewhere—can have no idea when or how opportunities for Korean reunification will present themselves. Much the same was true a generation ago in Europe, on the eve of German unification. It is therefore of the essence that policy makers and statesmen in these allied countries devote themselves to the rigorous thinking and preparations that will help to improve the odds of a successful Korean reunification. This will require “contingency planning,” to be sure—but much more than this as well.
Not least will be the need for leaders of vision in the countries concerned to make the public case as to how and why a Korean unification serves their national interests. Compelling arguments to this effect already exist. What they lack are their national champions.
Two decades after the collapse of Soviet Communism, political leaders throughout the West all too generally seem in thrall to the hope that we can temporize our way through the North Korean problem. In one possible version of future events, historians might look back on such thinking as an interwar illusion—a reverie maintained at mounting cost until a final hour of reckoning.
Mr. Eberstadt is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is “Policy and Economic Performance in Divided Korea during the Cold War Era” (AEI Press, 2010).
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