Goals for Korean reunification and their current policy implications
Dec 4, 2010

Goals for Korean reunification and their current policy implications

A united Korea would be a wonderful thing. The south has prospered since the Korean war and risen into a modern economy with a high average quality of life and functioning democracy since the late 80s. The north on the other hand is a nearly failed authoritarian state constantly threatening aggression and with a low quality of life. They share a common language, ethnicity and shared culture and history. It is only natural that reunification seems desirable.

Reunification Objectives:

We must, however, be careful to specify first precisely what we mean by reunification and secondly consider how to get there. To the first question, we should note that when the west and SK talks about reunification it is with the clear implication that this is SK winning out and extending its hegemony to include the north; an implication quite different than that which is frequently claimed as desirable in the NK state media. My opening paragraph itself represents this desire for reunification in a very much lopsided way. This is one meaning of reunification so let us see how we might get there.

The seemingly insurmountable barrier for such a goal is that such reunification may require a war to get there. The proposed mechanism seems to be that NK will eventually escalate its aggression to the point of war at which point SK/US will win at great loss of lives on both sides and achieve military hegemony NK and that they will be received with open arms to the idea of a full peaceful reunification. Regardless of the potentially pyrrhic nature of a war for future reunification, there are significant questions of whether it would be even possible.

60 years is a long time, and it is especially long when one considers the constant and enduring propaganda machine that is the DPRK. People living in Korea today have either lived through the atrocities of the Korean war or far more likely have spent their entire lives in a regime that vilifies the US and the SK "puppet warmongers". The idea that even if the regime is overthrown or collapses either before or during a war that all the people will happily move towards a unified Korea (under US and SK hegemony) is very likely simply impossible. Note that this is a common mistake, it was often claimed in the lead up to the Iraq war that the US would be greeted with open arms by liberating the people of Iraq from Saddam Hussein. Instead we saw (outside Kurdistan) insurgent opposition that lasted for 7 years and exists to some extent today. The anti-American sentiment in Iraq (long a key US ally) is nothing compared to that in NK.

If as I have outlined our reunification by SK/US hegemony seems at best very dangerous and uncertain as to how we could get there, we are compelled to consider different meanings for reunification. As an ideal, I would consider a Korea which through peaceful means and voluntary initiatives becomes economically and culturally intertwined to their mutual benefit. Whether they become a single state is to me less interesting than that they become a shared nation. A possible but not necessary final step is the eventual move to a single state for a unified nation would be one where two peaceful and intertwined states have voluntary referendums in both regions to start sharing the political process as well. This is the meaning of reunification I will argue for here.

Road map for reunification:

This idea is nice, but we must now apply the test of how we could get there and thus whether it is a reasonable ideal. I just described the last few steps but now must consider the earlier steps leading from our current situation. I believe not only that such a process is possible but that it is in fact far more plausible than the reunification via military hegemony at delivering a good solution.

Achieving a stable military peace is the first step. Given 57 years of truce with many flare ups and no peace treaty, this may turn out to be the most difficult step. We will discuss how this might be achieved later. After relations have normalized in this way it makes it possible for the gradual easing of the boarder. Basic diplomatic relations and economic relations can start to form.

There is good reason to believe that given the opportunity, economic relations would flourish and would drive much of the rest of the cultural and social integration I would like to see. The Kaesang district is illustrative of this. This special economic zone in North Korea is the singular example of economic cooperation between the countries as North Korean laborers work for South Korean manufacturers. The North has lots of excess labors but little foreign currency and the big South Korean companies, or chaebols, need sources of cheap labour. South Korea was once their own source or cheap labour but the economic miracle in their country has raised the quality of life to the point that they have long since priced themselves out of labour competitiveness. Even China uses labour from Bangladesh now in search of the worlds cheapest labour. That South Korea is a modern technological country that shares geographical proximity and commonalities of language and culture that China or Russia does not means it is uniquely poised to engage in the North Korean economy for mutual benefit should it be liberated to make this possible.

The reality we have to get around of course is that regime change is going to be necessary at some point if progress is to be made. The current regime is so indoctrinated and entrenched in its authoritarian and antagonistic ways that it seems impossible strong progress can be made with it there. That said, we neither need nor can expect an overnight revolution to a modern democracy. The outcome I hope for is a much more marginal change that makes possible the clear comparative advantages of engagement and increasing openers that starts the ball rolling down the path towards eventual reunification. Consider the reforms in China under Deng Xiaoping which opened parts of the country up to economic engagements and market principals to the enormous benefit of the Chinese. Such reforms, dramatic though they may be, are nothing compared to war, collapse of the existing regime, and military hegemony by the US/SK. I suspect a series of smaller revolutions much like China that transforms the state from where it is now to one we may want in the future is superior to a single violent war based transition which may simply not be possible and would come at enormous cost.

The possibility of very limited regime change is actually possible entirely internally with the succession of Kim Jung Il by his youngest son Kim Jung Song which may trigger an internal coup by military leaders. We can but guess at the result but a regime more willing to bend to the conditions set for a peace treaty and to engage in those first limited steps of economic liberalization may come of such an internal coup.

US/SK's current policies and their effects:

What we can do is try to influence the situation today to encourage economic liberalization and eventual regime change in a positive situation. To see what we can do it is instructive to first see how our current policies encourage isolationism and maintain the regime. The theory, and it has been applied in sanctions regimes worldwide, is that isolating a country and strangling it of the benefits of international trade, diplomacy and the like will result in regime change. This has not happened, nor should it be expected to. When one strangles the people of a country by denying them a prosperous society it only increases the dependency of the people on the regime thus strengthening it. Consider that North Korea maintains such an enormous army; the people are so willing to do this because this is how they can secure a moderate lifestyle in comparison to the fate that would otherwise await them. It is by decoupling the dependency of the people from the regime that the first steps towards regime change can occur.

A particularly poignant example of this is with regards to the merchant class in NK. Given its inability to feed its people, a small merchant class developed that basically ran a black market food distribution system that acquired some capital and presence in society. Fearing (correctly) that such an independent movement was a threat to the regime, Kim Jung Il implemented draconian currency reforms a year ago that effectively wiped out the savings of this merchant class. After the Cheonan sinking, in the sanctions regime punitively imposed were restrictions on this very merchant class from docking at South Korean ports. This policy was not damaging the regime, it was hurting the very people the regime wanted gone and the people of NK to boot!

The isolationism is of course not uniformly applied. The timely application of near complete sanctions as punitive measures following acts of North Korean aggression (which occur periodically) aims to be a deterrent but even that has not been successful. The threat of economic and diplomatic ties being cut off through sanctions is only relevant if one has a large body of such ties.  These are so minimal and largely with China anyways so when the US/SK imposes harsher sanctions after an aggressive act it does little in the way as a disincentive.

The short term path forward:

With this context in mind we start to see the outline of a path forward that focuses on engaging North Korea economically and diplomatically to an extent far greater than before. We can actively attempt to encourage the development of a merchant class. We can supply sufficient levels of aid to try and liberate many of the people from necessary dependency. These goals have the dual benefit that they are morally praiseworthy on their effects of the people of North Korea entirely separately from the way they can assist in moving towards the ideal future I have outlined.

The issue of finalizing a peace treaty is of course the immediate and seemingly insurmountable barrier. What should be noted is that the more economic relations increase (and hence the more one has to lose from war or punitive responses to aggressive acts) the higher the incentive on a lasting peace treaty. The North has long (literally since three months after the armistice when a peace treaty was supposed to be made) been quite in support of a peace treaty. The problem is the US/UK have largely stated preconditions for a peace treaty - often for reasonable reasons. With a backdrop of higher economic participation as a motivator and the reduction in conditioning the treaty I think a peace treaty is quite possible. Consider for example the nuclear issue which is one of the conditions. I am as strong an opponent of a nuclear North Korea as anybody, but there is legitimate criticism of the idea that conditioning a peace treaty on this is an effective way to reduce them developing or perhaps worse proliferating nuclear weapons around the world. I think it doesn't accomplish its objectives, hinders the peace process, and prevents the kinda of pressure on development that could be brought to bear in the context of a peaceful coexistence. Not least among these is the disincentive on even having nuclear weapons that exists in peacetime compared to wartime.

Any solution is going to require at least some participation from China who considers NK in their sphere of influence and is the dominant aid supplier and trading partner. China is of course very much opposed to the idea of reunification by SK/US military hegemony as it would place a US proxy on their boarder. Recent Wikileaks indications of potential Chinese openness to the idea should not be confused with such a situation but actually far closer to the one I idealized. China can and should pressure NK to make the kind of reforms and push for a peace treaty that I have identified. It is easy for us to criticize China for not doing this, but part of the problem remains resistance to the SK/US idea of reunification and the possibility of military hegemony. If their is a shift towards reunification through socioeconomic freedom and intertwining I think they would be much more willing to come along.

It may well be that North and South Korea after so long of bitter war, animosity and diverging culture no longer have the shared identity required to reform as a single nation in any form. If this is the case that is not a problem and their choice and the north and south can nonetheless move towards peaceful coexistence and societies precisely as culturally, economically and politically intertwined as they want it to be. The ideal of Korean reunification is not the necessary imposition of one side on the other but the opportunity to come together in mutual benefit. This is an ideal that is possible, it can occur, and there is much hope, but the west has to change its policies in such a way that supports this ideal and not that of reunification through military hegemony.


Previous discussions that include North Korea: 
On their media: Orwellian North Korea
On sanctions: The Failure of Sanctions
On the tactical stalemate: Missile Defense is an Offensive Strategy

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