Who wants a United Korea?

On 12 June, worldwide attention will be on the Singapore Summit between President Trump and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un. Since World War II the divided Korean Peninsula has been beset by war, then an uneasy peace punctuated by alternating periods of agreement to keep the peninsula free of nuclear weapons and the breakdown of these accords. North Korea now has significant nuclear weapons capability almost able to reach the USA. The North’s recent belligerent rhetoric has been matched by the USA. South Korean President Moon Jae-in to defuse tension made an opening to the North, reviving the sunshine policy approach of President Kim Dae Jung.

Will an agreement be reached whereby the DPRK agrees to verifiably denuclearize and roll back its ballistic missile programme? Will this, improbably, be unilateral and in one go; phased to synchronize with the easing of sanctions; or, more probably, dependent on reciprocal conditions to prohibit American nuclear weapons in and around the peninsula and the phased reduction of US troops? The 1994 Framework Agreement states: ‘Both sides will work together for peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. (1) The U.S. will provide formal assurances to the DPRK, against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the U.S. (2) The DPRK will consistently take steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.’

Both sides have grounds for distrust. To the USA the DPRK has been reneging on its commitments to dismantle its nuclear weapons programme. The DPRK sees itself as reactive, in that the USA introduced nuclear weapons into the Korean Peninsula in violation of the 1953 Armistice Agreement. That the 1994 Accord was breached by the USA: in not setting up diplomatic representation in Pyongyang, and by President Bush’s stopping construction of two light water nuclear reactors, and ending assured shipments of heavy oil in 2003.

If agreement is reached, whatever its scope, it would be wise to keep in mind the overarching context. A DPRK not a threat to its neighbours and beyond is the first objective. For many in both the South and North, ending this enforced division - reunification - is the ultimate objective and not just a declaratory aspiration.

But who wants a unified Korea? That question struck me when I was there during President Kim Dae Jung’s tenure. South Korea views the prospect of an imploding North Korea with apprehension; the resulting dislocation, refugees, and security risks from potentially loose nuclear weapons. The cost of reunification in such a scenario has been calculated as far higher than borne by West Germany when reunited with East Germany.

The North’s ruling regime has the most to lose if the status quo were radically changed. In Germany coming from the East has not been a bar to reaching even Chancellor Rank, but minimal military or diplomatic personnel were integrated. The North would not be unaware of de Tocqueville’s analysis on the fall of the ancien regime. Regimes fall not when they became more oppressive, but conversely when reduced restrictions unleash increased and uncontainable expectations, an eventuality that President Trump cannot guarantee the regime against.

If the North is innovative, it could try to balance opening up and safeguarding its position by offering to explore a loose confederation in which two autonomous though different systems symbolically unify under one flag, and extending the precedent in international sports of both teams marching under one flag.

I asked my South Korean friends how reunification would handle the presence of American troops. For China the North has been a buffer heavily paid for in blood during the Korean War: sending over a million volunteers with 180,000 killed when American-led UN troops pushed almost to the Yalu river border with China. The response acknowledged this problem, suggesting that by prior agreement American troops would not be stationed north of the present dividing line. That would not allay Chinese apprehensions in view of the post- Soviet-breakup NATO incorporation of most Eastern European and the Baltic States.

As a Chinese diplomat observed informally at a recent dinner, if an agreement is reached what need is there for American troops in Korea? For that reason the USA too would also be wary of any developments that might lead towards reunification. This would likewise be a consideration for Russia which shares a small land border with North Korea and like China regards it as a buffer and an ally, however difficult.

Japan would also be very cautious. Its issues with South Korea pale in comparison to its strategic convergence with the South and the USA to mitigate and remove the nuclear and ballistic missile threat posed by the DPRK. However a united Korea within a few years would become an even more powerful economic and technological rival. The uncertain impact on Japan’s ethnic Korean minority, and its becoming more assertive would be an additional concern.

Undoubtedly reaching a sustainable agreement towards the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is critical for peace and security in the region and beyond. The complexity is compounded by what it could eventually lead to; and how that is viewed not only by the two Koreas and the USA, but also by the three important and powerful neighbours with their own vested interests.


n          The writer was Expert Member

of the Oversight Board for Strategic

Export Controls from its foundation

in 2007 to 2014.

The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat. Email: ambassador.tariqosmanhyder@gmail.com

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