Busan, South Korea – A common belief in South Korea’s unification debate is that most foreign powers – including Japan – oppose unity.
As a professor of international relations in South Korea, I encounter this belief frequently, almost as an article of faith as to why unification did not happen despite the commitment of two nationalist Korean states.
This is false however. Only South Korea’s autocratic neighbors oppose unification, while its democratic partners support it. Indeed, the strategic logic is obvious.
By “unification” we mean, of course, Southern-led unification. North Korea is too poor and dysfunctional to absorb South Korea, and the South’s military capabilities and democratic constitution mean that a North-led unification would require conquest and likely massive devastation. A Southern-led unification – brought about by an internal collapse of the North – is the most likely scenario.
The Masquerade of China
The most distinctive element of the South Korean divisive discussion is the nationalist embarrassment at naming the obvious culprit – North Korea’s ruling Kim family.
This is particularly marked in the South Korean progressive camp, which reads the North as another Korean state separated from its southern ethnic brethren by foreign intervention. It is true that the United States and the USSR divided Korea in 1945, but at least since the end of the Cold War, the defeat of North Korea in inter-Korean competition is evident. North Korea could have peacefully joined the South, as East Germany did decades ago.
Instead, the Kims followed an extremely belligerent post-Cold War course. They allowed 10% of their population to die of starvation in the late 1990s. Pyongyang sought nuclear missiles, which led to its near total isolation from the world, including South Korea. He doubled down on the brutal and totalitarian control at home. If the Kim clan ceded power, they would almost certainly end up in post-unification jails for their human rights crimes. Why would North Korea’s elite give up their posh, gangster lifestyle for this?
Externally, China and Russia say they support Korean unification. China especially needs to maintain the charade because of its claims to unify Taiwan.
But in practice they do nothing to help and instead keep North Korea afloat. Both are helping North Korea evade sanctions. Both provide a haven for illicit money from the North Korean elite. Both, particularly China, provide economic assistance and trade opportunities. Some 92% of North Korean trade goes through China.
Much of this is technically illegal due to the restrictive multilateral sanctions regime, but China makes little effort to enforce this. (When I flew to North Korea, I saw passengers casually walking from duty-free shops in Beijing to our plane with alcohol, appliances, and other prohibited items.)
If China really wanted to help, it could do a lot. He chooses not to. As Chinese foreign policy voices openly admit, North Korea is a “buffer”. It keeps the South Korean, American and Japanese democracies away from its northeast border and distracts allies from the East and South China Seas. Moscow and Beijing are happy to ruthlessly instrumentalize the suffering of the North Korean people for their own parochial geopolitics.
It’s appalling, but don’t expect more from these harsh dictatorships.
Conspiracy theories abound
Conspiracy theories about American ambitions in South Korea are widespread, especially in the film and television industry. Usually they look to America controlling South Korea to contain China or vague imperial designs in East Asia.
All of this is silly. The United States does not need South Korea to contain China. It needs Japan, the pivot of the American alliance’s network in Asia, as well as air and naval bases far from China, such as Guam or Singapore.
The United States will never invade China on the ground and its Korean bases are subject to Chinese missile strikes, so there is no reason for Americans to stay in Korea after unification.
Unification would be a massive boon to the United States. He could leave Korea altogether and focus on China. Unification would eliminate a huge problem – North Korea, with its nuclear missiles, huge military, support for China and Russia, crime, proliferation, trafficking, etc.
This also applies to Japan. Japanese-Korean tension over history often leads to speculation that Japan opposes unification. A unified Korea, the theory goes, would target Japan with grievances over history as a glue to hold the two together.
Strategically, that would be a huge mistake. A unified and democratic Korea would be far less dangerous for Japan than the persistence of North Korea and the growing nuclear threat it poses to Japan and the region. North Korea’s naval presence, history of provocations and kidnappings, drug and arms trafficking, counterfeiting, etc., would disappear.
The Swiss-Finnish future of a unified Korea
A unified Korea would not need an American presence and there would be no pressing reason for America to maintain one. With the disappearance of North Korea, the geopolitical interest of the United States and Japan in Korea would diminish. Korea would probably be just another trading partner.
It would also suit Korea. Post-unification alignment with the United States, Japan, China or Russia would drag Korea into the brewing conflict between these great powers. Korea is too small to have a decisive impact on the course of such a conflict, but its central position would mean that it would be devastated.
The wisest thing would be to withdraw into fortress neutralism. During the Cold War, Finland and Switzerland were heavily armed, to ensure their sovereignty, but neutral to avoid entanglement in larger conflicts.
This is likely to unify Korea’s future, and it would be a big improvement over the status quo.
Robert Kelly is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University in South Korea.
In an age of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us tell the story well.