Tong Kim, Visiting Professor at Korea University and at The University of North Korean Studies, and a former Visiting Scholar/Adjunct Professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

Global Peace Leadership Conference
Seoul, Korea, 2012


Many studies on Korean unification have failed to make a difference in the making of a realistic unification policy. In particular, predictions of a North Korean collapse went off the mark, while hindering improvement of inter- Korean relations. The North Korean regime and its people have proven their traditional resiliency for survival from political and economic hardships.

The United States has no coherent policy for Korean unification. Like China, it only provides lip service to unification. Korea has always been part of the larger U.S. strategic policy for the region and the world. The United States has not and will not produce a Korean unification policy on its own for implementation beyond the level of rhetoric.

As long as the United States and the other powers of the region favor the status quo on the Korean peninsula, it is difficult for Korea to pursue an independent path of unification that may result in favor of the interest of a particular stakeholder at the expense of other stakeholders.

To define the end state of unification that would neutralize the conflicting interests of the surrounding states and the United States may be helpful to enlist their support for Korean unification. The modality of a permanently neutral unified Korea is worthy of further exploration in this context.

Of the three typical options for unification scenarios — absorption by the South upon a collapse of the North Korean regime, peaceful unification by engagement and cooperation, and unification by war, the option of war is excluded. War would be too costly in terms of damage to human lives and the prosperous economy that the South has built over a half-century. It will bring down the whole peninsula back to ashes, as it did during the Korean War.

At the bottom line, the only viable option for unification is to undertake a long-term, gradual unification process through peaceful engagement and cooperation. The longer this process takes, the brighter may be the prospects for North Korea’s reform and opening and its preparation for integration into a single system of democracy and market economy at the end.

A Thought on the Paper Topic

The topic of this paper was given to me by the organizer and chair of this conference, Professor Kwak Tae Hwan. A well-known North Korea specialist, Dr. Kwak is an energetic and prolific writer, whose views are widely respected in the community of policy makers and academics who are interested in the issues of the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia. Accepting his proposal that I present a paper under this subject from a U.S. perspective, I was somewhat taken aback with a sense of reservation in view of the absence of a coherent U.S. policy for, or a serious interest in, Korean unification. In addition, there have been numerous conferences and many publications, discussing the unification issue. These seemed enough to preempt the need for writing another paper. Yet, I realize most of these studies made no difference in the realization of unification. With that, I trust that “The Future Vision of a Unified Korean Peninsula” should refer to a new vision for Korean unification with a fresh approach that should be original, applicable and helpful. I thought we need a serious discussion that would be differentiated from the previous discussions of unification that are available abundantly in the published literature. As for “a U.S. perspective”, I assumed that we should move beyond the point of reviewing the passivity of U.S. policy on unification or the evolution of its varying positions on the issue over the years since the division of Korea. Maybe, now is time that we start discussing how and why the United States should be involved in Korean unification.

Evolution of Unification Studies

Most of the studies done on unification so far have typically dealt with the legitimacy of reunification from a Korean perspective, the cost and benefits of unification,[1] the evolution of unification policy on both sides of Korea, successes and failures of inter-Korean dialogue toward unification, comparisons with German unification and other previously divided countries, different approaches and scenarios,[2] domestic factors and public support for unification, the international security environment and conflicting interests among surrounding nations over the peninsula, and contingency plans for possible collapse of the North Korean regime. In general, there were more similarities than dissimilarities among the arguments in these categories. However, time has proved some of the earlier arguments favoring a particular approach or a specific formula or a particular assumption are no longer valid as the policies of the authorities in power on both sides of Korea, as well as the reality of history, have changed.

Some specialists focused on the security issues of the peninsula as part of the unification question. Some of them stressed the importance of the role of the Six-Party Talks to analyze an intertwined relationship between the resolution of the North Korean nuclear issue and the establishment of a peace regime as a necessary condition for unification. In a sense, unification study seemed to have shifted to a review of the strategic policies of the United States and China, which, some analysts argue, hold the key to Korean unification[3]. Others looked into the dynamics of power relationships in the region that affects the perspectives of each country regarding the end state of Korean unification. In other words, the focus of unification research appeared to have evolved to the study of U.S.-China relations and their impact on the other regional players who all have a strategic interest in the Korean peninsula.

Recently, there has been a noticeable shift in the approach of unification study from the premise of a peaceful unification process, which is supported by liberals and progressives to that of North Korean collapse, which is preferred by conservatives and hardliners. An increasing number of North Korea specialists have focused on a variety of collapse theories and contingency measures to deal with the aftermath of a North Korean collapse.[4] The rise of interest in the collapse theories that would result in unification on South Korean terms – by way of absorption, as was the case in Germany –should be attributed to the ineffectiveness, if not the failure, of U.S. and South Korean policy and the intransigency of the North Korean position on denuclearization and its gratuitous provocative behavior. As fewer people believe that North Korea would ever give up its nuclear weapons, and as more people believe that the North would not last long without reform and opening to improve its ailing economy to sustain its political survival, the assumption of a potential North Korean collapse may sound plausible even to critical skeptics.

The studies by the proponents of the collapse theories raise the issues of humanitarian needs for displaced population, social and political pacification, influxes of refugees and border security, mopping up of the remnants of the Korean People’s Army — who may resist to the last, disarming the North Korean military, searching, securing and protecting the North Korean nuclear arsenal, and seeking China’s cooperation for management of the disintegration of the North Korean system. Some studies focus exclusively on quantitative analysis of the force requirements.[5] Other studies discuss the post or pre-unification tasks of social, economic and legal integration. The underlying assumption for these studies is that North Korea should and will collapse due to its outdated political and economic system at some point in the future.

If North Korea would collapse as believed or wished for by these pundits, it would be futile to explore and design a new peaceful process. If we were convinced that the North would fall, or if we believe that the future will be determined as predicted by the collapse school of thought, it would make sense that we join the study of how the South and the United States should cooperate to prepare for such collapse. Conversely, if we can establish a plausible hypothesis that the North would not collapse in the near future, we should seek other avenues to approach the study of Korean unification in accordance with the changing political and security climate in the Korean peninsula and the region. While no particular piece of unification study single-handedly has so far contributed to achieving a successful resolution of the peninsula problem, the accumulative knowledge from continuing research efforts provides a valuable asset for unification study, from which we all can draw or borrow useful insights and good references.

This paper will attempt to set the tone for productive discussion through a brief review of the backgrounds for unification approaches and formulas as they were promoted by the successive regimes of the North and South. This paper will argue that we should resume a positive peace process towards the final goal of national unification. I am mindful of the unlikely near-term possibility of a sudden change in the North and at the same time of the need for preparing for such development. This writer recommends that we should be cautions about the negative impact of an open discussion of collapse measures on the North Koreans, whom we should engage to negotiate a path to unification. The economic and security aspects of unification are excluded from the scope of discussion for this paper. This writer will argue that the U.S. policy on Korean unification remains as a part of its overall strategy for Northeast Asia and that the United States should develop a new policy that can contribute to the promotion of Korean unification. Lastly, this paper will tackle the concept of a neutral unified Korea in terms of its feasibility, conditions and limitations.

Setting the Tone for Discussion

From day one after Korea was liberated from the yoke of Japanese colonial rule in 1945, the Korean people sought for an independent unified Korea, unaware that the division of their land at the 38th parallel had been fixed by the American forces for the military expediency of accepting the surrender of the Japanese Imperial Army at the end of WWII. Historic evidence shows that the division was not intended to last permanently. In as much as the line of division was drawn without the knowledge and against the will of the Korean people, the United States remains responsible at least morally for the division of the Korean peninsula, although it was the liberator of Korea from Japanese rule. From a Korean perspective, a democratic unified Korea has been a national aspiration, as the country had existed more than a thousand years as a single, unified nation sharing the same language and culture. Public support for unification has varied, as the governments on both sides manipulated the unification issue for political purposes.

Many observers often discuss the three most frequently mentioned possible methods of unification — (1) gradual integration through a negotiated peace process (2) unification by force — -through war and (3) unification by absorption upon collapse of the North Korean regime or a fatal decline of the North. These three scenarios are also described as (1) soft landing through long-term cooperation and (2) hard landing upon collapse or by war.[6] An indefinite status quo on the peninsula should not be an approach to unification, as it would contribute to the perpetuation of the division. The status quo or management of the division is certainly not oriented toward unification. As for the end state of any unification process, the direct parties – the Republic of Korea of the South and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea of the North – have always pursued a contradictory goal.

Even today, the South wants a “peaceful democratic unification”, as stipulated in its Constitution, which will guarantee democracy, market economy and human rights, while the North insists upon its proposal for the Koryo federation system under its terms to maintain its totalitarian rule. However, each side understands it would be impossible, short of war, to impose its own terms of unification on the other. Many still argue that even a peaceful approach through engagement and cooperation, as was the goal of Kim Dae Jung’s Sunshine Policy, would lead to a gradual opening and reform in the North. In theory, this would bring up the North’s economy and transform its political system to become closer to the Korean standards, a prerequisite to smooth implementation of the final stage of system integration into a completely unified Korea.

The path to unification by force was tried unsuccessfully by the North during the Korean War (1950-1953). The South has never embarked on the path by force, but it was more than willing to try it if the circumstances had permitted. Even before the North Korean invasion of 1950, South Korean President Syngman Rhee advocated “March to the North” and “Recover the Lost Land” to unify the divided country. The South refused to sign the Armistice Agreement in defiance of the U.S. strategy of deterring or fighting a potential Soviet attack on Europe. The North was unable to realize unification under Communism, after the UN forces spearheaded by the United States, intervened in the war. In return for Syngman Rhee’s acquiescence on the conclusion of the Korean armistice, Washington signed the Mutual Defense Treaty with South Korea, which serves to this day as a basis and a symbol for U.S. commitment to defend the South from a renewed attack from the North. At the same time, the U.S.-ROK alliance based on the Mutual Defense Treaty allowed a mechanism for the United States to prevent the South from marching to the North under its operational control of the ROK armed forces. Before the Chinese intervention in the Korean War, the South had its own aborted opportunity to absorb the North by force when the South Korean forces backed by the UN forces pushed the North Korean invaders up to the Yalu River. Again, South Korea’s fate was determined by the Americans who historically handled the Korean issue as part of their larger security strategy for the region and the world.

For the next three decades after the Korean War until the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was experiencing a serious phase of disintegration, North Korea carried out an aggressive unification offensive. By that time, the North had recovered from the ruins of war, making better economic progress than its southern neighbor was. The North believed that it could change the South Korean system through a gradual implementation of its federal system. The North’s federal model would support a system of one state, two systems, and two local governments to last indefinitely until both the North and South would be incorporated into a single system. In 1980, Kim Il Song demanded abolishment of the South Korea National Security Law, regime change to a democratic government in the South, and withdrawal of American troops, as primary conditions for the “Confederate Republic of Koryo,” which was totally unacceptable to the South.[7] Kim Il Song seemed confident that he could unify the Korean peninsula ultimately under the North Korean terms through a combination of the federation proposal by the North and a favorable revolutionary development in the South.

In response, the military regimes of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan focused on the strengthening of their anti-Communist stance for two purposes: to frustrate Pyongyang’s diplomatic offensive accompanied by terrorist attacks (including the assassination attempt at Park’s life in 1968, the Rangoon terror in 1983, and the explosion of a KAL airliner in 1987) and to justify the legitimacy of their unpopular regimes. Nevertheless, Seoul and Pyongyang produced the first landmark inter-Korean joint statement of July 4, 1972. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the old East European Communist camp, the North, which had fallen far behind the South in economic growth, intentionally engaged the South Korean governments of Roh Tae Woo, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun.

Consequently, the two sides were able to negotiate and sign a series of important agreements – the North South Basic Agreement of 1991, the joint declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula of 1992, the 6.15 joint summit declaration of 2000, and the 10.4 second joint summit declaration of 2007. However, none of the agreements that were reached through years of hard negotiations has been implemented. All of these documents were based on the broad principles of independence, exclusion of foreign interference, mutual recognition, peaceful coexistence, and national cooperation towards the ultimate goal of unification. Yet, there was no agreement with respect to how they should proceed to undertake a process of unification. There was no agreement on time lines for such a process. As North Korea was declining in its economic strength in the face of increasing security threats from the United States and South Korea, the North Korean leadership shifted their goal from unification to survival.[8]

U.S. Policy on Korean Unification

Despite its deep involvement in the issues of the Korean peninsula, the United States has never pursed a consistent strategic policy course that would help bring about Korean unification. The United States has a long history of involvement in Korea, beginning with the infamous Taft-Katsura agreement of 1905 in which the United States agreed to Japanese takeover of Korea in return for U.S. interest in the Philippines. Although the United States discussed the future fate of Korea during WWII through the historic conferences at Cairo (November 1943), Yalta (February 1945), Potsdam (July 1945) and Moscow (December 1945), it has never shown interest in the immediate independence of a unified Korea before or after the division of the peninsula. The United States was partly responsible for the outbreak of the Korean War by excluding the South from a U.S. defense perimeter and downgrading the strategic value of the Korean Peninsula at the nascent period of the Cold War.[9] Nevertheless, the United States was a savior that rescued South Korea from the brink of defeat during the Korean War and a benefactor that provided security for the South afterwards, enabling it to achieve what it proudly is today – a full-fledged democracy and a prosperous market economy with a raking in the top tier of world economies.

However, permanent political solution of the Korean question has never been a priority for the United States over the immediate security imperatives such as deterrence against war, non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and the maintenance of the status quo. Korea always was and still is a dependent variable to the larger strategic equation that the United States created to protect its national interest. Like other powers, the United States practices the norm of geostrategic politics. Despite South Korea’s growth in international stature and its increased influence over world affairs, the issue of Korean unification is far from an urgent agenda for the United States, which is more preoccupied now with Iran than North Korea, more with Middle East than Europe, and more with a rising China than the unification of Korea.

President George H. W. Bush was the first U.S. president who publicly spoke of support for Korean unification since the Korean armistice, when he came to Seoul in January 1992 and delivered a speech at the National Assembly. The senior Bush said that the United States would support a peaceful unification of Korea that would be acceptable to the South Korean people, without specifying any backup measures for unification.[10] Some critics thought Bush’s statement reflected a lukewarm American attitude to Korean unification as it was crafted to alleviate the strong criticism among the liberal forces in the South of the U.S. policy hindering the unification of Korea.[11] Selig H. Harrison argued that Pyongyang had believed that U.S. support for unification was limited to the South’s absorption of the North.

By the time U.S. secretary of state Madeline Albright was meeting with the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il in October 2000, the United States was seriously considering diplomatic recognition of North Korea through normalization of relations with its previous enemy. At that highest level U.S.-DPRK meeting ever, Kim Jong Il said, “I know South Korea is an old friend of the United States. But, if we become a new friend of the United States, would it not be good for the United Stated to have both an old friend and a new friend?”[12] Cognizant of the dynamics of the Kim Dae Jung government’s Sunshine Policy developing fast towards a new strategic environment on the Korean peninsula, in which the United States was forced to make some policy adjustment, the Clinton administration accepted Kim Dae Jung’s recommendation for a normalized relationship with North Korea. The conditions for normalization required North Korea to give up and dismantle its nuclear and missile development programs, respect human rights, stop illicit international activities, and cease terrorist support. However, transformation of the North Korean system was not a requirement.

The United States fully supported the result of the first historic inter Korean summit – which was summarized in the 6.15 Joint Declaration of 2000. In the Declaration, the North and South “agreed to resolve the question of unification through their own initiative and through the joint efforts of the Korean people.” The two leaders also acknowledged “common elements in the South’s proposal for a confederation as well as the North’s proposal for a federation of lower stage.” This was interpreted as the first step towards a common unification formula. They also “agreed to promote unification in that direction.” During the first inter-Korean summit, Kim Jong Il admitted the unrealistic demands by the North’s earlier proposal of the “Koryo Federation” as a “product of the Cold War.”[13] However, there was no mention in the declaration of a next steps or a time line toward unification. Yet, the summit meeting was a significant development for unification efforts, as it was the first inter-Korean discussion of the unification issue at the highest level of both sides.

In retrospect, even in the best days of bilateral cooperation between the administrations of Kim Dae Jung and Bill Clinton, and even after Washington came fully behind Seoul’s ambitious process of reconciliation, cooperation and peace toward an eventual stage of unification, there was no discussion between the two allies of any specific U.S. role in the unification process. Nor was there any explicit expression of U.S. support for a unified Korea. Washington again was mainly interested in maintaining the stable security environment in Korea and preventing the proliferation of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. The United States did not have to be concerned about the possible prolonging of the division by the normalization of its relationship with North Korea. Any further progress on the issue of unification was left to the direct parties of the North and the South who said they would “take their own initiatives.” Absent any request for U.S. action to support Korean unification, the United States was not interested in the unification issue, other than providing political support for progress in inter-Korean relations. The Clinton administration, like all its predecessors, did not have a clear policy on Korean unification, although it genuinely supported Kim Dae Jung’s engagement policy. William Perry’s final report of the Review of U.S. Policy toward North Korea in October 1999, which was hailed as of one of the best policy studies with good recommendations, did not discuss an alteration to the status quo nor express U.S. support for Korean unification.

After the inauguration of the Neocon administration of President George W. Bush, the United States became busy undoing any progress that was made during the Clinton presidency under the widely known acronym of ABC (Anything But Clinton). In 2002, Washington effectively killed the Agreed Framework of 1994, which had successfully suspended North Korean nuclear activities for eight years toward the goal of an eventual dismantlement of all North Korea’s nuclear programs. In reaction, North Korea restarted the operation of its nuclear facilities at Yongpyon and produced enough plutonium for 6 – 8 bombs, conducting its first nuclear test in 2006. Bush showed little interest in engaging the North, which he called a member of the Axis of Evil; he hated Kim Jong Il. His conservative senior officials – including Donald Rumsfeld and John Bolton – and his vice president Dick Cheney publicly expressed their preference for regime change in the North. Bush openly talked about a military option targeting the North. However, there was no plan of action to attack the North or to bring down Kim Jong Il’s system or to effectuate regime change. In short, the Bush administration had no policy to realize Korean unification by any of the three options: unification by force, by absorption, or by peaceful engagement. The Bush administration had no interest in supporting any South Korean policy for unification.

During the two terms of Bush’s administrations, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun were frustrated by the U.S. hardliner policy that did more to heighten tensions than solve problems. Kim Dae Jung could not persuade Bush to support his Sunshine policy, and Roh Moo-hyun was more worried about the possibility that the United States might attack the North, thereby triggering a renewed war on the Korean peninsula. Although the Bush administration shifted, during the last two years of its second term, from a policy of confrontation and pressure to one of engagement and negotiation for the resolution of the North’s nuclear programs, it was not because of Bush’s change of mind about North Korea. It was because of his defeat in the midterm elections that resulted in Rumsfeld’s resignation, weakening the influence of the other Neocons in the administration.

The Roh government was receiving mixed signals from Washington between military action and regime change on the one hand, engagement and peaceful resolution on the other.[14] The Rho government did not dare to solicit U.S. assistance on the issue of Korean unification. It would only be content with the U.S. not starting war in Korea.

The possibility of resorting to the option of unification by force is remote, but it has not totally disappeared. That is, if the North attacks the South in all out war, the combined ROK-U.S. operational plan is to defeat and destroy an invading North Korean Army, and finish the North Korean regime. However, as the United States was being more bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was becoming more difficult for the United States to fight another major war in Korea. In the wake of the two deadly incidents of the Cheonan ship and Yeonpyeong Island of 2010, the U.S. military authorities agreed that the South Korean forces should retaliate with U.S. support any new North Korean military provocation. This concurrence was based on the U.S. judgment that the North Korean leaders would not risk an all out war, unless they believe their system is on the verge of termination from an external aggression.[15]

The Obama administration has never had a policy on Korean unification from the beginning. However, the United States agreed to include a mention of unification in the Joint Vision statement for the ROK-U.S. alliance of June 11, 2009. The statement contained a rhetorical statement: “We aim to build a better future, leading to peaceful unification on the principles of free democracy and a market economy.” This statement defined a desirable end state of Korean unification from the perspectives of Seoul and Washington. But, it did not mention how such a goal should be achieved. It only inferred to an unstated preference of unification by absorption at the end of a sudden change in North Korea. On the other hand, “peaceful unification” implied that Washington would not support South Korea if it wants to unify the Korean peninsula by force. Pyongyang has all along feared the possibility of absorption by the South. However, there was no agreement between the North and the South regarding the final form of government for a unified Korea.

The U.S. North Korea policy under President Barrack Obama has yielded little progress in denuclearizatioin or finding steps to a peace process towards Korean unification. Its policy of strategic patience – a dual approach of sanctions and conditional engagement — imposed international pressure, while keeping the door open for engagement and negotiation under a set of conditions for the North to meet. This policy — was put in place due to Washington’s ill preparedness for North Korea’s missile launch in April 2009 and a second nuclear test in the following month of the same year. The U.S. conditions for talks included the North’s demonstration of seriousness by taking irreversible steps for denuclearization and improvement of relations with the South.

The short-lived leap day agreement of February 29, 2012 was reached after two months had passed following Kim Jong Il’s death in December, 2011. The timing of the agreement betrayed the notion of an instable successor regime by Kim Jong Un. It belatedly reflected a downturn in the wishful U.S. perspectives on North Korea’s collapsibility during the transition process. After the North’s launch of a satellite rocket on April 13, the leap day agreement was discarded. The aborted agreement could have provided a significant step forward in a long journey of denuclearization. In the agreement, the North was committed to observe a moratorium on the conduct of nuclear and missile tests, as long as both sides are engaged in dialogue. In return, Washington promised to provide 240,000 tons of nutritional assistance and reconfirmed that it harbored no hostile intent towards the North.

The February 29 agreement had also appeared to pave the way to the resumption of the six-party process. Since the agreement was a bilateral product between Washington and Pyongyang, it did not need to mention Seoul’s conditions for nuclear talks – Pyongyang’s apology for the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong indents and improved inter-Korean relations. The Obama administration was supportive of these conditions imposed by Seoul, until it realized that these conditions were counterproductive to engaging Pyongyang, while the North was increasing its nuclear weapons arsenal. If Washington wants to go back to dialogue, it should start by revisiting the leap day agreement to refine the elements of agreement and to clarify the ambiguous and controversial discrepancies between a missile launch and a satellite launch. However, no dramatic movement is expected from either Washington or Pyongyang before the presidential election for the United States in November.

The U.S. appeared to be a hostage to the collapse theory that was proactively espoused by the South Korean allies and North Korea specialists in Washington. The question was, “Why should Washington talk to Pyongyang, if the regime in the North would fall soon?” In the meantime, Washington’s waiting game was lost to the tough North Koreans, who were not fazed by sanctions and who were supported by China economically and politically. A former White House NSC senior director for Asia confessed that “the North Korean issue posed the immediate dangers and consumed so much time, effort and energy,” while the White House team was led by events, not by strategy.[16] President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea has said repeatedly, “Unification may come suddenly, and we should be prepared for it.” It was an obvious insinuation to an imminent collapse of the North. There has been no discussion of peaceful unification by engagement between Seoul and Washington.

The presidential race between Barrack Obama and Mitt Romney seems to be too close to call as the election is only three months away. For his North Korea policy, the presumptive Republic nominee expresses his willingness to commit to eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons and its nuclear weapons infrastructure. Romney will punish the continued advance of North Korea’s nuclear program and any aggression. He will also impose harsher sanctions against the North, if it continues its provocations and its illicit international activities. [17] However, Romney has no plan or strategy for Korean unification, either. From the U.S. perspective, Korean unification is not an urgent issue, whereas the status quo through the alliance, which has proven its effectiveness to maintain stability and divided peace on the Korean peninsula, remains as the preferred option. A new U.S. administration, Democratic or Republican, will continue to approach the Korean issue as part of its overall strategy to protect U.S. interest in Asia, while increasing its efforts to cope with the rise of China that might break the equilibrium of power relationships in the region.

Obstacles to Peaceful Unification by Engagement and Cooperation

Some elements of obstruction to a peaceful unification process may originate from the negative external environment in which at least three big surrounding powers – China, the United States and Japan – would not support a reconfiguration of the geostrategic relationships in the region. It is not surprising that China, like the United States, only gives lip service to peaceful unification. Beijing’s strategy has been to maintain the status quo so that it can continue its economic growth in stability. The United States, as we discussed above, also favors the status quo. Beijing and Washington have been in the same boat of common interest to maintain the status quo in Korea.

As for the end state of unification, it is clear that the United States and Japan would not like a unified Korea ending South Korea’s alliance with the United States to be inclined to or incorporated into the Chinese sphere of influence. China would oppose a unified Korea with a continuing alliance with the United States that could deploy U.S. troops closer to its border. Russia that also shares the border with North Korea would feel uncomfortable with a unified Korea allied either to China or to the United States China wants to keep the North as a traditional buffer and prefers the South to become neutral in China’s ongoing competition or potential conflict with the United States. Of course, China would prefer a unified Korea to be on its side against Japan and the United States.

More important elements of obstruction to peaceful unification by way of engagement may stem from internal differences between the North and South. If a serious unification process were to be undertaken, it should begin from within the South, hopefully with cooperation of the North. It would be a secondary task to neutralize the opposition of the surrounding countries and to gain their support for a unified Korea beneficial to them all. The task in that effort would be to present them a persuasive, visionary plan to build a new stable security alignment for the region, in which all the countries would thrive in peace and prosperity. The place to begin a peaceful unification process is here at home in Korea.

Most active inter-Korean discussion of unification took place during the Kim Dae Jung government, which pursued the unification formula of a confederation under which the two sides would retain their separate sovereign systems of government, retaining their respective rights of diplomacy and military. This Sunshine approach would promote exchanges of visits and economic cooperation, building political and military confidence towards the establishment of a peace regime that will replace the Armistice Agreement, to end the technical state of war between the North and South. Kim Dae Jung’s policy envisioned the benefits from a free traffic of visits, trade, investment and reform that would lead to threat reduction and even to arms control. Resources to be generated from peace dividends would be diverted to projects for the improvement of the people’s welfare.[18] According to Lim Dong-won, who was the right man for Kim Dae Jung’s North Korea policy, the state of confederation was only an interim stage for de facto unification with free traffic and economic cooperation between the two sides, en route to the final state of de jure unification, with one nation, one state and one unified system. However, there was no inter-Korean discussion with respect to what the final unified system of government would be. Kim Jong Il said unification would take 40 – 50 years from the time of the first inter-Korean summit in 2000. He also said, the North would not want unification by the system of either side. If Korea was unified under North Korean terms, Kim Jong Il said, it would benefit China, and if Korea was unified under South Korean democratic terms, it would benefit Japan.[19] As far as the inter-Korean discussion of unification is concerned, two sides should pick up where they had left off before the deterioration of relations during the government of Lee Myung-bak.

Other serious elements of obstruction to peaceful unification are related to the persistent belief held by some policymakers and some value-centered analysts in the collapsibility of North Korea. The collapse theory has been around for more than 20 years since the early 1990s, after the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, even before the death of Kim Il Song in 1994. As North Korea was going through increasing economic hardships from the cut-off of assistance from the Soviet Union and the termination of trade with the East European Communist block, coupled with the severe damage of floods and the shortages of food and energy, a panel of government and private experts organized by the Central Intelligence Agency concluded in 1997 that the North Korean regime was likely to collapse within five years.[20]

The CIA panel wrote, “Political implosion stemming from irrecoverable economic degradation seems the most plausible endgame for North Korea.” We should note that the timing of this study was after the death of Kim Il Song’s death in 1994. Nicholas Eberstadt of American Enterprise Institute wrote in March 1997, “A gradual unification is a fantasy as the North is more likely for implosion and the Western powers should be ready for a sudden realignment.”[21] There were numerous other predictions of North Korean collapse, but none of those predictions has been borne out. In 2009 the collapse theories mushroomed again, especially after Kim Jong Il was hit by a stroke in August of that year. When Kim Jong Il died in December 2011, the theory of a sudden change and regime change returned but only for a short span of time. The predictions of instability in the course of transition to the current leader Kim Jong Un also went off the mark.

It is important to settle the question of North Korean collapsibility, because if we knew how and when North Korea would collapse, there would be little reason to invent a long gradual, peaceful process of unification. Despite exhausted discussions of the probable causes for a coming collapse – such as economic trouble and political instability — nobody knows when or even whether the North would collapse. The problem I have with the collapse theory is the absence of credible evidence to support the probability of the North’s collapsibility. Most collapse theories are based on unproven assumptions, academic imaginations, and unconfirmed reports. However, it would be prudent for the South and the United States to design a realistic contingency plan in a very quiet manner.

Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean defector and a prominent advocate for change in North Korea, said all along before he died in 2010 at the age of 87, North Korea would not collapse unless China ended its support, and many shared his view. He said more than a half of the North Korean people – about 11 million people are either members or families of the members of the North Korean Workers Party, the People’s Korean Army, or the Red Militia of Farmers and Laborers. The rest of the people could not stage an organized opposition against their ruling classes.[22] Andre Lankov, another conservative North Korea critic, wrote that immediate North Korean collapse looks very unlikely for two main reasons: collapse would take a popular uprising, which is highly impossible, or an open power clash within the elites, which is highly improbable, as there is the dictum, “If we do not hang together, gentlemen, we would be hung separately.”[23] There are many other pundits and writers, on both liberal and conservative sides, who do not believe in an imminent North Korean collapse.

This paper would argue that collapse is unlikely from a simple perspective of Korean history. Over the 2,000 years of history, North Korea has always been part of a dynasty and under dynastic rule – except for the 36 years of Japanese colonial rule. Throughout their history, the Korean people have shown an unparalleled strength of resiliency and tenacity for survival. The Korean people have survived several cycles of “seven years of famine”[24] or “seven years of drought” and the people in the North recently survived a long “Arduous March” under the reign of Kim Jong Il, during which 300,000 to 3 million people were said to have starved to death.

From the 12th century, Koryo was ruled by military generals for about 100 years, as South Korea was for almost 30 years between the 1960s and the 1980s. Since the mid 1990s, North Korea has been ruled by those in military uniform under the slogan of “military first policy”. The Korean people survived the two massive invasions of the Mongols in the 13th century that lasted almost 30 years, devastating their agricultural land. In the late 16th century, the Yi dynasty survived a “seven-year war” that begun by the invasion of 20,000 Japanese troops. The war reduced Korea’s farmland to one third of what it was before the invasion. The Korean people survived a three-year fratricidal war that destroyed their country to ashes. Hunger is not something new to the North Korean people. Hunger did not come to them for the first time under Kim Jong Il’s rule. The Koreans in general and the North Koreans in particular survived many cycles of miserable life from hunger, cold and political oppression. Hunger and hardship was a familiar face of life for North Koreans, who are still fighting to survive their plights of food shortage. History supports the survivability of the impoverished North Korean people.

If we define the North Korean system as a “Confucian Nationalist Monarchy”[25], criticism of the succession system in the North would lose its ground. There are plenty of precedents in Korean history that a king chose a young son of his to succeed the thrown. Kim Jong Un’s age of 29 is not too young for a ruler in Korean history or in the Old Testament.[26] There might be other reasons for the arguments for Pyongyang’s political instability, but the fact of his “young age and inexperience” is a weak basis for such argument. If anything, it seems that Kim Jung-Un has completed the process of power consolidation, in a rather fast fashion. We don’t really know what is going on inside the leading group in the North.[27] We don’t know what the North’s next strategic move would be toward the South or the United States. But, we know many predictions of instability and power struggle within the elites were incorrect. We know many predictions of unification by the South’s absorption through a North Korean collapse have turned out to be wrong so far.

The End State of Unification as a Neutral Democratic Korea

The earlier popular enthusiasm for unification of the 1990s has been subdued due to the scary estimates of unification costs that ranged from $250 billion to $3.5 trillion depending on researches, as well as public complacency with the status quo of the division. South Korea has been occupied with its own domestic agenda, while trying to cope with the immediate threats of provocation from the North, including its nuclear and missile programs. In recent years, the two deadly incidents in the west sea– the Cheonan ship and Yeonpyeong Island — increased the South Korean people’s awareness of security threats, which provided a critical impetus to the consideration of trilateral military cooperation with Japan and the United States at the cost of angry reaction from the North and China. The North Korean leadership has placed highest priority on the protection of its supreme interest — state survival, trying to feed its people in an impoverished economy. The North’s nuclear weapons development is seen more as a means for regime survival than as a negotiation advantage for extorting economic aid and other rewards from the international community.

Under these circumstances, there is little room for either side of the division to undertake a peaceful process of unification by engagement and cooperation. Most Koreans and their neighbors would not approve taking the path of unification by war. After excluding the war option, we would have to choose one from the two remaining options: peaceful unification by a long-term gradual approach and unification by absorption through collapse management. The problem with the option of unification by absorption is that it depends on a remote possibility of North Korean collapse and the consequent absence of a time line. In undertaking a new unification process along the line of unification by engagement and cooperation, there are a number of urgent requirements that should be met by the North and South and other stakeholders in the region.

First, the two immediate parties of interest – North and South – must start talking to each other to improve their deteriorated relations of the past few years. Second, Washington and Pyongyang should reinstate the February 29 agreement through bilateral talks and cooperate for the resumption of the Six-Party process to secure stability in the Korean peninsula and to move toward an eventual nuclear dismantlement. Third, Seoul should encourage and support Washington, instead of dragging it down, to improve relations with Pyongyang. Fourth, Beijing should keep persuading Pyongyang to refrain from taking further provocations and cooperate with Washington on denuclearization. Fifth, Japan should provide proactive support for denuclearization and for resolution of its bilateral issues with the North, instead of sticking to its unilateral demands on the issue of Japanese abductees. Sixth, Russia, instead of taking a passive position, calculating its near-term interest, should contribute to building a cooperative security setting among the powers of the region, in which the two Koreas could move on their path to unification.

As for the question of a unification formula, there has been a host of proposals including federation, confederation, commonwealth, or community of the nation. But, none of these formulas has been realized. What to call a unification formula or how many stages a unification process should go through is not important.[28] Perhaps, determining the end state of unification in long-term political and security terms is more important, if unification would be acceptable to the surrounding countries and the United States. For security considerations, the end state of a unified Korea will face a number of options, including neutrality, autonomy or alliance all of which have pros and cons for the sake of discussion.[29] Of these three options, this paper chooses neutrality as a viable subject worthy of further exploring. Given the conventional wisdom that the major stakeholders surrounding the Korean peninsula are not interested in a power reconfiguration that would result from unification, a united Korea that declares permanent neutrality may provide security comfort for the surrounding countries.

In Kwan Hwang argued in 1999 that a pre-unification declaration of neutrality by South Korea provide a more secure security framework within which the unification process can advance.[30] In 1960, U.S. senator Mike Mansfield advocated Korean unification based on the Austrian neutrality model as a solution to the Korean security issue.”[31] Mansfield’s suggestion put spurs to the popular public debate on a neutral unification model in South Korea that lasted until Park Chung Hee’s military coup in May 1961. As an opposition presidential candidate in 1971, Kim Dae Jung proposed a four-power security assurance pact among the United States, the Soviet Union, China and Japan to deter war in Korea from any side with support of any of these powers. Kim Dae Jung wrote his proposal was like a non-aggression pact against and from either side of Korea.[32] Selig Harrison suggested in the last chapter of his book “Korean Endgame” that a unified Korea declare its security neutrality and the establishment of a nuclear free zone in the region. The independence-conscientious North Korea has supported the neutrality of a neutral Korea from early on.

A research group in Seoul, called The Council for Permanently Neutralized Unification, presented a five-stage formula for neutralized unification.[33] The first stage aims to normalize North South relations through a peace regime. In the second stage, issue a joint inter-Korean agreement on the neutralization of the Korean peninsula. In the third, conclude an international treaty of the neutralization of the Korean peninsula between both sides of Korea and the four major powers concerned. In the fourth, adopt a unified constitution and hold a general election. In the fifth and last stage, declare the establishment of a unified Korean republic. This formula was developed under the assumption that the four powers – the United States, China, Japan and Russia – would prefer a united neutral Korea to avoid an unfavorable unification to their interests and to end the costly competition of maintaining the unstable status quo on the Korean peninsula. This formula imposes a challenge for further examination in terms of its structure of rationale and feasibility. Nevertheless, I believe this is a good starting point in our effort to explore different avenues towards the realization of a unified Korean peninsula.

To define the end state of unification and set a time line for unification – no matter how long it may take, has been thus far the missing part of unification efforts. The arrangement that the Communist Government of China made with Hong Kong and Macao to allow 50 years for system integration could be a point of reference for planners of Korean unification. Resolving these two issues would be helpful to pursuing the cherished national goal of unification. To keep talking about unification by engagement and cooperation also has a positive role in reducing tensions between the North and South –political and military — and promoting inter-Korean relations. Neither side of Korea can depend on its allies for help to achieve unification without their own efforts. They have to start their work by themselves.


The United States has no coherent policy for Korean unification. Like China, it only provides lip service to unification. Korea was always only part of the larger U.S. strategic policy for the region and the world. The United States has not and will not produce a Korean unification policy on its own to implement beyond the purpose of rhetoric.
As long as the United States and the other powers of the region favor the status quo on the Korean peninsula, it is difficult to pursue an independent path of unification that may result in favor of the interest of a particular stakeholder at the expense of other stakeholders. In this context, it would be worth to define an acceptable end state of Korean unification in security terms, possibly in the form of a neutral unified Korea.

Of all the options for unification scenarios, unification by war is ruled out. It would be too costly in terms of damage to human lives and the prosperous economy that the South has built over a half century, as well as whatever built-up structures that exist in the North. War would imply destruction of everything that the South and the North have built.
Unification by absorption relies on the collapsibility of the North Korean system, for which there is no reliable supporting evidence. It depends heavily on speculation and wishful thinking. Time has witnessed the continuing resiliency of the North Korean people to survive political and economic hardships. Collapse theories have been around over 20 years, but a collapse has not happened.

At the bottom line, the only preferable option to unification is to undertake a long-term, gradually phased unification process through peaceful engagement and cooperation. The longer this process takes the better chance and more time, it will give the North to reform and open itself and to prepare for integration into a democratic market economy with the South. It will take a long time to narrow differences gradually between the South and the North. The option of peaceful engagement and cooperation may end up as an absorption approach over the long course of unification process, during which the North could change or might crumble by itself.

Unification is up to the Korean people. None of their allies will bring it to them. It will not come overnight, all of sudden. Unification may take 40 to 50 years as Kim Jong Il said, or even longer, but it will never come unless its process is undertaken. In the meantime, talk of unification by engagement will be conducive to reducing tensions and contribute to a positive atmosphere for improving inter-Korean relations.

[1] American economist Marcus Noland of Institute for International Economics is one of the most frequently quoted sources for the cost of unification, which ranges from $250 billion to $2.5 trillion depending on the scope and the duration of financial investment and expenditures after unification. Marcos Noland, “Some Unpleasant Arithmetic Concerning Unification,” 1996’ Marcos Noland, “The Costs and Benefits of Korean Unification,” 1998.
[2] Many researchers of North Korean affairs became imaginative scriptwriters of scenarios. So many similar scenarios with slightly different angles were produced on the prospect of what might happen in the North.
[3] Feinling Wang, “the Status Quo Reassesses,” KINU Unification Forum 2011
[4] There are numerous pieces on the collapse theory and scenarios, including Paul S. Stares and Joel Wit on “Preparing for Sudden Change in North Korea,” published by the Council on Foreign Relations, January 28, 2009; Michael E. O’Halon on “North Korean Collapse Scenarios”, Brookings, June 2009; and Sico Van der Mear, on “Four Scenarios for North Korea”, published by Strategic Insights, Vol. VII, Issue 5, April 2011.
[5] Lind, Jennifer, “The Collapse of North Korea: Military Missions and Requirements,” a presentation at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, November 30, 2011. She argued the stabilization of North Korea after a collapse might require as many as 400,000 troops, which is a similar number to reinforce the U.S. forces in the event of an outbreak of war in Korea.
[6] There are several versions of the three contrasting modalities of unification. including peaceful absorption through cooperation, coercive absorption through “implosion” or violent unification through “explosion”. In the 1990s “implosion” and “explosion” along with “soft landing” and “hard landing” were the key words discussing North Korea.
[7] “Confederate” or “confederation” as advocated by the North was a misnomer as its content was to allow two local governments under one umbrella – as in federation. Hence, the South refers to the North’s unification formula as a federation formula.
[8] Coghlan, David, “Prospects from Korean Unification”, the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute, April 2008.
[9] Dean Acheson’s National Press Club speech on April 12, January 1950. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff determined in June 1949 that Korea was of “little value” to the U.S. strategic interest.
[10] The writer of this paper interpreted President Bush’s address at the National Assembly. The significance of this first expression of U.S. support for Korean unification was unnoticed by the Korean press in 1992, an American election year. Bush’s statement could have been an opportunity to initiate U.S. policy to support Korean unification, if the South had captured it in earnest. Instead, the press focused on Bush’s reelection campaign on his trade policy to open Korea’s market. Bush brought to Seoul a large group of American business leaders on his visit.
[11] Selig S. Harrison, the Korean Endgame,
[12] This writer attended that meeting, interpreting for the U.S. secretary of state.
[13] Im Dong-won, Peacemaker, the English edition translated by Tong Kim, published by the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, spring 2012, chapters 1 -2
[14] In one of Roh’s meetings with Bush, which this writer interpreted for, Roh told Bush that he was confused about the U.S. position on North Korea, as he was getting conflicting messages from Washington. Bush replied that he was the one who makes decisions for the United States, telling Roh not to listen others speaking about North Korea. There was no doubt that Kim Jong Il was also confused about U.S. policy for the first six years of the Bush administration.
[15] General Walter Sharp, former commander of the U.S. forces in Korea, shared this view with the writer of this paper in an exchange of views at Korea University in April, 2011.
[16] Bader, Jeffrey, Obama and China’s Rise, March 2012.
[17] Tong Kim, the Korea Times, “Romney on North Korea, May 24, 2012
[18] Im Dong-won, Peacemaker, chapters 1 -2
[19] Kim Jong Il’s conversation with Albright in October 2000 in Pyongyang, which the writer of this paper attended. Kim also said the North would welcome the continued U.S. military presence in Korea beyond the point of unification as a balancer to Sino-Japanese rivalry for hegemony.
[20] The New York Times, Oct 27, 2006. This report was published after the release of declassified documents on the CIA’s assessment of North Korea’s collapsibility. The New York Times reported that the CIA’s conclusions were “a reverse echo of an earlier criticism for failing in the 1980s to predict the speed with which the Soviet Union was collapsing.” Some suspected that the United States promised to deliver light water nuclear reactors to the North based on the belief that North Korea would collapse before the delivery of two light water reactors. However, this writer finds no evidence to support such an allegation.
[21] Eberstadt, Nicholas, “Hastening Korean Unification”, March 1997
[22] The Joongang Ilbo, October 11, 2010
[23] The Korea Times, Lankov, November 17, 2010. This writer used to say, “They are all in the same boat, and none of them would try to get off the boat to save his life, betraying his associates, if the boat is sinking.”
[24] These phrases are in the Korean vocabulary and interestingly in the Old Testament of the Bible as well.
[25] Tong Kim, “You Say Okjaerok, I Say Deterrent,” The Washington Post, September 25, 2005.
[26] The New American Bible, Second Book of Kings, pp 351 – 379
[27] North Korean specialists are like “blind men who are trying to assess an elephant>” The Korea Times, ”What’s unknowable about North Korea” by Tong Kim, July 22, 2012.
[28] Each administration of South Korea since President Roh Tae Woo, proposed similar three stage unification formulas, although they had different names, such as “Three Stage Commonwealth of the North and the South,” (Roh Tae-woo), “Three Stage National Community Unification Formula,” (Kim Yong Sam), and “Three Stage Federation Unification Formula through confederation, federation and complete unification” (Kim Dae Jung). The confederation approach was later modified to a three stage approach of reconciliation and cooperation, confederation (de facto unification) and complete de jure unification. The Lee Myung-bak government also presented a three community unification formula in the order of a Peace Community, an Economic Community and a Community of the Nation.
[29] Various combinations of these options were presented by different writers, including Jonathan D. Pollack and Lee Chong Min, “Preparing for Korean Unification Scenarios and Implications” 1999. For the discussion of the pros and cons of these options, see David Coghlan’s “Prospects from Korean Unification,” p. 7.
[30] In Kwan Hwang, “Neutralization: an All-weather Paradigm for Korea Unification”, Asian Affairs, Winter 1999.
[31] Senate Foreign Relations Committee Report on the Far East, 1960.
[32] Kim Dae Jung’s Autobiography, (in Korean) Book I, pp 217 -220. Kim’s opponent Park Chung Hee running for his third term dismissed this proposal as “ridiculous” since it would amount to asking our enemies – China and the Soviet Union – to protect our security. In this period of ideological rivalry between the North and the South, any one who talks about unification was regarded by the South Korean government as a communist or a communist sympathizer.
[33] This research organization held a conference on neutralized unification in Seoul in May 2012.

This address was prepared for the Global Peace Leadership Conference held in Seoul, Korea in 2012, organized by Action for Korea United, a coalition of more than 800 civil society organizations advancing a grass-roots movement for Korean reunification.