Dr. Edwin J. Fuelner, Founder of The Heritage Foundation; Chairman of Asian Studies Center

Global Peace Leadership Conference
September 29-30, 2014
Seoul, Republic of Korea
Theme: “Vision, Principles and Values for the Unified Korea”

Reunification of the Korean Peninsula remains a heartfelt objective for the Korean people. While many South Koreans may feel the biggest obstacles to Korean reunification come from North Korea or Korea’s neighbors, an additional impediment actually comes from within the Republic of Korea.

For years, there has been steadily declining South Korean public support for reunification. Belligerent North Korean behavior and resistance to reform, as well as growing South Korean concerns about its own economy, have reduced enthusiasm for reunification.

South Korean attitudes toward reunification vary greatly by generation.

  • The older generation (60+) express a greater affinity to reunite the Koreas, seeing them as two separated halves of a single country. Yet this cohort also is the most distrustful of Pyongyang and the least inclined to offer significant benefits.
  • The “386 generation” – which pressed for South Korean democratization — has a more trusting view of North Korea, even to the point of dismissing evidence of North Korean transgressions and transferring blame for Pyongyang’s actions onto the United States or your own government and leadership here in South Korea.
  • The younger generation (college-age and recent graduates) are the least supportive. They are entrepreneurial and heavily focused on how reunification would impact South Korea’s – and their personal – financial condition. As such, they tend to see North Korea as a separate country and are less inclined to favor reunification due to the expected impact on the South Korean economy and their own personal economic future.

Estimates of the cost of Korean reunification vary greatly and are dependent on the scope, pace, and method of reconstruction. In 2010, the (South Korean) Presidential Council for Future and Vision estimated the cost of Korean reunification would be $2.14 trillion – more than double South Korea’s GDP — if North Korea collapsed suddenly.

President Park Geun-hye’s recent emphasis on reunification – particularly her claims of a reunification “jackpot” — seems directed at reversing the growing domestic apathy or even antipathy toward reunification.

Defining Korean Reunification

Let us be clear about what reunification is. It requires the absorption of North Korea by South Korea – there is nothing that should be saved in the North Korean system. South Koreans should not be expected to give up any of their political and economic rights in order to accommodate any aspect of the North Korean regime.

Indeed, Article 4 of the South Korean constitution declares, “The Republic of Korea seeks reunification and formulates and carries out a policy of peaceful reunification based on the principles of freedom and democracy.” I would also add the principles of free economic markets with everyone having access to participate as well as government respect for the rule of law and for individual human rights.

Reunification should not be a quest to integrate or average the two systems. For example, if North Korea rates a 0 on a human rights scale and South Korea a 10, a reunified Korea shouldn’t strive for a 5 by maintaining half of the North Korean gulags.

The same is true for the reunified Korean political and economic systems – one can’t accommodate remnants of a dictatorship and state-directed economy into the existing South Korean system of freedom and democracy.

North Korea advocates creating “One Korea, two systems” as an interim step. But doing so would retain heinous aspects of the regime while opening Seoul to pressure to lowering its defenses, including by signing a peace treaty or altering its alliance with the United States.

How Would Reunification Occur?

Korean reunification would require, quite simply, either fundamental political and economic reform by North Korea or the collapse of the regime. Unfortunately, Kim Jong-un has clearly demonstrated that he will be as resistant to reform as his predecessors were. As for collapse, the North Korean regime has shown remarkable resilience, despite repeated predictions of imminent demise from domestic and international threats.

North Korea Defies Change. Some experts have speculated that the young Swiss-educated Kim Jong-un would be more open to implementing reform, opening North Korea to the outside world, and moderating its belligerent foreign policy. Yet, no change was forthcoming. Widespread rumors of imminent massive economic reforms died the same death as the 20 previous years of such predictions.

Kim’s New Years Day speeches – seen as authoritative reflections of the regime’s policy in the coming year — show an emphasis on continuing rather than changing policy. There is not even a hint of economic reform. Instead, the text is replete with Soviet-style exhortations of “striving to build a socialist country,” fulfilling production quotas “fixed in the national economic plan,” and improving the economy by advancing “straight forward along the road indicated by the party.”

Frustrated by foreign speculation of reform, Pyongyang even denounced such suggestions as “the height of ignorance. To expect policy change and reform and opening from [North Korea] is nothing but a foolish and silly dream…There cannot be any slightest change in all policies.”

Korea watchers still debate the meaning of Jang Song-taek’s purge and execution. Although Jang was often referred to as a “reformer” by the media, there is scant evidence that he or any hidden faction advocates implementing economic and political reform or moderating North Korea’s threatening behavior.

But Kim was able to make Jang, and his supposed economic reforms, as the scapegoat for the country’s economic problems. Jan was executed in part because of his economic crimes. The military court that sentenced him declared Jang’s “despicable true colors as ‘reformist’ [were] known to the outside world” and his purported reforms were to be used to conduct a coup against Kim Jong-un. Jang’s purge and execution is having a chilling effect on any advocacy for economic reform within North Korea since such reforms are now equated with anti-party, counter-revolutionary threats punishable by death.

North Korea Remains Stable. Some experts perceive a weak, embattled Kim feeling forced to fend off challengers. But, it is more likely that the purge of hundreds of North Korean officials since 2011 shows Kim Jong-un is firmly in control and confident enough to remove even the senior-most strata of officials. Like his father and grandfather, Kim is playing rivals off against each other to eliminate real or perceived challengers.

Thus, while holding the world at bay with military threats, Kim Jong Un wages an internal war by relying on purges to eliminate real or imagined enemies and an extensive gulag system to intimidate the populace.

For decades, Pyongyang has displayed a remarkable ability to withstand domestic and international threats. Regime change in the foreseeable future is unlikely due to the pervasiveness of North Korean security services, the lack of a viable opposition party or movement, and the state’s absolute control over information sources.

South Korea’s Latest Attempt at Engagement

President Park Geun-hye criticized previous administrations for having chosen either an over-reliance on benefits or pressure. She explained that those prior administrations that emphasized “accommodation and inter-Korean solidarity have placed inordinate hope in the idea that if the South provided sustained assistance to the North, the North would abandon its bellicose strategy toward the South. But after years of such attempts, no fundamental change has come.” Similarly, she argues, conservatives that want to pressure Pyongyang “have not been able to influence its behavior in a meaningful way, either.”

She advocated a new policy – trustpolitik – incorporating elements for both that would “assume a tough line against North Korea sometimes and a flexible policy open to negotiations other times.” Park advocates a step-by-step trust-building process with North Korea that was “premised on the underpinnings of unshakeable security.”

Building on a Foundation of Strength. Park emphasizes that South Korea must first have the robust military capacities necessary to deter further North Korean attacks. Building on that capability, South Korea could then pursue parallel inter-Korean and multilateral negotiations. If Pyongyang responded positively, the Koreas could expand engagement to work toward long-term reunification.

President Park emphasized that her trustpolitik policy “is not a conciliation policy. It is based on strong deterrence.” Therefore, “my highest priority will be placed on safeguarding our nation’s sovereignty and national security.” She pledged to deter North Korean provocations by “strengthening comprehensively our military capabilities” and “our deterrence capabilities in order to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile threats” with “a strong South Korea–U.S. alliance.”

Moving Forward with Dialogue. Based on this theory of credible deterrence, Park has offered Pyongyang an incremental trust-building process characterized by conditional benefits and dialogue. If trust can be established—and progress made toward denuclearization—Park has offered to: provide humanitarian assistance to North Korea while promoting mutually beneficial economic, social, and cultural exchanges.

Park promises “to enhance economic cooperation [through] special economic zones and the free movement of goods and people, gain development assistance from institutions such as the World Bank, and attract foreign investment” on the condition that North Korea “relinquish its nuclear weapons and behave peacefully.”

High Hopes But Low Expectations. There is little expectation that another attempt at engagement will be successful, but even a failed effort by Park could be beneficial since it could undermine domestic critics who always seek to blame others for North Korea’s belligerence and refusal to fulfill its commitments.

President Barack Obama’s concerted attempt at engagement in 2009 caused a belated epiphany among many U.S. experts who finally admitted that Pyongyang, rather than American policy, was to blame for the stalemate. This in turn enabled the Obama Administration to impose greater sanctions on Pyongyang than President Bush had been able to achieve. A similar attempt by Park could lead to greater domestic support for implementing more effective efforts against North Korean violations.

Foreign Perceptions of Korean Reunification

Because the South Korean populace doesn’t appear strongly supportive of reunification – and there are few indications of reunification in the foreseeable future — Korea’s neighbors don’t have the issue of reunification forefront on their minds.

Of the neighbors, the United States and China are the most important. Russia is a non-player on the Peninsula. Despite South Korean suspicions of Japan not wanting a reunited Korea to be an economic competitor, my colleagues and I haven’t seen much — if anything — of Japanese commentary on Korean reunification.

China Prefers the Status Quo. China has consistently valued stability– defined as maintenance of the North Korean state– over the inherent unpredictable risks of alternative scenarios, a case of “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” Beijing would still prefer a troublesome North Korean buffer to losing strategic defenses on its border.

Contrary to initial speculation that Chinese President Xi Jingping had adopted a new, tougher policy toward North Korea, Beijing has maintained strong economic engagement and minimal pressure on its troublesome ally.

China sees little benefit to risking North Korean collapse and subsequent reunification with the South. Beijing instead sees several disincentives:

  • Loss of North Korea as a buffer on its border;
  • Loss of influence in northeast Asia;
  • Greater instability in northeast Chinese provinces due to influx of Koreans and the permeating influence of a democratic, free market country on its border;
  • Reduced South Korean investment in northeast China if Seoul focused instead on rebuilding North Korea;
  • Uncertainty of the status of post-reunification Korean alliance with Washington, including possible U.S. troops north of DMZ;
  • Concerns that a reunified Korea would be more threatening to Chinese interests.

How Would China Respond During a Korean Crisis? During the early stages of a North Korean leadership crisis, China would try to contain the situation by prolonging the status quo and opposing any foreign intervention, including through its position (with a veto) on the U.N. Security Council. Beijing would take steps to ameliorate a humanitarian crisis in North Korea in order to reduce the likelihood of refugee flow, preventing any spillover effect into China’s northeast provinces.

Beijing would prefer that any humanitarian assistance be provided to refugees while they remain in North Korea. The Chinese military could establish a control zone, either in China or, potentially, even in North Korea. The latter would provoke strong criticism from the U.S. and South Korea and, counter to Chinese interests, provide a pretext for U.S. and South Korean intervention.

Beijing’s calculation of factors that would precipitate its own intervention remains a mystery. China understands that the North Korean government and populace would not welcome Chinese intervention, given historical animosities. Beijing would therefore have to balance its intervention in order to secure an unstable country on its border with the realization that a Chinese military presence could not be permanent.

However, Beijing would intervene directly if it deemed the situation to be out of control and saw itself forced to restore stability and political order. Beijing might prefer that any Chinese military intervention be done with U.N. authorization, but it is not known whether it would provide troops to a multilateral peacekeeping operation or demand sole authority over a zone of responsibility along its border with North Korea. South Korea would fear the latter option as legitimizing Chinese sovereignty over part of North Korea and hindering eventual Korean reunification.

The United States Remains South Korea’s Protector

U.S. policy has always been to support Korean reunification while protecting ROK interests by insuring Seoul is not pressured or forced into it. Although reunification is a matter to be settled by the Korean people, the U.S. wants to ensure that a reunified Korea is free and democratic.

The United States bears a heavy cost for the continued division of the Korean Peninsula. First of all, of course, the United States paid a considerable cost in blood and treasure to defend the Republic of Korea during 1950-53. The U.S. commitment to defend the ROK against North Korean threats and aggression endures, as does the requirement for maintaining substantial military forces on the Korean Peninsula and in the Pacific.

There is a very real tangible cost to the United States of billions of dollars annually to maintain, equip, train, and provision U.S. military forces in Korea, Japan, Okinawa, and elsewhere in the Pacific. Another tangible cost is that of U.S. missile defense necessary to defend against the increasing North Korean missile threat. Ground-based interceptors (GBI) in Alaska and the West Coast are in response to North Korean and Chinese missile threats.

Beyond these tangible monetary costs, there are several additional intangible costs. The first is the unknown changes that the U.S. could make to its force deployment if Washington were no longer responsible for assisting Seoul in deterring and defending against North Korea’s conventional, missile, BCW, and nuclear threats.

Another intangible cost is the concern – even fear – of having America’s sons and daughters in harm’s way in Korea. The US commitment to South Korea requires placing 28,500 service members directly in the shadow of North Korean aggression, as well as a promise to send many more following the outbreak of hostilities.

Conversely, Korean reunification would provide significant benefits to the United States. Most important would be the achievement of the decades long objective of the bilateral alliance to defend our South Korean ally until it could peacefully resolve the division of the Korean people. A ROK-led reunification, in which democracy and freedom prevailed, would remove the security threat that the North Korean regime poses to the United States and its allies.

How to Support Reunification

What Washington Should Do:

  • Support South Korea taking the lead. Given the failure of its earlier attempts, there is little incentive for the Obama Administration to try to re-engage North Korea. The U.S. should encourage South Korean attempts at engagement. Washington has a high comfort level with President Park, the result of her strong past support for the alliance and principled views toward North Korea. Washington should support both pillars of Park’s policy: conditional outreach combined with strong defenses against the spectrum of North Korean military threats.
  • Resist the siren song to re-engage North Korea. Washington and Seoul repeatedly tried diplomatic overtures, but all were firmly rejected by Pyongyang. The Kim regime vowed never to abandon its nuclear weapons nor return to the Six-Party Talks. Should another envoy be appointed, he would get the same message.
  • Increase pressure on Pyongyang. The time for incremental responses and relying on the U.N. is past. The U.S. should take action against North Korea’s illegal activities; its nuclear and missile programs; and any complicit foreign individual, bank, business, or government agency. Regrettably, there is little inclination in the Obama Administration to take resolute action against North Korea for its repeated violations and provocations. Instead, the Administration appears to be satisfied with minimalist punishment delivered amid bold claims of “exceptional” measures that “significantly expand the scope of sanctions.”
  • Press China to pressure Pyongyang. Beijing should be told that its reticence to join international pressure on North Korea is triggering the crisis that China seeks to avoid. Pyongyang has only been emboldened to ratchet up tensions still further, pushing Washington and its allies to take necessary military steps that Beijing does not want.
  • Fully fund U.S. defense requirements. It is unrealistic to think that the United States can cut defense spending by an additional $1 trillion over the next decade and still maintain its current level of commitment. Shortchanging U.S. defense spending may appear to provide short-term budgetary gains, but such gains will come at an unacceptable risk to America’s armed forces, allies, and national interests in the Asia–Pacific.

What Seoul Should Do

  • Enhance South Korean defenses. Pyongyang’s repeated violations of international law and military attacks undermined previous attempts at engagement. South Korea, in concert with the United States, should take steps to guard against North Korean nuclear, missile, and conventional force attacks.
  • Pursue conditional engagement with North Korea.\Emphasize that the Northern Limit Line is the inter-Korean maritime boundary and that South Korea’s sovereignty will not be abrogated through vague and one-sided “peace zones.”
  • Defer North Korea peace treaty overtures until sufficient progress is achieved on denuclearization. An inviolable precondition for such negotiations would be the inclusion of conventional force reductions and confidence-building measures such as prior notification of major military deployments, movements, and exercises.
  • Denounce North Korea’s human rights abuses, approve North Korean human rights legislation, call on Beijing to abandon repatriating North Korean defectors and allow visits by the U.N. rapporteur on North Korean human rights to investigate refugee conditions in northeast China, and encourage China, Mongolia, and Southeast Asian nations to facilitate travel by North Korean refugees.
  • Expand allied public diplomacy efforts to increase North Korea’s exposure to the outside world and induce transformation of the regime, as took place in Communist Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Expand broadcasting services and distribution of leaflets, DVDs, computer flash drives, documentaries, and movies into North Korea through both overt and covert means.
  • Provide humanitarian aid. The level of emergency food aid should be determined by international aid organization assessment of North Korean needs based on in-country inspections. Aid should be delivered directly to needy recipients rather than to the North Korean government and subject to rigorous monitoring requirements.
  • The scope of donations should be influenced by North Korean provocative acts and threats and should be conditioned on reciprocity on progress in issues of importance to Seoul, such as North Korea’s retention of 500 POWs and 500 post-war abductees and the expanded scope and pace of separated family reunions.
  • Provide developmental assistance. Assistance should be subject to standard requirements of international financial institutions. Initial contributions should be project-based, and any extensive, long-term assistance should be tied to North Korean economic reform and increasing transparency. Undertake only economically viable, rather than politically motivated, projects.

Conclusion

South Korea should reach out to North Korea through both bilateral and multilateral negotiations, but Seoul must not acquiesce to North Korean pressure tactics. Being excessively eager to compromise, as demonstrated by previous progressive administrations, not only rewards abhorrent behavior, but also undermines negotiating leverage.

President Park Geun-hye has provided a realistic blueprint for engaging North Korea. In following these policies, Seoul should be resolute in its requirements of conditionality, reciprocity, and transparency from Pyongyang.

South Korea’s outreach should be grounded in both strong national defenses and firm support from the United States. There should be no doubt in the minds of America’s allies and opponents that the United States will fulfill its treaty obligations to our close friend and ally, the Republic of Korea.

The United States and South Korea should have no illusions about Kim Jong-un. The North Korean threat — always high — has gotten worse under the young leader. He is just as dangerous as his father — and less predictable.

North Korea now seems like a runaway train careening down the tracks with a volatile, unpredictable engineer pushing firmly forward on the throttle. What awaits around the corner is unknown. The North Korean train could slow down due to numerous factors, or it could derail, causing enormous damage to itself and its surroundings. There can be debate as to how to best respond to the situation. But there should be no debate as to how dangerous the situation could become.


This address was prepared for the Global Peace Leadership Conference held in Seoul, Korea in 2014, organized by Action for Korea United, a coalition of more than 800 civil society organizations advancing a grass-roots movement for Korean reunification.

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