What does the future hold for the divided Korean peninsula? How realistic is the prospect of reunification between the prosperous and democratic South and the persistently isolated North? Indeed, how might the end of this ‘frozen’ conflict impact regional and international security? To discuss these and related issues, the Center for Security Studies (CSS) recently hosted an Evening Talk with Dr. Eun-Jeung Lee, who is a Professor of Korean Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, and Nina Belz, who writes on international affairs for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ). While Lee focused on the historical and geopolitical aspects of the conflict between the two Koreas, Belz looked at what their neighbors think about the possibility of Korean reunification.
The weight of history
Professor Lee began her remarks by reminding us that not only does North Korea have no historical experience with democracy, the country’s centuries-old tradition of hereditary rule continues to shape its society and politics. In addition, since the partition of Korea after the end of World War II, state propaganda has succeeded in creating a cult of personality around the country’s rulers. To attack them, in other words, has become tantamount to questioning the legitimacy of the state. For Lee, this means that the old French saying, “the King is dead, long live the King” still applies in North Korea. It captures a political psychology that continues to dominate the country.
Lee also dismissed the notion that the age of North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong-un, undermines his ability to rule. There are many examples in Korean history of elder statesmen and powerful advisors acting as regents for young leaders. In fact, these leaders were sometimes overthrown by their regents, which may help explain why Kim Jong-un took a preemptive hard line against the army’s senior leadership and executed his uncle for treason in 2013.
However, while Lee’s examples suggested that the prospects for regime change in the North (at least from within) remain slim, she also implied that the weight of history could be overcome. Indeed, radical change and political transformation are seldom predictable and often occur where they are least expected – especially if the internal dynamics of a country are poorly understood.
The geopolitical dimension
In geopolitical terms, Professor Lee argued that Pyongyang will insist on developing nuclear weapons as long as it continues to feel threatened by the United States. It requires no sympathy for North Korea’s leaders to acknowledge that these concerns are, to some extent, legitimate. In this respect, the recent experiences of Iraq and Libya (not to mention Ukraine, which gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994) have probably increased their anxieties.
At the same time, the sophistication of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and its second-strike capability are not necessarily high priorities for the regime. What really matters to Pyongyang is that the nuclear program improves its bargaining position on the international stage. The program has, for example, helped distract the international community from the country’s human rights record.
Finally, Lee did not shy away from criticizing large-scale US military exercises with South Korea, describing them as an obstacle to improving the diplomatic environment between North and South. As she sees it, these exercises put additional pressure on China to reassure its long-standing ally in Pyongyang, thereby increasing tensions in an already-troubled region.
Nina Belz began her presentation by reconfirming that North Korea remains a major security concern for those who have participated in the presently moribund six party talks. For instance, while Pyongyang conducted its last nuclear test in 2013, long and short-range missile tests still take place on a regular basis. Moreover, Korea-centered regional security cooperation has regressed in recent years. The last round of six-party talks took place in 2007 and bilateral relations between many of the participating states have since deteriorated. And while the advantages of reunification are still thought to outweigh the drawbacks, Belz stressed that the situation remains highly complex. This became apparent as she reviewed the interests and positions of the key actors in region.
- China, which shares North Korea’s longest border and hosts many North Korean refugees, has the least interest in Korean reunification of any
actor in the region. That’s partly due to Beijing’s privileged access to North Korean markets. However, bilateral relations between the two have deteriorated since 2013, not least because China supported the latest round of UN Sanctions against Pyongyang. The execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek – who encouraged good relations with Beijing – has left China with fewer levers of influence.
- Because of its distance from North Korea, Japan views reunification in a more positive light than China or South Korea. The primary concern of the Abe administration is to retrieve Japanese nationals in North Korean captivity. (In late 2014, Pyongyang indicated that it would be ready to conduct inquiries into the missing persons.) However, Tokyo also worries that Korean reunification could result in an upsurge in anti-Japanese sentiment, especially since the historical animosities between the two countries are far from being resolved.
- After the collapse of the Soviet Union, which had diplomatically supported and supplied weapons to North Korea, Russia committed itself to improving relations with the South. In 2014, however, Moscow shifted its attention back towards the North, due in part to Russia’s increasing isolation on the international stage. Since then, Moscow has cancelled North Korea’s outstanding debt for gas supplies and plans to build a new gas pipeline to South Korea, for which good relations with the North are paramount.
- The peaceful reintegration of the North would be an appealing scenario for the United States. However, in the event of armed conflict or even outright war, Washington would be obligated to intervene militarily on behalf of South Korea and to assume supreme military command in the process.
Finally, the two presenters discussed the impact of reunification on South Korea. With National Assembly elections scheduled for next year, it will be interesting to see whether anti-North Korea rhetoric will again become an effective campaign tool to gain votes among reunification skeptics. In this respect, opinion polls suggest that South Korea’s younger generation is far from convinced that the benefits of reunification outweigh the costs. Looking forward, the prospect of reunification could therefore increase internal tensions inside South Korea.
Ultimately, both presentations emphasized the lingering importance of the two countries’ histories on each other and of the ongoing geopolitical competition around the region. Yet, Korean reunification would also present many medium-term problems. For instance, how would the international community dismantle and dispose of North Korea’s nuclear weapons? Moreover, how would it manage a potential humanitarian and refugee crisis? Indeed, how would stakeholders cover the enormous cost of reunification? These are just some of the issues that Seoul, its neighbors and the wider international community would have to deal with should reunification of the Korean peninsula become a reality.
In addition, even if reunification eased security concerns in the region in the long-term, there’s a distinct possibility that it might accentuate Sino-American tensions. Indeed, for the US and Japan, the crucial question is whether a unified Korea would align itself with the West. Both speakers stressed that this would not necessarily be the case. This, in turn, raises the prospect of a significant irony. In 2014, Xi Jinping announced his support for the peaceful reunification of the two Koreas. Underpinning this declaration are concerns held by China and the Koreas over what they perceive to be Japan’s growing assertiveness. In addition to this, economic ties between Beijing and Seoul remain on an upward trajectory. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, and Seoul depends heavily on the growth of its neighbor as an export market.
Finally, even though public support for the US-South Korea alliance remains high at 93 percent, this figure drops to 66 percent when a reunified Korea is taken into consideration. Even more dramatically, 79 percent of South Koreans think that Seoul should increase security cooperation with China in the event that the United States and Japan enhance their already close defense ties. Such perceptions shed light on one of the core problems of East Asian geopolitics – the memory of World War II and the role it still plays in shaping public perceptions.
Indeed, such perceptions do invite a provocative question – could authoritarian China benefit more from the fall of the ‘last Stalinist regime’ than the liberal-democratic United States? Only time will tell.
Andreas Kaufmann is a Student Editor at the International Relations and Security Network (ISN) at ETH Zürich.
Mattia Balsiger is a Student Editor at the International Relations and Security Network (ISN) at ETH Zürich.