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Do big powers oppose unification?

Korean policy makers should be careful not to assume that the major powers oppose unification.
Apr 10,2017
It seems the unspoken assumption in South Korea is that the big powers have always opposed unification of the peninsula. History books, political discourse and public opinion polls all suggest a predisposition to believe that Korea has always been divided by the big powers and that the big powers would like to keep it that way.

But is that really true?

Governments rarely state their inner thinking on unification in public, but my hundreds of hours of discussions with U.S., Chinese and Japanese officials give me at least a sense of what the real thinking is about unification of the peninsula among the major powers.

In the United States, there are differing views. However, it has been U.S. policy since the Truman administration that the peninsula should eventually be unified under Seoul. No administration has wavered from that principle. Over time, other conditions have been attached to the broad principle of unification under South Korea: that the unified peninsula should be free of nuclear weapons; that the unified peninsula should be free to choose a continued alliance with the United States; and that a unified Korean peninsula should be supported economically and diplomatically by the entire international community.

That said, no U.S. administration has had a strategic plan to force the collapse of North Korea and unification under the South. The Clinton administration assumed after the death of Kim Il Sung in 1994 that the North could soon collapse and began contingency plans with the Kim Young-sam government but never developed one for actively forcing the collapse of the North.

George W. Bush’s National Security Council commissioned a hypothetical memo on how a regime change strategy might work, but the president rejected that notional option in favor of pressure and engagement through six-party talks. The Obama administration abandoned an initial promise of deep engagement with the North and briefly explored possible options for regime change in the wake of Pyongyang’s nuclear test in 2009, but saw too many risks and quickly retreated to the strategy of “strategic patience.” The Trump administration talks about a new approach but has not yet figured out exactly what that would be.

Support for a democratically unified Korean Peninsula enjoys very broad support in the U.S. Congress, but for policy makers, the nature of unification also matters. Outright collapse of the North could lead to dangerous leakage of nuclear weapons or unintended military collisions with China. Others argue that the liberation of the North Korean people and the end of the North Korean nuclear threat would be worth taking those risks.

In short, there is strong bipartisan support for the principle of unification in the United States, and there is ongoing contingency planning with Seoul on how to prepare for sudden instability in the North. But there is still no consensus or concrete U.S. plan for unification. In a way, this is appropriate, since the U.S. view is that the process of unification needs to be led by Seoul.

It was news during the Lee Myung-bak government that Chinese officials expressed support for unification for the first time. However, the precise Chinese words need to be examined. What Beijing favors is “independent unification,” by which officials mean unification chosen by Pyongyang and Seoul “independent” of U.S. influence and then leading to a unified peninsula that is not allied with the United States. From Beijing’s perspective, unification is best put off into the distant future so that China has more time to amass its power, wean South Korea from the U.S. alliance network and impose greater control over Pyongyang.

Of course, there is also deep, if quiet, debate in China about the future of the peninsula. Many Chinese scholars recognize that unification may inevitably lead to a democratic Korea allied with the United States. Some liberal Chinese scholars even hope for this, since it might pressure Beijing to liberalize. Other Chinese experts privately express the hope that unification will happen soon so that Beijing can be rid of the tiresome and dangerous Kim Jong-un regime. But the official line of “independent unification” is essentially a vote against unification before Beijing can exert major influence on the process and outcome. It is also an implicit choice against unification under Seoul. At least for now.

Japan has shifted. Two decades ago, Japanese officials and scholars were a bit wary of unification, fearing that a unified peninsula might somehow turn against Japan. As the North Korean missile and nuclear threats to Japan have risen, a majority of Japanese officials and scholars appear to have decided that the end of the Pyongyang regime is the only way to eliminate that threat and also account for the missing Japanese abducted by the North. The main condition that strategically-minded Japanese experts put forward is that the unified peninsula must remain allied with the United States.

Korean scholars, journalists and policy makers should therefore be careful not to assume that the major powers oppose unification. That was never true of the United States, and to the extent it might have been true of Japan, the winds have changed. Even China’s preference for “independent” unification is being tested by Pyongyang’s escalating provocations.

*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

Michael Green