Why reunification of the Koreas is unlikely

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Korean unification as pie in the sky? Photo: KCNA via Reuters

Every so often, someone resurfaces the belief that the North Korean regime will soon collapse and reunification of the Korean Peninsular will follow.

In considering this idea of reunification, it helps to look at what conditions are likely necessary for a divided country to be made whole again.

This was a question taken up by Abraham Kim, director of the Mansfield Center on modern Asian affairs, in an unpublished 2008 doctoral dissertation.

He argues that four conditions must exist for divided states to reunify: (1) political and economic engagement, (2) at least one state in crisis, (3) a power-sharing arrangement, and (4) a third-party to safeguard the process.

So how does the North and South Korea unification process measure up to those specified conditions?

Political/Economic engagement

Many commentators have said the path to resolving the North Korean problem lies in economic and political engagement.

There has been little political engagement of note recently with the North, though the current South Korean administration of President Moon Jae-in was elected in part because of its liberal political stance toward Pyongyang.

On the economic front, Moon’s consideration to reopen the Kaesong Industrial Complex – developed in North Korea with South Korean investment– and engage in other commercial activities with Pyongyang is premature.

Economic assistance to a country like North Korea helps it delay – or even avoid – the need to consider reunification.

Any economic engagement with the North provides funds for whatever purposes the regime currently favors. These days, they are Kim Jong Un’s thermonuclear bomb and intercontinental ballistic missile programs. Given the current political climate, such engagement with Pyongyang is simply not warranted.

Existential crisis

There is no likelihood of a civilian uprising in North Korea.

Despite the suffering and difficulties that average North Korean citizens endure, the regime itself is safe and stable and by nearly all accounts has a firm grasp on power.

While Kim Jong Un may indeed feel threatened by the United States, North Korea is not in any existential crisis.

With no rebellion in the streets or on the horizon, there is no motivation for Pyongyang to consider reunification under the terms that the South would likely propose.

Power sharing

Even if North Korea were to seek rapprochement, it’s clear it would demand from South Korea a form of power-sharing that would assure its continued survival at something close to its present status.

North Korea is under a dictatorship and dictators do not willingly relinquish power.

This suggests concessions would have to be made by the South that would compromise its liberal democratic form of government. But more to the point, there are no plans being developed, at least not publicly, for any federation between Seoul and Pyongyang.

With regard to a power-sharing agreement with Seoul, North Korea’s founding dictator Kim Il Sung told a Bulgarian official in 1973: “If they listen to us and a confederation is established, South Korea will be done with.”

While the economic and political landscapes have evolved considerably since then, getting into bed with the current regime in Pyongyang would still be the beginning of the end for Seoul.

Third-party enforcer

In order for reunification to proceed smoothly, a third-party guarantor is required, one that would ensure that the two reunifying states merge without interference from outside states.

In addition to facilitating the effort, such an enforcer would help protect the states from the political and economic disruptions that would accompany reunification.

Given the relations between and among the other countries in Northeast Asia, this presents a great difficulty.

What country is capable of facilitating any reunification agreement and would be trusted by the others in the region to act in the best interests of only Seoul and Pyongyang?

Certainly not China, which prefers even an obstreperous North Korea on its border to a reunified Korea that would bring democracy and a liberal polity to its doorstep.

Japan would not have the trust of either Pyongyang or Seoul due to its brutish occupation of the Korean Peninsula during the first half of the twentieth century.

Russia might come closest to fulfilling that role, but Moscow has its own agenda that would be challenged by Washington – and perhaps Beijing as well.

As for the United States, it is likely that only Japan and South Korea would place their faith in it serving in that capacity.

Hence, it’s clear that conditions conducive to reunification of North and South Korea as identified by Abraham Kim at the Mansfield Center do not exist nor do they seem likely in the foreseeable future.

Absent significant changes in the attitudes of Northeast Asian nations, the lack of regional consensus would prevent any such process from starting, let alone achieving success.

While it is necessary to plan for momentous events, even though they might be of low probability, peaceful reunification of the Koreas in the coming years is not realistic.

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