The Reunification Of Korea
SUBJECT AREA Strategic Issues
Title: The Reunification of Korea
Author: Major R. W. Larsen, United States Marine Corps
Thesis: A study of the potential reunification of Korea
reveals political, military and economic issues of
importance to the region and the world.
Background: In the aftermath of German unification, there
is a general expectation by defense analysts that the time
for a single Korea is near at hand. It is, therefore,
prudent to consider some of the troubling political,
military and economic aspects of reunification. First, the
internal politics of the two Koreans are irreconcilable. In
the end the Northern elite will lose power and some
authority from the South will rule. The issues of concern
are how the power shift is to take place and the way in
which the Korean people will be governed. Second, there
will be no changing the geopolitics of the Peninsula. It
has been a battle ground for two millennia and the national
political interests of the surrounding giants are, and will
remain, dissimilar. Third, the military issue of
significance to the region is not so much the mobilization
of the huge armies as it is the demobilization of the
existing military manpower. Finally, while the economic
potential of a united Korea is imposing, the question of
paying for reunification is a sobering issue of world-wide
relevance. In sum, the broad concern for the Korean
situation is that the inevitable transition does not get out
of control. The risk and unpredictability of the
reunification of Korea warrants the attention of all nations
associated with this part of the world.
THE REUNIFICATION OF KOREA
Thesis Statement. A study of the potential reunification of
Korea reveals political, military and economic issues of
importance to the region and the world.
I. History and Geopolitics
II. Present Situation
III. Political Issues
A. Inside Korea
1. Concepts of Reunification
2. Leadership Accommodation
B. Inter-Regional Concerns
1. Post-Revolution Russia
4. United States
IV. Military Issues
A. Aggregation of Two Koreas
B. Demobilization of Forces
V. Economic Issues
A. Two Dissimilar Systems
B. Aggregation of Two Systems
C. Cost of Reunification
THE REUNIFICATION OF KOREA
The continuing armed confrontation on the Korean
Peninsula does not set well in the New World Order. The
forty-year-old military stand-off along the demilitarized
zone (DMZ) lingers as an awkward leftover from World War II
and an uncomfortable reminder of the Cold War. As the cleft
between the North and South deepens and impedes the
commercial and diplomatic evolution of the region, the
Korean people and the cast of nation players become more
anxious for a solution.
Considerable thought and speculation has taken place
recently regarding the inevitability of a unified Korea,
particularly in the aftermath of German reunification. Some
analysts believe that the strong cultural identity of the
people will soon overshadow the distrust and enmity that
have characterized North-South relations since 1950. Others
suggest that the economic burden of the costly military
confrontation will force more amicable political
policies between the two antagonists. Time, fading
memories, and the expectations of the post-war generation
are also expected to contribute to a Seoul-Pyongyang
rapprochement. As these factors intertwine in regional
politics and economics, the expectation, and perhaps the
reality, of a single Korea becomes more pervasive.
The Korean situation is of global interest. Regardless
of the feasibility of near-term reunification, an analysis
of relevant questions and problems helps to define the
broader condition and is prudent in view of the plausible
outcomes. A study of the potential reunification of Korea
reveals political, military and economic issues of
importance to the region and the world.
The small Korean peninsula has been of interest to its
powerful neighbors for over 2,000 years. It has been the
battleground of the Mongols, Chinese, Japanese, Russians,
and Americans. In the first half of the last century the
peninsula was dominated by the military force and political
power of Japan. Since the end of World War II, the area
generally north of the 38th parallel has been a communist
state and the area south has developed along the Western,
democratic model. The two regions have been in a condition
of civil war since the invasion by the North on June 25,
1950. A truce signed in 1953 ended large scale warfare, but
the two huge armies have remained in a stalemate and have
kept the attention of the world powers for the past forty
years. Only in the last few months has there been an
inkling of progress toward political moderation.
The Korean peninsula is the geopolitical hub of Northeast
Asia. China and the former Soviet Union directly border the
Democratic People's Republic of Korea (D.P.R.K.), and the
Korean Straits separate the Republic of Korea (R.O.K.) from
the Japanese mainland by less than 200 miles. Diplomatic
relations are characterized by a fervent, nationalistic
pride and an overt absence of a common regional identity.
Area economics are, however, becoming increasingly
interwoven by aggressive East Asian and global corporate
entities with no clear-cut national allegiances. The
borders of the region are bristling with military forces and
relations are fraught with suspicion and deep cultural bias.
In view of the size and character of the area population,
and the political, military and economic power surrounding
Korea, the importance of the peninsula becomes apparent.
Though the North and South remain locked in a military
impasse along the 300-mile "trench line", there appears to
be genuine opportunity for a political termination of the
war and potential reunification. To escape the overwhelming
cost of its massive armed force, North Korea has been
increasingly conciliatory in its relations with South Korea,
the United States, and Japan. (4: 618) In the South, a
population weary of heavy-handed government and economic
sacrifice is exercising a new found political voice and
forcing the fledgling democracy into action.
Several significant indicators of improvement in relations
between the two Koreas have recently appeared. In
December 1991, high level delegates agreed to the first non-
aggression accord in 45 years. (2: A1) Two weeks later, in
Panmunjom, a "de-nuclearization" declaration was signed
banning nuclear weapons from the peninsula. (10: A1) Though
experts on both sides are cautious and agree that the
achievements have been largely conceptual, there is now
activity where there was previously none.
The international community, generally more concerned
with stability (and nuclear non-proliferation) than Korean
reunification, has also provided various lubricants to the
deadlock. Both Koreas have been accepted as members of the
United Nations. Improved trade relations between China and
South Korea, the post-Soviet Russia and South Korea, and
Japan and North Korea, all point to more normalized
affiliations. For its part, the United States has verified
the absence of nuclear weapons in South Korea, urged the
South to take a larger portion of the burden for of their
national defense, and has conducted "the highest-level
meeting between (North Korea and the United States) since
the Korean War." (15: A18) Again, substantive changes are
limited, but the aggregate effect of political, military and
economic policy modifications is positive in terms of
regional stability and possible Korean unity.
Since the departure of the Soviets from the North in
1950, there has been a nearly universal desire for national
reunification by the people of both North and South Korea.
To unify or not to unify has never been the question. The
issue is government. Despite the fears over monolithic
world communism," the Korean War was, after all,
nationalistic and largely an attempt to unify the Peninsula
Today the North is interested in new options to what is
becoming an increasingly untenable political position. They
are committed to pursuing broad negotiations centering on
arms limitation and the removal of foreign forces.
Pyongyang's articulated formula for a reunified Korea is
through a North-South confederation based on the principle
of "one state, one nation, two systems, two governments."
(6: 492) This confederation would give equal representation
to both regions without regard to 43 million-to-22 million,
South-to-North population disparity.
Until recently, the North's political solution amounted
to a confederation of the two regions with an indefinite co-
existence of the two political systems. However, their
position has become increasingly conciliatory. They have
relaxed the notion of a clear-cut confederation allowing
that full unification would come with the gradual shift of;
diplomatic and defense authority to the combined national
government. In his 1991 New Year's address, North Korean
leader Kim Il Sung declared, "We are ready to discuss
vesting the autonomous regional governments of the
confederal republic with more rights on a tentative basis
and then increasing the functions of the central government
in the future." (4: 617) South Korea rejects the notion of
co-equal influence and regards it as an opportunity for the
D.P.R.K. to continue its subversive efforts by disarming the
South, removing American troops from the Peninsula, and
opening up the R.O.K. to North Korean influence.
The South Koreans advocate a unification model based on
free elections, with their numerically larger population
expectantly assuring political domination. President Roh
Tae Woo articulated the South's reunification policy in 1989
with his "Korean Commonwealth" plan. (4:616) The plan
envisions a Joint Secretariat and a governing body of an
upper and lower house. The upper house would provide equal
representation of the two states while representation in the
lower house would be based on population.
The South is being very deliberate with the ongoing
negations. President Roh recognizes that the reunification
issue could become a dangerous weapon in the hands of his
political opposition. He has combined a series of cautious
diplomatic gestures toward the North with a somewhat heavy-
handed effort to keep North-South contacts under the strict
control of the government.
Pyongyang has accused Seoul of dragging its feet during
negotiations as a means of stabilizing the status quo that
would keep defense spending high and force the North into
economic collapse. While the North is making limited
concessions, they are not prepared to accept the loss-of-
face implicit with the South's reunification plan along the
lines of the German model. Recently, Kim Yong Nam, Vice
Prime Minister, was interviewed and ruled out "unification
of the political systems of North and South Korea," adding,
"if either side tries to dominate the other side, it will
lead to conflict." (6: 492)
In addition to the dissimilarity of internal political
systems and unification models, leadership accommodation is
an issue critical to the idea of reunification. The
D.P.R.K. has been headed by Kim Il Sung since its creation
in 1948. As president and leader of the Korean Worker's
Party, the 79 year old Kim Il Sung is larger-than-life,
revered, and respected. The "Great Leader" has replaced
Marxism-Leninism with his own ideology of self-reliance,
juche, and has successfully managed to keep his country
intact since World War II.
It would be difficult to alter the politics of North
Korea without appearing to question the basic ideology of
autarchic self-reliance constructed about the personality
Kim Il Sung. It would be equally difficult to envision a
mutually agreeable, peaceful reunification as long as he
remains alive. However, while there is no power struggle in
Pyongyang, there appears to be a policy struggle under way.
The economic realities are increasingly at odds with juche
The elder Kim hopes to hand over political power to his
son, Kim Jong Il. In recent months the junior Kim has been
named supreme commander of the North Korean armed forces and
has assumed direction of his country's foreign policy. Kim
Jong Il does not enjoy the high regard of his people, has
been characterized as irrational, and has long been
associated with North Korean terrorism. Further, there are
concerns about the "dynastic succession" and there are
intimations that the military will likely play a more
assertive political role with the death of the elder Kim.
Personalities aside, the political power in the North
rests in the hands of a leadership elite who have
perpetuated their status based on who they know rather than
merit. They will not be eager to forsake their positions
and lifestyles on the behalf of pan-Korean nationalism. (13)
A segment of the Northern leadership elite that bears
observation is the younger, second echelon military
officers. Many of these leaders were trained abroad and
have seen the world outside North Korea. The grisly demise
of Ceaucescu and the theory of "perestrika' have presumably
not been lost on these men. A Western diplomat recently
remarked, "In the not too distant future we will have a
North Korean military leadership to deal with that will be a
lot easier than dealing with Kim." (5: 41)
In the South, the first free presidential elections were
held in December 1987. Roh was elected president with 30
percent of the vote as the opposition was split three ways.
President Roh's term is finished in 1992 and his efforts to
alter the constitution, which prevent him from serving a
second term, will probably fail as a result of the recent
unexpected defeat of his party in national elections.
Roh shares his political power with hawkish elements tied
closely to defense industries. Defense contractors and a
bloated military elite live with the same fear as their
opposite numbers in the North. Jobs, influence and
lifestyles would be lost in the event of a demilitarized
reunification. This group opposes dramatic changes advanced
by reunification-minded politicians.
The opposition to President Roh is a liberal coalition of
politicians sensitive to public pressure for a shift in
resource allocations from military to social welfare. They
are generally pro-unification and pro-labor, and embrace the
general demand for broader democratization. A growing anti-
Americanism is also developing from a blend of injured pride
and national resentment. As evidenced by recent elections,
this element may be the emerging power and the political
policies of all involved nations may need adjustment.
Despite subtle shifts in respective approaches, the basic
reunification policies of the North and South are at
conceptual and procedural loggerheads. Seoul does not
perceive the advantages of a neutralized and bi-systemic
all-Korean confederation and Pyongyang opposes South Korea's
proposal for incremental unification due to the difference
in population size and the wide economic gap between the two
countries. Further, neither of the reigning power elites
have a great deal to gain and recognize that reunification
risks loss of influence. In both the D.P.R.K. and the
R.O.K. , however, are peripheral groups which could
facilitate and, more importantly, accommodate the change
necessary for the transition to a single Korea.
The politics of Northeast Asia are subject to the
influence of several powerful players: the post-revolution
Russia, Japan, China, and the United States. While regional
stability is the common goal of all the nation players, a
single Korea does not necessarily support the security of
the same interested states. Further, the reunification
process itself may serve to de-stabilize affairs in
The political goal of Russia has traditionally been, and
presumably remains, that the Peninsula not be allowed to
become a hostile base to threaten western Russian. The
objective has been the elimination of foreign forces from
mainland Asia. Before the ensuing Russian revolution, the
Soviet's were divided in a policy struggle regarding a
Korean unification. The traditional military hard-line
Soviets rejected the notion of a German solution in Korea.
They insisted on a policy of a close relationship with the
North to include generous amounts of military aid and
assistance. In their view the West was irrevocably hostile
and that any concessions necessary to facilitate
reunification would weaken the condition of world socialism.
The reformers looked at North Korea as an obstacle to an
emerging Soviet policy for closer ties with the R.O.K. and
their dynamic economy. North Korea was a dead end unless
they could be pressured to abandon their isolation and
negotiate with the South. One Russian analyst predicted
that if Kim Chung Il comes to power he would be overthrown
in a matter of weeks by a combination of the army and the
people. (1: 8) Even as it might detract from world
socialism, they perceived a democratically united, neutral
Korea as a net plus because of the implication of a general
withdrawal of American forces. They also believed that a
strong, stable Korea would serve as a desirable balance to
the regional strength of Japan and China.
There are no direct indications of a post-revolution
Russian political policy regarding Eastern Asia. It seems
apparent, however, that hard-liners are out and "Pyongyang
has lost its friends in court." (1: 21) There is good
reason to expect that the reformers' views probably are a
good representation of future formal policy regarding Korean
There are historical hostilities and growing economic
frictions between Japan and Korea which are the basis of
Japanese attitudes on the prospects of Korean unification.
For the first fifty years of the century Japan occupied and
exploited the Korean Peninsula leaving strong negative
cultural biases and attitudes in the region.
From the Japanese perspective, the Korean Peninsula has
been, and remains, a significant source of regional
instability. Today, concerns over the possible succession
struggle in the North, nuclear proliferation, and the
political reliability of the South are seen as major threats
to the vulnerable, largely economic, power of Japan. The
Japanese believe that the combination of the North and South
would produce a political and economic total greater than
the sum of the two parts. The union of the resource rich
D.P.R.K. and the successfully capitalist R.O.K. would
clearly be less subject to Japanese influence and could be a
formidable rival to Japanese power. Further, Japan is
strongly agreeable to the presence of American forces in
Korea for security reasons and would therefore be unlikely
to support reunification almost necessarily linked to the
withdrawal of American forces.
China is somewhat ambiguous about a Korean reunification
as political and economic realities are forcing cautious
shifts in Bejing's foreign policy. While she has had
historically close ties with North Korea and is formally the
North's only remaining ally, China has deliberately pursued
improved relations with South Korea. Last year trade with
the South approached $4 billion, which exceeded by several
times the amount of trade with the North. Further, China
chose not to stand in the way of United Nations' recognition
of the R.O.K. Presently, China is focused on internal
control -- Tiananmen Square. However, she does have a great
deal of political influence over North Korea and is
certainly interested in any shift of power which might
unsettle Northeast Asia. It seems reasonable that China
would, or perhaps already has, advised the North against
nuclear or conventional saber rattling and encouraged the
D.P.R.K. to get on with controlled reform in the Chinese
China is a key player in the outcome of Korean
unification. For, like Korea, China is also in a delicate
period of transition. She needs to reform her political
system and stake claim to a portion of the success of the
international market economy of the region. However, the
intolerance of the old Sino-centralism is strong. If China
progresses with cautious reform the prognosis for a peaceful
unification of Korea is good. However, the extent to which
reunification can occur will depend to a degree on who is in
power in Beijing.
By any measure, the United States is a regional power in
Northeast Asia. Without American military power, neither
Japan nor South Korea could defend themselves or their
economic interests. The official American East Asia policy
is that regional stability is the primary security objective
and a requirement for the satisfaction of national
interests. This seems well founded since the United States
trades more with Northeast Asia than it does with Europe.
The presence of forward deployed forces in the R.O.K. are
viewed by the Americans, and the South Koreans, as essential
for deterrence. However, the South Koreans also perceive
that the United States interferes with the R.O.K. 's full
exercise of sovereignty, thereby diminishing its dignity.
This growing anti-Americanism merges too conveniently with
the North's demand for the withdrawal of all foreign forces
as a requisite to normalization and the confederation brand
of Korean reunification.
The United States would probably be eager to remove the
costly forward deployed units and facilities, even at the
expense of broader strategic concerns, if evidence is
sufficiently strong to show that the threat of military
force by the North has disappeared. At present the North
Korean forces facing the R.O.K. and American forces across
the DMZ are still formidable and threatening. Additionally,
economic interests and commitments, as well as a lingering
moral guilt regarding the abandonment of previous East Asian
allies, are sufficiently strong to ensure a continued
American resolve in Korea.
Relations between most countries on the Pacific rim are
becoming increasingly relaxed. Tension and insecurity are
being eroded by improved relations among the greater powers:
Russian-American, Chinese-Russian, and Russian-Japanese.
With this backdrop the diplomacy of the larger powers should
be expected to increasingly be able to focus on the Korean
situation and their shared interest in a stable Peninsula.
Regardless of policies toward reunification, China, Russia,
Japan, and America should be expected to encourage
confidence in Pyongyang about the benefits of change and in
joining the Asia-Pacific community.
The Korean peninsula is one of the most militarized areas
in the world. Both Koreas have been governed by military or
military-backed regimes since their inception. Concern over
the military aspect of Korean reunification is a dominant
feature of the entire issue.
Recent estimates place the active duty strength of
Pyongyang's Korean Peoples' Army (KPA) at 1.1 million with
an additional 200,000 troops under the Ministry of Public
Security (North Korea's KGB equivalent) . (3: C3) They are
essentially a land army and place only secondary emphasis on
sea and air power. They have large numbers of tanks,
artillery pieces, rockets, and a formidable chemical
capability. They are forward deployed, committed, and in a
high state of readiness.
In the South there are an estimated 750,000 active duty
troops who are well armed, well led, and proficient in the
applications of combined arms. An arithmetic unification of
the two forces yields the world's third or fourth largest
army. Only China and presumably post-revolution Russia are
larger, and the numerical strength of America's forces are
roughly equivalent. (3: C3) Though a scenario in which the
forces of the two Koreas might combine is difficult to
conceive, the calculation does underscore the scope and
strategic significance of the condition.
The reunification proposals of both parties envision
dramatic reductions in the number of military personnel.
The North sees an immediate cutback as elemental to the
transition process. They claim to have already demobilized
150,000 for road building, canal digging, and other civilian
infrastructure projects. (8: 16) For years the D.P.R.K. has
manned its armed forces at the expense of domestic needs and
supported it with a mammoth proportion of their gross nation
product. They are reported to have a significant civilian
manpower shortage, particularly in large scale mining,
capable of absorbing legions of deactivated soldiers.
The South Koreans are far less anxious to rapidly reduce
the size of their army for several reasons. First, even
with the presence of 36,000 American military personnel, the
South does not approach quantitative parity with the KPA
positioned along the DMZ. Secondly, any withdrawal of
American troops further diminishes the force ratios and
places greater stress on the R.O.K.'s manpower and military
spending. Third, a great deal of political power is
currently in the hands of individuals with ties to South
Korean defense industries and demobilization is not
profitable. Finally, there is no manpower shortage in the
South. Increasing the already high unemployment rates with
deactivated soldiers and displaced defense workers would not
sell well at the polls.
The military demobilization problem is clearly a far
greater challenge to the Koreans in the South than to their
cousins in the North. Though both states are highly
industrialized, the North is believed to be more manpower
intensive in the fields of mining, chemicals, and steel
production, while the South relies somewhat more on
technology. It is also logical that a peaceful, unified
market-oriented Korea would want less metal from the huge
Korean steelworks and more consumer goods and services.
This would further strain the system as labor is forced to
transition from industry to manufacturing and services.
While the creation of an overwhelming, unified Korean
army is not likely, the demobilization issue is distressing.
The scope of the problem is similar to the challenge faced
by the United States and Great Britain after World War II.
Only America succeeded in putting her army back to work by
extending credit and fostering education. Great Britain
lacked the where-with-all to effect full demobilization and
never recovered. A unified Korea must find a sector or a
means to efficiently absorb working men by the hundreds of
thousands or the entire enterprise may be doomed to failure.
The most difficult and tangible concerns over
reunification are found in the economic dimension of the
issue. While there is much to be optimistic about regarding
the potential of a united Peninsula, there are dramatic
economic conversions required and massive "costs of
reunification" (3: C3) anticipated. It is from this
perspective that the often cited analogy of the Germany
reunification and the Korean situation becomes less similar.
The ever-widening gap between the North and South in terms
of national wealth, business productivity, and personal
lifestyles presents questions and concerns which overshadow
the concept of a single Korea.
The DMZ is a demarkation of economics as well as
political ideology. In the isolated, tightly controlled
North, the D.P.R.K. is a fiscal wreck. The sustaining
technology, oil shipments, and assistance from China and the
former Soviet Union have been severely cut, (8: 16) and the
population faces food and energy shortages. The R.O.K.
however, is an open, relatively free market society, with
good national credit, trade surpluses and a significant
international economic presence. Though not yet an affluent
society, the standard of living is well above the Asian
pattern and conspicuously improving. While these realities
are readily acknowledged by the South, they are seen with
understandable apprehension by the high-living leadership
elite in the North.
South Korea's "economic miracle" of the last twenty years
has transformed the nation from a dependant of the United
States to a nation with a multi-billion dollar trade surplus
over its military benefactor. This budding, industrialized
near-democracy, has a gross national product exceeding many
West European nations and has one of the most powerful
economies in the Pacific Littoral. It is an economy in
transition, maturing from labor intensive consumer
industries to high tech electronics and heavy industry, and
is eager to access the raw materials, labor resources, and
markets of a unified Korea.
The North Korean economy has never been considered
healthy, but with the demise of the Soviet Union and the
loss of its trade and aid, the situation is becoming
progressively worse. (11: 75) While China has been a
longtime ally and economic partner, they are becoming less
willing to bolster the North's deteriorating financial
health and are in fact rapidly broadening trading agreements
with the South. The D.P.R.K. is suffering debt problems,
burdened with a heavy defence expenses, and struggling with
declining industrial output. Starved for foreign currency
necessary for oil and technology, the North is turning to
the international sale of arms and drugs.
The North is being forced to look for new alternatives to
what is becoming an untenable economic isolation. A firmly
controlled confederation with some vague notion of gradual
transition to a more market-oriented economy (with less
military spending) is one of their proposals. However, the
leadership must fear that, "Once the North Korean people
have their eyes opened to the outer world, they are likely
to feel strong disillusion and resistance to the regime.
(4: 619) This concern is reason enough to assume that a
comprehensive and bloodless German-style reunification may
not be forthcoming.
The potential international economic impact of a unified
Korea is impressive. While a combined Korean population of
65 million does not compare with China's 1.1 billion, it
would make Korea one of the most populous countries. Korea
would be larger than any European country except the unified
Germany and larger than any African country except Nigeria.
(3: C3) Such a labor pool and consumer market would
certainly have a global economic presence.
Crude estimates for the total economic output of the
Korean peninsula when compared to other countries would rank
a combined Korea as twelfth in the world. (3: C3) While
these estimates are crude and fraught with assumptions, the
magnitude is apparent. In terms of international trade,
where the lingua franca is generally hard, convertible
American dollars, South Korea is already an establish giant,
ranking as the tenth largest importer and the eleventh
largest exporter. (3: C3) While North Korean trade
participation is marginal, the resource and manpower
availability could add appreciably to the international
trade promise of a unified Korea.
The lessons learned from the German reunification,
however, point to some major obstacles which may not bode
well in the Korean scenario. German gross domestic product
fell sharply and unemployment spiked upward. Korea lacks
the internal economic infrastructure to accommodate the
dramatic changes associated with a rapid reunification along
the German model. Given time and unavoidable growing pains,
the shock could be managed. However, those comfortable in
the South, who are already impatient with the speed at which
the government is developing the domestic economy, may not
tolerate an extended depreciation of their lifestyle to the
benefit of their Northern cousins.
The matter of paying for the renovation of the North is
onerous. Estimates of the "cost of reunification" in
Germany exceed $1 trillion. Using similar estimates to the
Korean case suggest staggering amounts of from $250 to $500
billion for the South to assimilate the North. (3: C3)
These costs are grossly beyond the means of a combined
Korea. Without substantial economic help from sources
outside the Peninsula, the thought of a short-term economic
reunification program is out of the question. Making
presumptions about who might be willing and able to help
with the bill takes us back to the relationships with the
major regional nations discussed earlier.
The economic potential for a unified Korea is lucrative,
perhaps irresistible, to the South Koreans. When joined
with the inevitable awakening of the economically deprived
population of the North and the latent nationalistic desire
of all Koreans for a single state, the prescription for
rapprochement may be written. However, in a scenario of
near-term reunification, the risks to the leadership of the
North may be too great and the costs to the South too
Most analysts seem to agree that, despite the problems
and seemingly unresolvable issues, Korean unification is
more a question of "when" than of "whether." The nature of
the will and the cultural character of the Koreans, as
exhibited in the South over the past 40 years, support this
expectation. The world, after Berlin, appears anxious for
more of the same in East Asia. However, even a cursory
review of the situation reveals concerns that beg for
attention at both the regional and global level.
Presently the politics of the North and South are
irreconcilable. Regardless of how reunification transpires,
in the end the Northern elite will lose power and some
authority from within the South will rule. The manner in
which power is wrested from the communists cannot be
predicted. Equally critical will be the way the South
assimilates its cousins after years of hostility and
bitterness. These issues are different from the German
model. Korea is a society where "accommodation is not a
cultural imperative." (13)
Regardless of the path, a united Korea will remain "the
runt of the neighborhood." (3: C3) There is a common, near-
term desire for stability in the region. However, there is
no changing the geographic arrangement of China, Japan, and
post-revolution Russia around the Peninsula, or that the
United States will remain a Pacific power for years to come.
The lobe of Eastern Asia has been coveted by others for two
millennia and human behavior is difficult to alter. The
point being that external political relationships are
critical to reunification and, beyond regional stability,
the interests of the surrounding giants are likely to be
The significant military aspect of reunification is
strangely peaceful. While mighty generals and powerful
armed forces do not just disappear, the forces of the Koreas
are peculiar to the stalemate. They are not viewed by
military analysts as adventuristic nor are they seen as a
threat to neighboring nations. The expectation is that a
reunified Korea would not maintain an armed force nearly as
large as the aggregate of the two states. The issue of
significance here is the reduction in the number of these
forces. The demobilization of two million troops may be
more than the infrastructure of a united Korea could absorb.
The success of the entire unification project could be
threatened by an unmanageable demobilization which could
disrupt both the regional and international trade networks.
Economics are probably the greatest area of international
and Korean concern regarding reunification. To the non-
Korean world the prospects of a nation with the world trade
base and growing industrial might of the R.O.K. combining
with the labor pool, market and resources of the D.P.R.K.
are striking. From another perspective, the question of
paying for the renovation of the North Korea, estimated at
perhaps $500 billion (3: C3) is more than significant to the
South Koreans. President Roh has voiced his understanding
of the issue in a recent declaration that, "Our people do
not want accelerated unification." (4: 621) The size of
"the bill" and the associated risk of internal economic
collapse should interest all trading partners, particularly
Japan and the United States who have a sizeable stake in a
healthy, prosperous Korea.
The Koreans have a descriptive term which characterizes
their cultural philosophy, "Hon." The word translates as
"the bitter acceptance of the future." (9) The idea of
"hon" captures how many in the South knowingly view
reunification. It will come. It will not be easy and there
will probably more to give than there will be to get.
The broad concern for the Korean situation is that the
inevitable transition does not get out of control. The
issues mentioned in this paper depict a situation in
Northeast Asia that is more risky and less predictable than
the recent joining of the two Germanies. The risk and
unpredictability of the reunification of Korea warrants the
attention of all nations associated with this part of the
1. Blank, Stephen J., "Moscow, Seoul, and Soviet Strategy
in the Asia-Pacific Region," 23 November 1991, Strategic Studies
Institute U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.
2. Blumstein, Paul, "Two Koreas Pledge to End Aggression,"
Washington Post, 13 December 1991, p. A1.
3. Eberstadt, Nicholas, and Banister, Judith, "If Korea Tears
Down Its 'Wall' . . .," Washington Post, 5 January 1992, p. C3.
4. Harrison, Selig S., "A Chance for Detente in Korea,
World Policy Journal, Fall 1991, pp. 599-630.
5. Impoco, Jim, "If the Walls Come Tumbling Down," U.S.
News & World Report, 20 August 1990, p. 41.
6. "JDW Interview," Jane's Defence Weekly, 14 September
1991, p. 492.
7. "Kim's Son Moves Up," Washington Post, 26 December 1991,
8. Klintworth, Gary, "Beleaguered, Bewildered, but Looking
for New Options," Asian-Pacific Defence Reporter, August 1990, pp.
9. "Mini-Dragons, Public Broadcasting System, Channel 32,
Washington, D.C., 6 January 1992.
10. Oberdorfer, Don, "N. Korea Seen Closer to A-Bomb,"
Washington Post, 4 January 1992, p. A1.
11. Rosario, Louise do, "Passing the Hat," Far Eastern Economic
Review, 10 October 1991, p. 75.
12. Segal, George, North-East Asia: Common Security or a'
la Carte?," International Affairs, 67:4, 1991, pp. 755-767.
13. Switzer, LTC Warren H. , Telephone interview about Korea.
Washington, D.C., 4 February 1992.
14. Tharp, Mike, "Two Nations Still at War," U.S. News & World
Report, 25 June 1990, p. 46.
15. "U.S., N. Korea Meet at U.N. on Nuclear Issues," Washington
Post, 23 January 1992, p. A18.
16. Wilborn, Thomas L., "How Northeast Asians View Their
Security," 8 August 1991, Strategic Studies Institute U.S. Army War
College, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.
17. Wise, Michael Z., "North Korea Signs Agreement For
Inspection of Nuclear Site," Washington Post, 31 January 1992, p. A15.f
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list