Nor does the ROK have any claim to a continued presence of American troops after reunification. Continuation of the alliance might be in Seoul’s interest, but it certainly is not in America’s interest. Indeed, today the South is capable of providing for its conventional defense. With the U.S. republic essentially bankrupt as it faces an entitlements tsunami, it cannot preserve every existing defense commitment simply because they exist. Of course, even a reunited Korea might feel uncomfortable next to an overwhelming China, but America’s military policy should reflect domestic security, not foreign charity. Moreover, the ROK has options, including building its own nuclear deterrent (perhaps preserving weapons acquired from the North) and working to improve its ties with Japan as well as Russia and India as possible counterweights to the PRC.
Mile by mile and person by person, North Korea is the most destabilizing nation on earth. The small, poor and isolated country is building nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles. Americans who once felt invulnerable are worrying about the possibility of nuclear war.
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While most everyone agrees that something must be done about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, there is no consensus on what to do. Military action could trigger a destructive war, sanctions might do nothing or trigger regime collapse, and negotiations aren’t likely to result in the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearization.
So the present crisis appears insoluble. It’s hard to look into the future when today looks so grim: an unpredictable authoritarian regime bent on becoming a nuclear power and that can be stopped only through the very war which Washington has spent more than sixty-four years deterring on the Korean Peninsula.
Yet even as the present threatens to overwhelm, the DPRK’s neighbors should look to the future. What happens if the Kim regime collapses, the North Korean state implodes, and/or the North disintegrates as a nation?
The common assumption in all these circumstances is that there would be reunification, which in practice means the South would “swallow” the North and the resulting state would simply be an enlarged Republic of Korea. That’s an outcome most South Koreans and Americans—and probably Japanese—desire, though there may be a surprising number of Chinese and Japanese who don’t want to face a united, empowered competitor. For the latter, a divided Korean Peninsula is ideal, even if they would prefer a different kind of regime in the North.
Still, a negotiated reunification would be the best result, with the Korean people North and South deciding without interference how to make a common future. But there is little likelihood of that result. North Korean officials were emphatic about not wanting to be “swallowed,” when I visited the North. And it is hard to imagine the circumstance that could voluntarily bring the totalitarian communist North and democratic capitalist South into anything approaching a unified state. This is a fantasy.
But what if stiffer sanctions, presumably ruthlessly enforced by the People’s Republic of China, led to serious unrest and upheaval in the North. One possibility would be a catastrophic dynastic, regime or national collapse. Reunification might be the ultimate result, but the transition could be ugly, costly and even bloody. Imagine civil war and factional conflict, loose nuclear weapons, economic implosion and mass starvation, and waves of refugees fleeing the North and South.
The ultimate denouement might be equally messy. A South Korean-dominated reunification would not likely be as smooth as Germany’s reunion. Given the vast economic, political and social differences between the two Koreas, reunification in effect would be a “conquest,” warned Andrei Lankov, who has studied in—and written widely about—North Korea. Despite historic and ethnic commonalities, the two peoples have developed differently; even after freed from the Kim dictatorship, North Koreans likely would remain influenced by a lifetime of teaching that southerners were “puppets” of American imperialists.
Observed Lankov: “The fact is that people don’t like being conquered. You should not expect that everybody will be jumping with joy, greeting your troops, your officials, your missionaries with flowers. They are probably more likely to [be] greeted with bullets or, at least, thinly-veiled and enduring hostility.”
Even in the best case, reunification would be a long, complex and expensive process. The cost to the ROK would be huge. The influx of voters from an impoverished socialist land could transform South Korean politics. The South likely would turn inward to focus on knitting together two very different lands.
Moreover, the assumption that Korean reunification is the inevitable outcome ignores China. The People’s Republic of China is simply assumed to be a passive actor, a very large potted plant sitting just north of the Yalu River. However, Beijing would prefer not to see reunification, which could create a stronger, independent, nationalistic state on its border—one which could spur irredentist claims to Chinese territory populated by ethnic Koreans and would still be allied with the United States. Indeed, the possibility of expanded base opportunities, useful for containing the PRC, would complete China’s nightmare. Observed George Mason University graduate student John Dale Grover, “A world without North Korea would be dangerous for Beijing.”