While the popular uprisings in Egypt and the Middle East are unlikely to infect North Korea, they are still a reminder that sudden change is always possible. With this in mind, it’s clear that uncertainties surrounding the transition from Kim Jong-il to his untested son, Kim Jong-un, could precipitate a cascading set of events that ends with swift and unexpected unification.
Rapid unification would almost certainly rule out the soft-landing scenario so devoutly wished for by most South Koreans. That kind of happy reunion would likely require a gradual rapprochement based on increasing economic ties, security confidence-building measures and regular people-to-people contacts. A much more rapid transition would leave no time for such incremental steps, which could come about as part of a long process of confederation.
To be sure, abrupt unification would be intoxicating. Divided in 1945, when the northern and southern Koreas were both desperately poor, the pair would be reuniting with at least one of the two parts having achieved G-20 world-leader status. The streets of Seoul would be filled with euphoric nationalism. In addition, a historical accident would be rectified: namely, the fact that US and Soviet forces ending Japanese occupation in 1945 drew a line across the 38th Parallel as an operational expedient in order to divide responsibility for disarming combatants.
But ecstasy would soon give way to reality. The international community would be left with a stabilization and state-building nightmare bigger than Afghanistan and Iraq and much more dangerous than German reunification 20 years ago. Indeed, if unification were to come about this hastily, the cataclysmic event could well go down in history as one of the biggest missed opportunities of our century.
The problem is that Korea would be unified but not united, and there could well be a resurgence of long-dormant, historical inter-Korean turmoil. Few remember that in the post-1945 aftermath of liberation, deep social fragmentation and political polarization produced an orgy of mayhem and murder. The clandestine political societies that had evolved during Japanese occupation, many of which had been nurtured by outsiders, had free rein to vie for power. When one considers the massive economic disparities that would also be in play because of a South Korean economy more than twenty-fold that of North Korea’s, the technical end of the Korean War could well mark the beginning of another.
Similarly, sudden unification could produce fateful new geostrategic fault lines. Recall that in 1945-1947, US patience and diplomacy were slowly overtaken by a congealing animus and strategic competition that remained frozen in the 40-year-long Cold War. In addition, mistrust and miscalculation could catalyze a Sino-American rivalry that might polarize all of Northeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.
Some scholars have argued that Sino-American competition is anyway inevitable, and that engagement can’t alter that trajectory. But for those of us who believe human agency and effective institutions have something to say about the future, there would be a profound sadness because of the missed chance for great power engagement and cooperation.
China’s leaders should therefore try to better align their interests with South Korean, US and Japanese interests with respect to North Korea’s lethal use of force and nuclear ambitions. This hypothetical scenario, given fresh impetus by the sweeping changes now underway in Egypt, reminds us that it behoves officials to have persistent, in-depth, detailed discussions to plan for a range of contingencies on the Korean Peninsula.
There would be much to plan for in the event of sudden unification. Hard security issues, for instance, would include the disposition of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery; the movement of military troops and major combat platforms like aircraft carriers; the disarmament and reintegration of the 1.1-million Korean People’s Army; and the future location of alliance bases and forces.
Meanwhile, a raft of state-building issues would ensue, with perhaps the biggest being an unrealistic expectation in northern Korea for a massive economic transfer for which the world would have to be ready to help pay for. That would require new infrastructure, including regional energy grids, all in the midst of turmoil over migration, property rights, educational reform and environmental cleanup. Retributive justice could follow and might well spill over into the region. Things certainly wouldn’t go smoothly.
But the upheaval and the potentially devastating long-term consequences of not planning for such a scenario would undoubtedly be worse. Last month in Beijing, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said, ‘We are in strong agreement that in order to reduce the chances of miscommunication, misunderstanding or miscalculation, it is important that our military-to-military ties are solid, consistent and not subject to shifting political winds.’
Egypt is a reminder that those winds could shift much faster than we ever expected.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Center for a New American Security