Why Korean Unification Should Be on the Agenda Now

While Washington is fixated on denuclearizing North Korea, Seoul and Pyongyang have a bigger plan in mind: reunifying the peninsula after nearly seventy-five years apart. Though their visions of unification differ greatly, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un agreed in Panmunjom in April 2018 that their ultimate goal is that “South and North Korea will reconnect the blood relations of the people and bring forward the future of co-prosperity and unification.”

The prospect of denuclearization would open the door to the lifting of sanctions. This could foster humanitarian and development assistance, economic integration, and further interpersonal contact—the building blocks of a peacefully unified peninsula. Even if nuclear talks remain at an impasse, it is important that policymakers begin thinking ahead proactively about what exactly peace on the Korean Peninsula will look like.

Establishing true peace is not as simple as denuclearization and a peace treaty replacing the Korean Armistice Agreement. Unification is one vision of how to create this peace, but it will likely take decades to address the governance and economic challenges facing the peninsula’s inhabitants. Moreover, the two countries have vastly different visions of where integration would lead.

Assuming that South Korea leads on unification, it could significantly improve the quality of life for millions of people suffering in North Korea. But even with the best of intentions and under the best of circumstances, unifying the two Koreas would create the world’s most unequal society overnight. Whether unification were to occur peacefully, if the North Korean state were to collapse, or through conflict, the fact remains that North Korea is a fragile state, while South Korea is a strong democracy with a thriving economy.

Kathryn Botto
Kathryn Botto was a senior research analyst in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research focuses on Asian security issues, with particular emphasis on the Korean Peninsula and U.S. defense policy towards East Asia.
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These political, social, and economic rifts are not worthy of attention for purely humanitarian reasons. Given North Korea’s fragility, if unification were not handled carefully, it could economically, socially, and politically destabilize the peninsula. Failing to integrate 25 million North Koreans into a free and democratic system would leave the Korean Peninsula vulnerable to crisis.

And that is if the process is peaceful—with the added potential for physical violence in the event of regime collapse in Pyongyang or conflict, things would be far messier. No matter how it unfolds, progress toward unification will be a multilayered process, not a discrete event.

This process might seem distant now, but it is in Washington’s best interest to plan exactly how it will support Seoul’s unification plans early on. Preventing instability in South Korea is essential to protecting a strong democracy and free-market economy in the Indo-Pacific, especially as Chinese regional influence grows. A destabilizing event could also be economically damaging, given how interlinked the U.S. and South Korean markets are. The Economist Intelligence Unit predicted in 2018 that conflict on the Korean Peninsula would reduce U.S. real gross domestic product (GDP) growth to 1 percent.

A Stabilization To-Do List

Much as Seoul and Pyongyang might wish otherwise, unification will not occur in a foreign policy vacuum. To support South Korean stability, the United States and other international partners should think about the process of unification in terms of stabilization. The U.S. government’s 2018 Stabilization Assistance Review (SAR) describes stabilization as “an integrated civilian-military process to create conditions where locally legitimate authorities and systems can peaceably manage conflict and prevent a resurgence of violence.” The SAR draws from the United States’ positive and negative stabilization experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Somalia to provide a vision of how to improve stabilization assistance.

The SAR focuses on conflict zones, but its recommendations can apply to any fragile environment. However, in a peaceful scenario, most stability actions would require different methods of implementation and magnitude of efforts. Although this stabilization rubric is a U.S. government concept, the basic goals and tasks are equivalent to those in UN peacekeeping operations and general principles for building stable, well-governed, inclusive societies. The SAR is a U.S. government document, which uses a U.S. lexicon. But South Korea will need to employ the same principles that the SAR outlines to stabilize the peninsula and lay the groundwork for integrating the two Koreas, and can use its framework to carry out similar operations.

The process of stabilization involves five lines of effort: establishing civil security (physically protecting people from internal and external threats), restoring essential services, establishing rule of law and civil authority, supporting governance (in democratic institutions), and supporting economic development. Actions in each category occur simultaneously, but the sequence of each task, and the amount of effort required to accomplish them, may differ. This broadly applicable framework is a practical way to prepare for unification, instead of trying to predict in vain precisely how events might unfold. Rather than a sequence of events, practitioners should focus on what actions will need to be taken in response to ensure the local population’s safety.

A Korean-Led and U.S.-Supported Endeavor

While South Korea will likely need the United States’ support, Washington should tread carefully. Like nearly all inter-Korean agreements, the Panmunjom Declaration says that the unification process should be “led by Koreans.” Korea’s history of colonization by Japan and division by foreign powers has understandably made South Korea cautious about foreign involvement in unification.

However, while South Korea should certainly lead the process, foreign actors will affect unification. These other actors will have their own respective interests in terms of maintaining influence, benefiting from new economic conditions, and ensuring that uncertainty on the peninsula does not affect their own security. The impact of these outside actors could be positive or negative, depending on how their roles are handled. South Korea should discuss preemptively with other countries how they could be supportive, beyond the initial negotiations and into the long-term process of integration.

One specific example is how Seoul and its partners would divide the responsibilities of establishing civil security. Because South Korea is a non-nuclear weapon state according to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, it is prohibited from accessing information and materials related to nuclear weapons. Thus, it will require the support of a nuclear weapons state to secure and dismantle weaponized aspects of North Korea’s nuclear program. Although South Korea can deal with non-weapons-related aspects of the nuclear program, the weapons-related aspects are likely intermingled with the rest of the nuclear program, making it hard to differentiate them. If violence broke out, discerning weapons-related aspects would likely be even more difficult. South Korea could lead the dismantlement of chemical and biological weapons, but needs a detailed plan with its international partners for how to divide responsibility for the nuclear program.

Similarly, every aspect of unification will require a division of labor, as the magnitude of this task will require substantial international support, both public and private. Even in peaceful scenarios, unification cost estimates can easily reach 1 trillion dollars. South Korea’s GDP is roughly $1.5 trillion and could be far less in the event of destructive conflict. If South Korea wants to ensure foreign powers do not usurp control of the unification process, it would be well served to determine in advance what their roles will be.

Lessons Learned From Past Stabilization Efforts

To see how stabilization might play out, it is useful to look at other formerly divided or otherwise fragile states that have faced similar challenges. As one of the United States’ largest recent stabilization efforts, Iraq is a noteworthy example that enjoyed some successes but also critical failures. Most notably, the de-Baathification of the new Iraqi government after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled in 2003 was a huge miscalculation. The Baath Party was so omnipresent and integral to Iraqi institutions that purging its members led to a breakdown of said intuitions, which contributed to the insurgency and the country’s continued fragility.

There is a risk that such a misstep could recur in Korean unification. North Korean elites have been complicit in the regime’s brutality, and many North and South Koreans will call for their removal. Yet failing to vet and include these people in a unified Korea could have damaging consequences.

This is particularly important in terms of the professionals who work on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. They will pose a proliferation risk if they are not otherwise reassured of their futures. Such individuals and other elites would need to be vetted, and those responsible for brutality tried for crimes against humanity, akin to the process implemented in the Nuremberg trials. But others – who were unavoidably caught up in state institutions – should be allowed to participate in political parties and recruited to suitable jobs. Scientists who have worked on the country’s weapons programs will have lucrative skills that other nations would find attractive, so making sure their futures in Korea are secured would be imperative. The biggest obstacle to inclusion would likely be the Korean public, who would probably oppose the inclusion of former North Korean elites in politics and society. However, given the potentially destabilizing impact of not integrating them, this option is certainly the lesser of two evils.

As daunting as it seems, inclusivity tends to beget stability. All citizens need to be confident that the state’s influence on their lives is not arbitrary or extractive, and that the government’s actions are based on a legitimate, fair set of norms that are applied equally to everyone. Yet inclusive institutions also redistribute power and wealth. Those who have benefited from the Kim regime will not take kindly to such arrangements.

Even in Germany, the leading example of successful reunification efforts, an east-west divide still undermines the country’s political unity. The far-right populist party known as Alternative for Germany has surged in popularity in recent years primarily in parts of former East Germany, gaining seats in parliament and, in some polls, surpassing the center-left Social Democratic Party in popularity. Most policymakers and business leaders still come from what used to be West Germany. Nearly thirty years after reunification, economic disparities have greatly improved. The former East lags West in GDP by around 27 percent, far less than disparities between many U.S. states. Yet as recently as 2017, the east German unemployment rate stood at 8.5 percent compared to a west German rate of 5.6 percent, and average income still stands at around 15 percent of former-West Germany. This economic and political imbalance has led to a perception that former East Germans have less control over the direction of their country.

Predictably, some differences remain between former East and West Germany after only a generation of separation. After nearly seventy-five years apart, the South-North Korean divide will take even longer to bridge. According to a 2018 report, North Korea’s miniscule GDP per capita rests at between 2 and 6.7 percent of the South Korean figure. In a unified Korea, this gaping inequality could easily create exclusionary political and economic institutions that could entrench divisions, cause civil unrest, disenfranchise North Koreans, or even embolden a far-right party.

The North Korean state has divided society geographically, occupationally, and educationally into distinctive state-assigned sociopolitical classes called songbun. If unification took place, it would be difficult to restore essential services and share resources fairly with the lowest songbun—the poorest residents of North Korea, many of whom live in rural areas that are hardly accessible by road and therefore logistically difficult for humanitarian assistance to reach. But it is imperative to care for this population. Perceptions of favoritism could lead to questions of a united government’s evenhandedness and legitimacy, or even pave the way for civil unrest.

South Korea’s current plan to develop North Korea relies heavily on investment from behemoth family-run conglomerates called chaebol, such as Samsung or Hyundai. While chaebol have been integral to South Korea’s miraculous post–Korean War economic development, their investment in North Korea also would have the potential to be extractive. It could further concentrate wealth in South Korean conglomerates. Beyond South Korea, other nations would almost certainly find North Korea’s young, inexpensive labor force attractive. There is also a risk that future investors would shut down North Korean factories and enterprises, due to their lack of adequate machinery, technology, and state of disrepair. This happened after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and still contributes to disparate growth and labor shortages in the east of Germany, as millions of Germans migrated westward for better job opportunities.

This means a unified Korean government would have to work hard to protect North Koreans from predatory investment, and to build on the entrepreneurial dexterity seen in North Korea’s growing domestic markets. Despite the perception of North Korea as a strictly command economy, private markets have become a necessary means of survival. Their uncontrollable proliferation even has led the North Korean state to tacitly allow their operation since 2003. Helping participants in these markets to thrive will be an important means of creating wealth, creating jobs, and preventing a labor shortage in North Korea as a result of southward migration.

Korean Unification Will Require Careful, Early Planning

The international community must ask itself: what does a peace after denuclearization look like? Right now, the prospect of unification seems far off. But North Korea is seeking sanctions relief that, should conditions of denuclearization be met, could be a small step toward economic integration. While the United States remains laser-focused on denuclearization, the Moon government has stressed diverse inter-Korean projects intended to promote peaceful coexistence. Both Seoul and Pyongyang say that unification is what they ultimately want. This makes it critical that South Korea develop a framework to handle destabilizing events with international partners in advance. Otherwise, events could develop too quickly in the moment for any ad hoc planning to be effective.