Best Defense

A CNAS report on Korean unification

The issue of Korean unification has been brought back to the focal point of public debate following South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s reference to unification as a potential economic 'bonanza.'



By Yonho Kim
Best Defense guest columnist

The issue of Korean unification has been brought back to the focal point of public debate following South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s reference to unification as a potential economic “bonanza.” But that characterization does not pay enough attention to a number of risks involved, most notably the likelihood that regional powers will seek to influence the unification process. So in thinking about Korean unification, we need to examine where their interests intersect.

Solving Long Division: The Geopolitical Implications of Korean Unification,” a report recently published by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), offers an unusually penetrating look into the regional security challenges that could loom for a decade or so after Korean unification took place. Among the questions it addresses are:

— shifting relations among the nations in Northeast Asia

— the future of the U.S.-Korean alliance

— the future composition and missions of Korean military forces

— the disposition of nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula

— and the relevance of U.S. nuclear deterrence to the peninsula.

One of the baseline assumptions here is that unification would occur without the use of nuclear weapons. Also, China is assumed to seek major influence on a unified Korea, but not to want to occupy it. Although the middle-ground assumptions are subject to debate, the report takes the risk of being optimistic for the purpose of focusing on geopolitical implications, rather than the pathways to unification.

China is a factor that also weaves through the fabric of the U.S.-Korean alliance. The alliance will face existential questions in the absence of a North Korean threat. China probably would argue the primary rationale for the U.S. nuclear umbrella over Korea had disappeared. The CNAS report contends a transitional alliance, accommodating China’s security concerns about the continued US military presence on the peninsula, might safeguard against a power vacuum in the region. However, it acknowledges that Washington would find it difficult to extend its deterrent to northern Korea without the deployment forces needed for backup.

The report presents compelling reasons that a transitional alliance between a unified Korea and the U.S. would be durable and viable. However, one should not ignore the important role to be played by the Korean domestic politics which would become more dynamic and complicated with the new North Korean constituents. Strengthened nationalism could significantly impact a unified Korea’s attitude toward the alliance and also to other powers. At some point, a U.S.-United Republic of Korea alliance may need to consider a way to accommodate Korea’s desire to play a middle-power role in the framework of Northeast Asian regionalism.

Yonho Kim is Senior Researcher of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and manages projects on ROK-PRC maritime negotiations and the North Korean political economy. He is the author of “Cell Phones in North Korea: Has North Korea Entered the Telecommunications Revolution?” Prior to joining USKI, he was a Senior Reporter for Voice of America’s Korea Service, where he covered the North Korean economy, North Korea’s illicit activities, and economic sanctions against North Korea. He holds a B.A. and M.A. in International Relations from Seoul National University and an M.A. in International Relations and International Economics from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

Photo credit: Mario Micklisch/Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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