Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The final cut

Will Korea Ever Reunite. 3 looks at the answer. (This is a long one)

Scenarios of Reunification
Topic: North Korea

There is some good discussion about possible reunification scenarios between North and South Korea, currently being debated on a couple of high profile blogs that are worth checking out. It began with Lirelou's post on Coming Anarchy and that post was picked up on by Robert over at the Marmot's Hole. I gave my opinion on the topic over at Coming Anarchy that drew some discussion, but I will go ahead and expand on my possible reunification scenario here.

Many people like Lirelou think reunification of the Korean peninsula is likely and will happen fairly soon. I tend to think that the possibility that Korea does not reunify is just as likely as reunification and yet no one plans for a non-reunification scenario despite the possibility. Let me outline my reasoning. First of all Kim Jong Il will not seek reunification despite the Sunshine Policy advocates claims because it is not in his interest to do so. Once the country is reunified the horrors of the NK regime would become public and KJI and the NK elites would lose their heads over it not to mention the loss of wealth and prestige from being the ruling class. So reunification with KJI is not going to happen.

Now when KJI dies from old age which could be 20 years from now and he has a hand over of power to a designated successor this is the time that maybe somebody in the military may make a move though I think unlikely to over throw the regime. I think a just as likely scenario is that NK becomes destabilized due to the financial pressure of the US and internal discontent over the next 10 years and KJI sees an internal collapse coming and instead of going down in flames turns to China to stabilize the country. Chinese peacekeepers come in and set up shop in NK. KJI cannot turn the country over to South Korea because he would lose his head to where if he turned the country over to China he would live to see another day. China would be eager to prevent a humanitarian crisis from spreading across their border and also China would seize the opportunity to dilute the potential regional power, though a long term possibility, of a unified Korea on the Chinese border. Keeping the Koreas separated prevents a possible long term regional rival from developing which a unified Korea once was in ancient Korean Kugoryo times.

China has already made moves to claim the ancient Korean Kugoryo kingdom's history as their own through different UN programs and their own history textbooks. The Kugoryo kingdom covered parts of Manchuria and all of NK. If the Chinese moved into NK they could justify their claim to the land due to the claimed history. It worked before, does Tibet ring a bell?

The South Koreans could do nothing to stop the Chinese because they do not have the military or global diplomatic might to kick them out. The way things are going now, Korea would have no allies to help them in this scenario. The US-ROK alliance could very well be over and definitely highly transformed by this time with a reduced troop presence if any in South Korea. The US would probably not be willing to go to war with China over Korea, especially if there is a bitter divorce between the US and SK which the way things look now is a possibility. The US attitude may very well be towards SK, that you wanted us out and be a regional balancer, well now you got it, deal with it. Another possible ally Japan will be even further estranged from Korea as well. No help from the US and Japan would mean China would have no problems moving into NK and setting up shop. If NK falls to China that would mean that SK would fall firmly into China's sphere of regional hegemony. That is why I see the current anti-Americanism in Korea runs contrary to Korea's long term goal of reunification. If the US-ROK alliance remains strong the Chinese would not entertain the idea of provoking a war with the US over NK thus ensuring reunification with SK some time in the future.

I find it interesting that IMHO the absorption of NK into China is just as likely as the absorption of Taiwan into greater China. Yet no one has done any contingency planning if the NK-China absorption scenario happens. I'm not saying it is a sure thing to happen, but it is at least worth considering the possibility; or is it that no one really cares?


My personal assessment about the chances of long term peace in East Asia are pessimistic. The “pax Americana” is coming to an end, but I do not see an Asian “age of aquarius” on the horizon. Rather, we are seeing a nationalist resurgence in China, Korea, and Japan—the legacy of state indoctrination programs in the two former, and recidivist nationalism in the latter.

The reunification of Korea is inevitable, but it will be a far more painful process than many Koreans expect. Once that pain is felt, who will they blame? The extreme left, which may be discredited when Nork gulags are revealed, will point the finger at the U.S. Right-wing nationalists will look to Japan, as Korea would never have been divided and developed into a modern nation much like Singapore and Taiwan were it not for Japan’s colonialism. That argument is likely to find support among the Korean populace, and will likely whet their appetite for revenge. Add to this the very real possibility that China’s continued economic rise has by that time cut into the Korean GDP (adding to real price of reunification), and you may have a social discontent factor that is presently absent in South Korea.

The North Koreans and Iranians, neither one of which may currently possess the bomb, have in essence pulled out the cork on the nuclear issue. In the early post-reunification phase, U.S. pressure will keep the Koreans from going nuclear. Once U.S. forces leave the Peninsula, which I believe will be within two to three years following reunification, the gloves will be off. Depending upon Japanese assessment of the “Korean threat” at that time, Japan will have to decide on whether to remain under the U.S. “nuclear umbrulla”, which will imply both a continued U.S. troop presence in Japan, and perhaps an increase in U.S. air power capabilities, or whether to begin developing its own nuclear and force projection options to counter those of Korea.

An external factor that must be considered will be the U.S. political scene in the post-reunification period. If the Iraq and Afgan wars are perceived to have been failures, the American public will be less supportive of a continued U.S. troop presence in Asia, particularly if that presence could draw us into a Korean-Japanese conflict. My own suspicion is that the sizeable Korean-American community will prove as formidable at applying political pressure as the Irish-Americans in the Northeast, the Jewish communities of the major cities, and the Cuban-Americans in South Florida, all of which have had their say in American domestic and foreign policy. They have not always obtained what they wanted, but their power is recognized and respected. Korean-Americans have the further advantage of potential ties to the religious right. Thus Japan’s assessment of Korean-American political influence (vis-a-vis Japanese-American political influence) may be another factor that could possibly spur its own nuclear program.

All in all, not a rosy picture for peace in East Asia in the wake of Korean reunification. Of course, I’ve been wrong before. And I hope I’m wrong this time. Unfortunately, I have also been right at times when all the analysts were saying something else. That’s the part that bothers me.


Allow me to add some comments of my own. Let me start off with the question of Korean reunification. I agree the reunification is pretty much inevitable, although I think most Koreans already believe the process will be extraordinarily painful.

My own guess is that when the realities of the gulag state are revealed in a way that can no longer be denied or ignored, the left will be too busy trying to take credit for “subverting” the North Korean state through Sunshine and fending off attacks from the right and the right too busy racking in political capital by blaming the left (especially if, as some suspect, the collapse of North Korea is accompanied by the revelation that more than a few South Korean figures were on Pyongyang’s payroll) for either group to focus primarily on blaming outside powers. And at any rate, the post-unification process is likely to be so painful that it might force Korea to be rather self-absorbed with its own problems for quite some time. The chances of post-unification Korean nationalism taking on a nasty streak, however, could increase dramatically depending on how the collapse of North Korea/reunification process goes down.

In particular, there could be a great deal of resentment if Chinese troops are included in any international peacekeeping force sent to stabilize North Korean territory in the wake of an implosion. As it stands now, it seems the question is not whether or not China will send troops to North Korea for security reasons and/or to gain leverage over the reunification process, but rather how many troops it will send. If the Chinese are perceived to be pursuing an agenda quite apart from Seoul’s, Koreans might start to look for their modern-day Kim Yu-sin.

Apart from the Koreans, Korean re-unification–or at least the process thereof–could lead to tensions between other key actors in the region. This really needs no explanation, and is one of the reasons why the collapse of North Korea must be handled with the utmost care.

As for the long-term prospects of peace in Northeast Asia, I’m a bit more optimistic than Lirelou. I don’t expect any of the major parties to like one another anytime soon, but at the same time, there is much more economic and social linkages and exchanges between Korea, China and Japan than there ever was between the West and the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. Granted, economic and social connectivity didn’t stop World War I, and there certainly are flash-points (Taiwan comes immediately to mind). One must also keep in mind the possibility of conflict as a rising hegemon (in this case, China) begins to challenge an existing one (in this case, the United States).

My own personal fear is that the wheels might come off the Chinese economic development wagon, forcing the Chinese Communist Party to play-up hyper-nationalist in order to redirect social discontent. There are tons of possible scenarios out there, some more likely than others. Ultimately, however, this is the nuclear age, and in the age of the atom, the big boys don’t fight one another. The costs simply outweigh the benefits of victory, especially when the status quo (with or without American troops) seems to be making so much money for everyone involved.

East Asia is inhabited by “big boys” that either have nuclear weapons, are protected by American nuclear weapons and/or can develop nuclear arsenals overnight. Doesn’t leave much room for players to muscle around without blowing up the entire neighborhood. I could conceive of regional powers coming to blows outside the region–for control of oil and gas resources in Central Asia, for example–but I find it difficult to imagine, just to take one example, China threatening Japan’s vital interests in a manner that could prompt Japan (or its American ally) to respond by turning Beijing into a sheet of glass.

I could be wrong, of course. And often am.


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