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1 The Birth of a Unified Korea HIDESHI TAKESADA Professor National Institute for Defense Studies The inter-korean summit meeting in June 2000 began a new series of dialogue and exchange on the Korean peninsula. Many obstacles remain and more time is needed before the two Koreas are unified, but we should note that both sides have taken a great step toward unification. Now we have to ask what path the two Koreas could take toward unification, what form that unification could take, and how neighboring countries, including the United States, China, Russia, and Japan, would react to the unification process and the unified Korea. This paper attempts to answer these questions with special attention to the issue of the continued U.S. military presence on the peninsula and also to the strategic implications of Korean unification for Japan. The First-Ever Inter-Korean Summit Meeting: A Great Step Toward Unification The end of the World War II in 1945 divided the Korean peninsula, and the 1950 Korean War solidified the division. Since then, reunification has been a dream for the Korean people and a problem for the neighboring countries. However, the history of the North-South dialogue is not a long one. After the confrontation between the two Koreas during the 1950s, the Republic of Korea (ROK) Pak Jong Hee administration adopted the policy of nation-building first, unification later in the 1960s. Democratic People s Republic (DPRK) leader Kim Il Winter/Spring 2001 Volume VIII, Issue 1 91

2 Hideshi Takesada Sung, on the other hand, called for unification first, but no dialogue between the two sides took place until Both sides saw unification as important, but its place differed in their priority lists. Thus, dialogue and exchange did not progress. However, there are other reasons for the continued division of the peninsula. Comparing the Korean case to the German case would be useful to understanding these reasons. Most notably, and unlike the German case, the Korean people actually went to war with each other. Second, in the German case, it was the capitalist West Germany that was more enthusiastic about unification, while East Germany did not see unification as its first priority. The failure of the East to remain economically competitive with the West facilitated the unification. In the Korean case, the capitalist South has not urged early unification, although it has given priority to solving disagreements with the Communist North, but instead has won the economic competition with the North. It is the North that is more eager for unification. Third, when the Soviet Union collapsed, there was no country in Eastern Europe to act as a patron to impoverished socialist countries. In Northeast Asia, on the other hand, China took the role of North Korea s patron state. Throughout the 1990s, China helped the DPRK both politically and economically, and as a result, the DPRK never became a second East Germany. There was dialogue and exchange between the North and the Sough from the 1980s to the 1990s, but the inter-korean summit meeting in June 2000 was the first attempt at unification. At the summit meeting, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Il signed a joint statement. In the statement, Kim Dae Jung was formally referred to as President, the Republic of Korea and Kim Jong Il was also formally referred to as Chairman, Defense Committee, Democratic People s Korea. The Inter-Korean Joint Declaration says, The North and the South have decided to cooperatively and autonomously solve the unification issue. 1 Thus, the two Koreas decided to take a new step toward unification. After the summit meeting, a series of dialogue has proceeded, including defense ministerial meetings and separated family reunions. In the ROK, more and more people began to have positive feelings toward the DPRK. There even occurred a view in the ROK that Kim Jong Il should be the first president of the unified Korea. 2 This indicates a fundamental difference from the 1972 inter-korean dialogue and the 1991 dialogue. The dialogue before the June summit meeting was based on the premise that the North was the threat, but the post-summit process has progressed as that threat perception declines. Furthermore, the Kim Dae Jung administration s Sunshine Policy has helped the North economically. The policy is predicated upon the assumption that the hungry and economically weak North would not seek a military confrontation with the South, if guaranteed the security of its regime. 3 Thus, the South s view of the North has changed. Both sides have begun to realize that the same Korean people can thus understand each other. A high- 92 The Brown Journal of World Affairs

3 ranking ROK official said, The DPRK understands the ROK better than the United States understands us. This is because we are the same Korean people. 4 The continuation of the ongoing inter-korean dialogue process would lead a loose federal form of unified Korea. However, the road to reconciliation between the North and the South is not an easy one. The inter-korean dialogue and U.S.-DPRK talks seem to have slowed down since early The North s emphasis on the withdrawal of the U.S. forces from the South seems to be the North s signal that the South should put the same Korean people first rather than its ally. This indicates that the North s basic stance has not yet changed, while the South s perception of the North has changed significantly. 5 The international community s image of the Korean peninsula has also improved. Although the DPRK stresses the Korean people s autonomous resolution of the unification issue, the regime has established diplomatic relations with European countries and also participated in the ASEAN Regional Forum. The South, while still holding a deterrent, has undertaken a policy based on the inter- Korean Joint Declaration, which emphasizes the Korean people. Over time, if the ROK continued the sunshine policy, promoted investments in the DPRK in collaboration with the DPRK, if the DPRK improved its foreign relations, and if neighboring countries did not disturb these processes, the two sides will eventually be unified into a loose-knit federation. The Process Toward Unification There are three processes toward Korean unification. The first scenario is the one similar to the German unification process. Just as the East was absorbed into the West, the socialist North could be swallowed by the South. In this case, the side that has won the economic competition absorbs the other. A second scenario could begin with internal unrest in the DPRK. Such a situation could be a domestic uproar or a confrontation within the leadership involving the use of force. This scenario is similar to the collapse of the Ceausescu administration in Romania. The third scenario is a peaceful one. In this scenario, neither side jumps to decide which regime is more desirable, but each pays the other respect, as they accumulate dialogues and exchanges over time. As a result, both regimes would converge upon union. The unified regime in this case would be some kind of combination of the two regimes. The current process after the inter-korean summit meeting in June 2000 seems to be following this scenario. However, it is still unclear how the South s liberal democracy and the North s Juche regime can be combined to generate a unified Korea. It is also unclear how the first president of such a unified regime can be elected. We cannot yet draw a clear picture of the final form of the unified Korea from the ongoing process. The Winter/Spring 2001 Volume VIII, Issue 1 93

4 Hideshi Takesada regime s form will be the largest issue in the future inter-korean dialogue and reconciliation. The third scenario could also shift its course to the first or second process. Thus, the three processes could blend in a complex way. Three important factors will affect these processes. They are Korean nationalism, China s intent, and U.S. will. As for Korean nationalism, we should ask how firmly the North will stick to the term autonomous and how much the South will stick to the phrase the same Korean people. If the unification process continues with a strong sense of Korean nationalism, U.S. influence over unification will be lowered. Another factor is China s involvement with the unification process. To China, the Korean peninsula is geopolitically vital, and China wants to avoid any rapid shift in the status quo there. The immediate unification of the peninsula in the South s favor would bring foreign military pressure closer to the Yalu River. China also thinks that it should be number one in Northeast Asia. China s policy underwent a slight change once it recognized that the United States is the only superpower in the world. China wants to take the role of the patron of Korea. China and the North are not only neighbors but also tied to each other by the Friendship and Cooperation Treaty. In China, there are more than 240,000 ethnic Koreans. To Beijing, supporting the pro-china North is in its security interest. Until the late 1990s, China did not oppose the U.S. military presence on the peninsula. As long as there was a strong possibility of the North s collapse, the U.S. presence was a necessary evil to China. However, since 1998, the DPRK has recovered from the nadir of its economic problems, and the possibility of the North s collapse has lowered. Thus, the U.S. forces in the ROK have become unnecessary to China, and China has begun to question the rationale for the continued U.S. military presence on the peninsula. China has recently been more and more critical about the continued U.S. military presence in the ROK. China also criticizes the U.S. missile-defense initiative and is increasing defense exchanges with the DPRK. China also supports the DPRK s case for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula. 6 Thus, China wants a peaceful unification of the peninsula and wants to secure the peninsula from overseas influence. Given the history of China s relations with the peninsula and the peninsula s strategic importance to China, China is convinced that a unified Korea would lean toward China. China also judged that the inter- Korean dialogue should proceed without being influenced by the United States. China s policy toward the peninsula has changed as the North survived and as both the North and the South began to emphasize autonomy. China s support for the rhetoric of autonomous and peaceful unification suggests that China is now trying to avoid and exclude other foreign influences. 94 The Brown Journal of World Affairs

5 The third factor is the U.S. approach to the unification process. The United States took the initiative in efforts to solve the DPRK issue throughout the 1990s. Among these efforts, the most important one was nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). When the United States found it hard to make progress in solving the issue, U.S. policymakers became concerned that the issue could undermine the American alliances with Japan and the ROK. Like China, the United States has maintained its engagement with the peninsula. During the Clinton administration, the Perry process aimed to manage Pyongyang s suspected nuclear and missile development through engagement. The Perry process also reflected the U.S. view that a stable Korean peninsula requires continued U.S. presence. As for the unification issue, the United States maintains that both the North and the South should take the initiative. Washington has not been clear on what form unification should take. However, if China s influence on the peninsula and China s role in the unification process grow over time, the United States would also increase its involvement with the process. If the two Koreas stressed an autonomous unification more strongly and if the unified Korea leaned to China, the United States could lose its interest in engaging the peninsula. This possibility indicates that the United States might withdraw its forces from the peninsula. However, the United States maintains that no hegemony should exist over the peninsula. Washington does not want the peninsula to lean toward either China or Japan. Washington is also opposed to any unification in the Communists favor because it would directly undermine the U.S.-Japan alliance. Since the advent of the Putin administration, Russia has been more active in engaging with the peninsula. Russia has interest in economic cooperation with the South. It wants to link the Trans-Siberian Railway to the Trans-Korean Railway. It also wants to strengthen its military ties with the North. In fact, the new Russia-DPRK Treaty, signed in February 2000, stipulates that both sides consult with each other in times of contingencies. The treaty thus enables Russia to maintain its influence over the North. Even in this new millennium, the Korean peninsula remains Russia s vital exit to the Pacific Ocean. Moscow may continue to engage with both the North and the South, but its influence on the unification process is more limited than Beijing s and Washington s. Japan has always perceived the Korean peninsula as closely connected to its own security. When Japan is concerned about its own security, it first considers the Korean peninsula. The Japanese Self-Defense Forces were established during the 1950 Korean War. When Saigon fell into the Communists hand in the spring of 1975, Japan was concerned that the domino effect would lead to the Communist North s invasion of the South. When North Korea test-fired a Taepodong missile over Japan in August Winter/Spring 2001 Volume VIII, Issue 1 95

6 Hideshi Takesada 1998, the Japanese became aware that their national defense was imperfect. 7 Defense against China s ballistic missiles had not gained much support, but only one missile launch by the DPRK made the Japanese really think about the need for such a defense. Now, more and more Japanese believe that the real threat comes from the Korean peninsula. They also believe that the U.S.-ROK alliance is essential to the unification process. However, Japan s role in the security area is still limited. Thus, Beijing s and Washington s roles remain the most influential factors in the unification process. The Unified Korea: Five Problems and Five Forms Five Problems As the unification of the two Koreas becomes more realistic, five problems will emerge. The problems include the DPRK economy, the reduction of military forces in the border zone, the North s WMD, the U.S. military presence, and the management of diplomatic relations. First, we have to ask how to improve the North s electricity and food situations, upgrade its factories and reconstruct its economy. The most urgent task is the development of the North. Some hold that for the stability of the region, the unified Korea would support the continued U.S. military presence. This is wrong, for an economic reconstruction is possible even without a U.S. alliance or any U.S. forces on the peninsula. As long as economic development is the first priority, military and political matters are subordinated to it. The ROK s per capita income stands at U.S. $8,600, as of 1998, and the DPRK s is only U.S. $573. The South Korean economy is twelve times larger than North Korea s. The real gap between the two could be even greater. As evident from the German case, economic unification is not simple. In the Korean context, the unification would pose to the South the task of improving the North s economy, and this would eventually slow down the overall economic growth of the unified Korea. Knowing this, some argue that a unified Korea should take the path that is politically and militarily cheapest, and concentrating on economic development. Second, the unified Korea is likely to begin reducing military forces immediately after unification. There are a total of 1,600,000 soldiers currently located along the 38th parallel. Given the land area of the peninsula, progress in tension reduction should reduce the two militaries to less than one fifth of what they presently are. Thus, there would be 100,000 to 300,000 soldiers altogether. However, it should be noted that the unified Korea would not be totally disarmed, given Korea s past experience as a tool of international power politics in Northeast Asia. Third, we have to ask what would happen to the DPRK s WMD after 96 The Brown Journal of World Affairs

7 unification. If the Koreans find that Korean dignity made their unification possible they might maintain their WMD, seeing in them a symbol of Korean dignity. The fourth problem is how to deal with the U.S. forces on the peninsula. Washington and Tokyo would be happy to support the continued U.S. presence as a stabilization force. However, China would oppose any type of unification with a continued U.S. military presence. Fifth, diplomatic relations involve five possibilities: U.S.-unified Korea alignment, China-unified Korea alignment, Russia-unified Korea alignment, Japanunified Korea alignment, and a non-aligned Korea with equidistant diplomacy. U.S.-Unified Korea Alliance The United States wants to maintain the U.S.-ROK alliance and forces on the peninsula even after unification. ROK leaders want to maintain stability in the region and develop the economy of the unified Korea. Therefore, the continuation of the U.S.-Korea alliance would be the most likely scenario. If unification were achieved while good relations with the U.S. were maintained, the U.S.- ROK alliance would be qualitatively changed. The current U.S.-ROK mutual defense agreement is based on the common threat of the North. The unified Korea would likely restructure the 2nd Infantry Division with an eye toward aerial combat. The United States also would ask Korea to refrain from developing nuclear weapons technology. The unified Korea, in turn, would also accept the U.S. request, because it would regard its alliance with the United States as its most important bilateral relationship. The United States would want to avoid the new Korea s becoming too close to China while maintaining nuclear weapons technology, as this would lead to destabilization of the region. China, on the other hand, would want the unified Korea to cut off its relationship with the United States and ask that U.S. forces pull out of the region. China has maintained that the ROK-U.S. alliance should not be an Asian version of the enlarged NATO. China also would want the unified Korea to place more importance on its relationship with China than on its relationship with the United States. China s recent efforts to increase its engagement with both Koreas and China s recent criticism against the continued ROK-U.S. alliance well indicate this. However, the scenario of the U.S.-united Korea alliance is based on the assumption that the unified Korea would see its relationship with the United States as its most important. In this case, the current DPRK-Russia Treaty would be abandoned, and a revised ROK-U.S. Mutual Defense Agreement would be maintained. Winter/Spring 2001 Volume VIII, Issue 1 97

8 Hideshi Takesada China-Unified Korea Alliance When a unified Korea emerges, China will want to prevent the United States from exercising its influence on the new state. To prevent NATO-like post-unification enlargement, China would likely strive to establish closer relations with the unified Korea. Even immediately before unification, China would ask both Koreas to cut off their relations with the United States. How would China react to Korea maintaining its nuclear weapons technology? It is possible that China might tacitly approval of Korea holding such technologies. This possibility is supported by China s continued defense of the DPRK s nuclear weapons program since the early 1990s, despite international pressure to the contrary. China s opposition to the unified Korea s nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles seems less likely as long as the number of these weapons remain small and these symbols of nationalism and autonomy do not pose any threat to China s overwhelming nuclear power. From the beginning, China, has seen the DPRK s nuclear development merely as a diplomatic and political matter, rather than as a military one. From the unified Korea s perspective, the United States would be more important than China in its economic reconstruction. However, one must note that even if the U.S. forces withdrew from the peninsula and China s influence there became larger, existing foreign investments and hence the overall economy of Korea might not be effected. There are many foreign companies in China, where there is no U.S. military presence. No companies have left China despite China s underground nuclear test, its maintenance of a socialist regime, and its inter-continental ballistic missile development. That such companies would be frightened of a Chinese-leaning Korea, but not of China itself makes little sense. Many experts see the scenario of the China-unified Korea alliance as unlikely, given that the ROK is comfortably winning the economic competition with the DPRK. However, the resurgent Korean nationalism could lead to a review of the ROK s relationship with the United States and push the unified Korea much closer to China, for whose culture the Koreans maintain respect and affinity. Thus, this scenario is not unlikely. Russia and the Unified Korea Would the unified Korea maintain friendly relations only with Russia? Given that the unified Korea s priority is its economic reconstruction, this possibility is quite dim. However, Russia would oppose the continued U.S. military presence in the unified Korea, just as it opposed NATO s enlargement after German unification. Japan and the Unified Korea What about the Japan unified Korea relationship? Korean unification would likely lead to a boost in Korean nationalism, making it quite unlikely that the unified 98 The Brown Journal of World Affairs

9 Korea would align only with Tokyo despite Beijing s and Washington s opposition. Perhaps, then, it is not surprising that there has not been much discussion in Japan about what form a unified Korea could or would take. Little attention has been paid to what political, military and diplomatic implications a unified Korea would have for Japan. However, we have to ask what policy Japan would follow during of the unification of the two Koreas. The Korean peninsula is vital to Japan s security. The impact of the DPRK s launch of a Taepodong missile in August 1998 over Japan well confirms this. There are three principles that Japan will need to maintain regarding the unification process: Support of the inter-korean dialogue without interfering in the domestic affairs of the Korean peninsula. Maintenance of sound relations with the United States. A robust Japan-U.S. relationship could deal with many contingencies of the unification process. Normalization of relations with the DPRK in light of the 1965 Japan-ROK Basic Agreement. At the same time, Japan must make sure that doing so does not disturb the inter-korean dialogue. Japan would also have to support the unified Korea s economic construction and deal with the compensation issue with the former North, among other financial- aid issues. Thus, the unified Korea be a considerable financial burden for Japan. How would the unification of the peninsula affect Japan s strategic environment? Some argue that the Korea would be a threat to Japan, while others maintain that the new Korea would pose no impact on Japan. Many people in the two Koreas commonly think that Japan is opposed to the Korean unification. However, Korean unification is desirable and hardly a difficulty to Japan. Economically speaking, the unification would not impact Japan negatively. It is groundless to argue that the new Korea, which would be an economic power, would undermine Japan s national interest. Unified Germany did not become an economic threat to its neighbors. Rather, the economies of Japan and the new Korea would be mutually complementary. Militarily speaking, Japan would welcome the unification. The ROK s missile technology would remain under the control of the Missile Technology Control Regime even after the unification. The unified Korea also would reduce its military for the sake of economic development. As a result, Japan would be able to reduce its defense expenditures. Politically speaking, the unification would be desirable for the strategic relationships in the Northeast Asian region. Korean unification means that there will be three poles in Northeast Asia: China, unified Korea, and Japan. Cooperation Winter/Spring 2001 Volume VIII, Issue 1 99

10 Hideshi Takesada and exchange among these three poles could form the basis of a Northeast Asian version of European Union. However, if the unified Korea abandoned an alliance with the United States and grew closer to China and Russia rather than to the United States and Japan, this would significantly influence Japan s diplomatic and security interest. In this case, Japan would respond by further strengthening its U.S. alliance, rather than engaging the unified Korea. In the future, Japan should continue to support tension reduction on the peninsula and inter-korean dialogue. Japan should also strive to clear international misunderstandings about Japan s stance on the issue. Japan should also strive to increase awareness among the Korean, American, and Chinese people that the unified Korea and Japan can cooperate and live together in peace. Conclusion Geopolitically and strategically speaking, China could play a much bigger role during the Korean unification process. This process will likely be accompanied with a new rise of Korean nationalism. Given this, the relationship between the unified Korea and the United States could grow more strained than it is currently. The impact of the emergence of the unified Korea on Japan would be huge, but Japan s options would be limited. All Japan could do would be to strengthen its relationship with the United States. However, it should be stressed that Japan has no particular reason to oppose unification. It is a misunderstanding that Japan is opposed to the unification. If such a misunderstanding still remains on the Korean peninsula, Japan should work hard to clear it; it is undoubtedly in Japan s interest to maintain stable relations and exchanges with the unified Korea. W A Notes 1. The South-North Joint Declaration, Don-a Ilbo, 16 June The final version of the declaration said, The South and North have agreed to resolve the question of reunification independently and through the joint efforts of the Korean people, who are the masters of the country. The original draft said of the declaration said, Both sides will strive to reduce tension, but the reference was dropped from the final version. 2. Weekly Magazine in ROK, Sisa Journal, 9 November According to the journal, the South s public opinion has dramatically changed since June Kim Dae Jung s sunshine policy emerged in 1998 when the view that the North would collapse anytime soon was rising. 4. See the statement by Lim Dong-won, Director of the National Intelligence Service, at the ROK National Assembly carried in Dong-a Ilbo, 21 February 2001 (http: //english.donga.com/ srv/service.php3? biid= ). 5. Korean Central News Agency reported that on 4 February 2001, the DPRK defined the 100 The Brown Journal of World Affairs

11 inter-korean summit meeting as a landmark of the movement for national reunification in the new century and Now is the time for the entire Korean nation to fully display patriotism, national dignity and responsibility, according to the news. See Korean Central News Agency, 30 April 2001 (http://www.kcna.co.jp/item/2001/200102/news02/04.htm; item/2001/200102/news02/04.htm). 6. China s basic stance on the unification issue is that China supports the Koreans autonomous and peaceful unification. See People s Daily, 30 March 2001 (http://www.peopledaily.co.jp/i/2001/ 03/31/jp html; html). 7. The Japanese public became hard on the DPRK because of the Taepodong missile launch. Even opposition party Diet members argued for Japan s introduction of its own intelligence satellites in response to the missile launch. See Mainichi Shimbun, 6 September Winter/Spring 2001 Volume VIII, Issue 1 101

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