The Waning Hermit Kingdom (Part II): The Challenges of Korean Reunification

In January 2014, the North Korean government supposedly announced that it had successfully landed a man on the sun. However, contrary to such macho announcements from government mouthpieces, the sun is beginning to set for the backwater Hermit Kingdom. Continued famine, declining international aid, and increased dissemination of non-governmental information (discussed in Part I) have all but primed the Kim regime for disappearance. A likely consequence of a North Korean regime collapse is political reunification of the peninsula. Although this result would elicit cheers from human rights activists and policymakers, it would create immense challenges for the international community on two fronts: security and rehabilitation.

Short Term Fixes

In the immediate term, the international community will face the daunting obstacle of demilitarizing North Korea. Senior defense analyst at RAND corporation, Bruce Bennett, estimates that up to 400,000 troops would be required to maintain peninsular stability—an effort that would involve demilitarizing Pyongyang, securing weapons of mass destruction, controlling the border, and engaging in combat deterrence—in the event of a North Korean collapse. Bennet’s predictions, however, assume a relatively benign regime collapse, and the end of the Hermit Kingdom may not prove peaceful. Instability resulting from potential power struggles among the elite could cause factional military conflict, which would not only destabilize the northern half of the peninsula, but could spill into China and South Korea. If North Korea were to invade the South with just its ground artillery forces and special operation forces, Seoul could suffer up to 200,000 casualties on the first day, followed by panic and infrastructural destruction.

Immigration following a Kim regime collapse would worsen the situation. Even if the military crisis were to occur in a relatively peaceful fashion, North Korea has an estimated population of 25 million people. In an interview with the independent research website Sino-NK, research fellow at the Asan Institute, Dr. Go Myong-hyun, explained, “[In the event of a collapse], there would be a natural flow of people out of the country,” and that China, for example, would “be taking care of four million North Koreans living [in a buffer zone] and [in China].” International institutions such as the United Nations will bear the humanitarian challenge of providing shelter, food, water, energy, and safety to North Koreans, but the neighboring countries of China and South Korea will also have to balance internal social and infrastructural stability with increased immigration.

Giants Collide

In terms of international politics, the United States and China will need to iron out diplomatic wrinkles of U.S. military presence in South Korea. For the past decade, the proclaimed “China containment policy” has gained much traction in Beijing and created tensions between the two powers. Pundits point to several supposed examples of U.S. attempts to curb China’s growing clout, including the exclusion of China from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-led trade deal with Pacific Rim countries; the U.S.’s attempt to push allies away from China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; the U.S. Senate’s refusal to grant China increased representation in the International Monetary Fund; the development of military bases across the Pacific region; and involvement in the divisive issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty. While the U.S. has kept armed forces in South Korea as a means of maintaining a historic alliance, many suspect that its lingering military presence bears the ulterior motive of monitoring China.

A North Korean collapse would in the long term substantially reduce the apparent need for continued U.S. troop presence in South Korea. Continued U.S. military presence, while valuable in stabilizing the peninsula, further legitimize Chinese concerns of an American desire to curb China’s growing political and economic influence. Perhaps the U.S. will simply withdraw all troops from South Korea and, absent the U.S. military, China will feel more secure. However, assuming the U.S. is truly concerned with monitoring China’s growth through military surveillance, continued U.S. troop presence will exacerbate an already strained diplomatic relationship between the two countries.

Korean reconciliation after sixty years of political separation? Source: BBC
Korean reconciliation after sixty years of political separation? Source: BBC

Seoul’s Fixer-Upper

Among the most pertinent long-term issues of reunification is Seoul’s challenge of economically integrating the North. South Korea must deal with the North’s shabby agricultural sector and backwater infrastructure, and for a time the new hypothetically united Korea would find itself in an economic slowdown as it attempts to modernize its northern half technologically, infrastructurally, and educationally. According to Shin Je-Yoon, chairman of South Korea’s Financial Services Commission, “reunification would cost [the] South about $500 billion” over the course of 20 years. The South Korean finance ministry also estimated that reunification would “cost about 7% of South Korea’s annual GDP for a decade.” One potential proposal to pay off the money was to implement a “reunification tax,” but this proposal met substantial resistance in South Korea and has yet to gain momentum.

A moral dilemma also faces the international community, particularly the United Nations (UN), the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the South Korean government. These actors must determine how to punish North Korean officials and ranking military officers for the human rights atrocities committed under the Kim regime. On a local level, South Korean courts will face the challenge of proving reported human rights crimes, while on a governmental level South Korean politicians will face the challenge of balancing political punishment and inclusion. On the international level, the UN must successfully prosecute and punish ranking North Korean officials to maintain credibility and uphold the international norm of protecting human rights. Failure to do so would substantially damage the already tarnished legitimacy of the UN and the ICC.

A New Dawn

A North Korean collapse, while long anticipated, would create immense challenges for the international community. While the sun might be setting for the Kim regime, if international policymakers properly prepare for the challenges of military security, immigration, international diplomacy, economic rehabilitation, and international justice, the light of day will begin to shine over a reconciled Korea.

Featured image source: Wikipedia Commons