Northeast Asias power dynamics and its influence on unification

Daily NK  |  2018-01-30 12:24

Although ex-South Korean President Park Geun Hye asserted it, can unification really be considered a bonanza? If there is sufficient strength of government to manage what needs to come before and after unification as well as protect the economy, then unification is indeed an opportunity. However, bringing together the two Koreas--each cut off from the other for more than half a century--is no simple task. Remaining optimistic about unification is necessary, but understanding the positive and negative aspects involved is of critical importance.

To this end, Daily NK will deliver a series of excerpts from the recently published book, Unification Strategies During Sudden Changes in North Korea, co-authored by Kim Young Hwan, head researcher at the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights; Oh Gyeong Seob, researcher at Sejong Institute; and Ryu Jae Gil, secretary general at the think tank Zeitgeist. This 40-installment series seeks to offer fresh insights into pending issues relating to the unification of the two Koreas.

South Korea has achieved nothing short of an economic miracle over the last several decades, as demonstrated through scientific and technological achievements, high GDP and economic growth, powerful business and industry sectors, and development of social services. However, a few years ago, the Sewol ferry incident also highlighted the remaining shortcomings in the countrys rapid development. The South Korean public began questioning what missteps the country had made along the road of rapid development.

But if such is the case for South Korea, what does that say about the prospects for developing North Korea? Although post-war differences have been somewhat addressed between South Korea and Japan, the US and Japan, and Britain and France for example, it seems that reconciliation between the two Koreas will be considerably more challenging. If the two sides continue to engage in conflict, the severe societal differences between the two countries may stall a smooth transition toward unification.
South Koreans must reflect more deeply upon what is needed to prepare for unification. Along with societal harmonization, the most important aspect will involve addressing the issue of political sovereignty. The scenarios of unification with the highest likelihood of occurring all involve the absorption of the North by the South in some way. If the North is to be given a level of autonomy post-unification, then a federal system of government seems most appropriate. For this reason, a federal system needs to be carefully researched and considered.
Extremely poor conditions in North Korea - brought by years of mismanagement by the Kim family regime - suggests that the government will be unable to manage the country for much longer. We cannot say how soon it will be, but it seems that unification might not be far off.
We must focus on every detail in our preparation for unification and establish policies that are ready to be deployed in the case of chaos or political conflict during the transition period. Plans will need to be drawn up for how to manage the change in power and position of countless individuals, in addition to the already herculean task of integrating the two societies. There should be a reliable game plan for every kind of situation, including the political and general education of the North's citizens. It will also be important to establish a plan for how to promote the North's next group of political leaders.
Northeast Asia and Unification: Consolidating a plan
It is not just North and South Korea, but the entire region that will face the issues associated with unification. The four other nations active in Northeast Asia must bring their disparate policies together to overcome the geopolitical problems posed by unification. Experts in America, China, Japan, and Russia currently hold a wide range of opinions over how to approach a unified peninsula under South Korean rule. Although all nations officially claim to support unification, they are also likely concerned about a change in regional power dynamics and maintaining national and economic interests. Thus 'preserving the status quo' continues to be the preferred strategy.
America has in recent years attempted a pivot to Asia, and China has made clear its intention to ascend to world superpower status. Russia has likewise been on a path to strengthening its international power, and Japan has also been attempting to strengthen its military. If the interests of any of the four nations conflict, it will be difficult to persuade any party to shift their interests, and it will not be easy to push forwards with South Korean-led unification. However, it is also difficult to predict how the power dynamics of these nations will influence the unification process or how China and the US will, for example, calculate their own benefits associated with unification. These countries are also worried about the cost of unification and how much they will have to contribute under any given scenario. Despite South Korea's efforts to gain international support for South-led unification, the situation remains difficult.
US-China relations and their power struggle in the region will also have a significant impact on Korean unification. It will be difficult for unification to occur if these countries engage in a regional power struggle for their own national interests. Although none of the four nations outwardly oppose unification, the US and Japan support South-led unification, while Russian and Chinese stances on the matter are more vague.
Unification research should take a deeper look at the stances of China, Russia, Japan, and the US on Korean unification, what they stand to gain from unification, and how much money each country can expect to spend. Though there are various potential scenarios for unification, the discussion should revolve around South Korea-led unification as it is by far the most likely scenario.

*Translated by Colin Zwirko

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