Could Korean Reunification Work?
Historically, the Korean Peninsula served as a geopolitical land bridge in East Asia. For Japan, Korea was the gate to mainland Asia. When the peninsula was under Japanese control, Tokyo gained access to Manchuria and thereby subdued Chinese and Russian interests. For China, the reverse was true. When Beijing controlled the peninsula, it gained access to the Sea of Japan. From there, the Chinese could restrict the regional maritime trade and thereby shape the behavior of their neighbor to the Far East. Essentially, whoever was in control of the peninsula would gain the advantage to forge a proactive policy. Thus, as a geopolitical conduit in East Asia, the Korean Peninsula was repeatedly invaded by foreign powers throughout the course of history. These foreign powers included the Mongols, Chinese, Japanese, Russians, and the Americans.
Today, the resurgence of China and the remilitarization of Japan has amplified calls for reunification by North and South Korean policymakers. Both governments recognize that they are too fixated on one another and that their division exposes them to outside forces. Therefore, both Korean states require reunification to keep foreign powers at bay. In the long-term, a united Korean State will creep substantial advantages. The South would be able to gain access to a large labor force of around 14 million Northern workers that would join with its 27 million Southern workers. Although the DPRK workforce has lower skills, they would also be cheaper to employ.
In addition, the North Korean population is much younger and has nearly twice as high birth rates considering the aging populations in East Asia. The reunion between Pyongyang and Seoul would give the Koreans a substantial demographic advantage in the area. Furthermore, South Korean industrial giants would also gain access to rare minerals and metals which are used in electronics. Below the surface, North Korea has around two-hundred kinds of minerals including iron, gold, magnesite, zinc, copper, limestone, and graphite. According to an article from Quartz, it is estimated that the DPRK’s mineral wealth sits at around $6-$10 trillion, which is ten times larger than that of the South. Finally, the combined military capacity of both states would give a united Korea the ability to shape its own foreign policy in its immediate periphery and thus bring an end to the peninsula’s legacy of foreign subjugation.
If this all sounds too good to be true, that’s because the risks of a united Korea are just as profound as the benefits. The governments in Pyongyang and Seoul have fundamentally different political, economic, and national beliefs. Moreover, there is a lack of trust and both factions have weapons pointing at each other. Supporters of Korean reunification often use the German experience during the Cold War as a template for the peaceful negotiated transition. However, the cultural, ideological, and economic disparities between the two Koreas are far more extreme. For example, East Germany never fully embraced totalitarianism to the extent North Korea has. Plus, South Korea’s $2.02 trillion Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) is 40 times more prosperous than North Korea’s $40 billion PPP. Given the extreme disparity between North and South Korea, a combined Korean economy could add up to around $3 trillion meaning that this would subsidize Pyongyang for decades. In the long-term, the gains would be tremendous, but in the short-term, it would be an exceedingly heavy burden.
Clearly, not everyone is excited about the costs and benefits of Korean reunification. In recent years, the South Korean public has steadily lost an interest in reunification. According to a poll from the Korean Institute for National Unification, “71% of those under 50 said unification would happen during their lifetime.” Since there is no template for Koreans, officials in Pyongyang and Seoul would have to start the reunification process by forming a confederation. This would allow both sides to maintain their existing political and economic systems. It would also forge a sense of trust between the North and the South. At the same time, a confederation would have to create an economic bond that raises the costs of exiting the reunification process, which could lead to a point of no return. To achieve such a union, Seoul and Pyongyang would have to delay decisions on the most sensitive topics. This is a common practice in diplomacy and it implies that the initial process will be symbolic in nature. A diplomatic union also means that a fast-track reunification is impractical because it would disrupt the political and economic balance which could take decades.
Beyond symbolic arrangements, Pyongyang and Seoul would inevitably encounter a wide range of political, economic, and security obstructions. The most complicated of these obstructions will be the merger of the two militaries. This will also be the most important issue if a Korean confederation were to develop into something more than just a ‘paper tiger.’ In this context, an alliance between the two militaries might not be enough because a military alliance could be exploited by outside powers. As such, the fusion of the two militaries is necessary, but the devil is in the details. Eventually, Pyongyang and Seoul would have to reduce the security risks they pose to each other. This would imply a demilitarization of the border and a withdrawal of American forces from the Korean Peninsula. The problem however, is that there is no way to accomplish this without exposing one side to the other. For instance, if the DPRK removed its artillery from Seoul’s range and dismantled its nuclear stockpile, it would essentially give up its primary deterrence, which is very unlikely to happen. The only way to conceive mutual incentives for demilitarization is to create a joint force with a shared command of the Korean militaries. However, this would bring its own complications. A joint military force would likely introduce bureaucratic rivalries that would raise the probability of a military coup.
Yet, if the Korean militaries formed a dynamically shared command, there are still political complications. More than anything, the government of Kim Jong-Un is more preoccupied with its survival, which is why they strived for nuclear capabilities and remain isolated from the global community. Entering a political union with Seoul would undercut Pyongyang’s influence. Moreover, opening the North Korean economy to the world would spark a political impasse as the elites compete for wealth and power. For example, in East Germany, the leadership intended to attentively manage the reunification process. However, once the Berlin Wall came down, the situation spiraled out of control. East Germans relocated to West Germany and the East German Government collapsed soon after. The same fate awaits the government in Pyongyang. Regardless of how the Korean confederation is planned, not everything will go according to plan. For this reason, the DPRK is discouraged with by its low survival prospects in the reunification process.
Besides political, economic, and military obstructions, there are geopolitical implications that must be considered. The neighboring powers are unlikely to stand by and welcome a unified Korea with open arms. For instance, China is concerned that the reunification of the Korean Peninsula would allow the Americans to move closer to the Chinese border. Clearly, this would be unacceptable for Beijing. As such, the Chinese leadership prefers a stalemate on the Korean Peninsula. If reunification started without China’s blessing and Beijing was suspicious of Washington, it would do whatever it can to disrupt the reunification process. To gain China’s benefit, the Korean confederation would have to reduce its ties to Washington, which would mean a withdrawal of American forces from South Korea.
Meanwhile, for Japan, the Korean Peninsula serves as a land bridge into the Asian mainland. The main reason why the Japanese and the South Koreans are not hostile to one another is because they are under the security umbrella of the United States in East Asia. As a result, the overlapping geopolitical interests of Seoul and Tokyo have been put on hold. This would be the status quo that the Japanese would prefer and if the Korean Peninsula was reunited, Japan would need the Korean confederation to be a part of the United States security alliance. Obviously, this would be at odds with Chinese interests.
The third actor in this geopolitical theatre would be the United States. The primary U.S interest in the Korean Peninsula is the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Washington will only support a reunification process if it could settle on a denuclearization agreement. Beyond nuclear weapons, the United States would also like to maintain a regional order and restrain Chinese influence in the periphery. In this scenario, Washington’s interests are in line with Tokyo’s.
The final regional power is Russia. The Russians have more immediate concerns elsewhere and prefer not to upset their Chinese counterparts. At the same time, the Russians are seeking to gain leverage on the Americans to extract concessions in other regions such as Eastern Europe. Moscow’s attitude towards a possible Korean reunification is opportunistic and depends on its relationship with Beijing and Washington.
At large, a united Korean Peninsula would be able to shape the affairs of the region. However, the Koreas would have to overcome exceedingly difficult economic, political, and military complications. Even if somehow those internal challenges were overcome, Korean reunification would be met with disapproval by the regional powers. Having said this, foreign subjugation is exactly why North and South Korea require unity in the first place.