A Divided Korea Does Not Mean a Dangerous Korea

By | June 23, 2012 | 1 Comment

A Divided Korea Does Not Mean a Dangerous Korea

by Nicolas Levi

Introduction | After and even during its recent and extended rhetorical fusillade at Seoul,  North Korea has been stepping up its calls for peace with South Korea in a style common to the past. Pyongyang’s dialogue is coming in spite of escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula that have been particularly high since the failed North Korean missile launch which took place in mid-April. Since then, North Korea has allegedly jammed GPS systems in and around Incheon International Airport, ratcheted up its level of vitriol against South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and has vowed to destroy the headquarters of South Korea’s largest newspapers.

Targeting of Seoul Newspapers | Via One Free Korea

The heightened level of tension has taken place against the backdrop of a power transition, which has seen the ascension of Kim Jong-un and the emergence of new elites to the head of North Korea. The transition of power in North Korea and the recent events between North and South Korea represent a vulnerable time for the North Korean leadership. Authorities, ever aware of a “Jasmine”-like wave of unrest from within, are increasing their grip on society. The nomination of Kim Jong-un as next North Korean leader and the emergence of new elites may provide the stimulus necessary to re-shape relations between North Korea, Northeast Asian countries and the United States. Therefore, we are coping with crucial events in the Korean Peninsula which may determine the future of the Korean issue.

How to defuse tensions on the Korean Peninsula | Relations between both Koreas have worsened since the Cheonan incident, which took place in 2010. North Korea has since reiterated its favorite policy of threatening South Korea with total war. The United States, Japan and the European Union are of course supporting actions taken by South Korea. The Americans and the Japanese are also urging China to cooperate with them to coordinate a potential solution to the North Korean issue.

The problem lies with the fact that there is little discernible functional cooperation between the USA and China on the North Korean endgame. The problem is also dealing with the Chinese basic stance, which has not changed in a few years, unlike the United States, which is trying a set of different policies concerning North Korea.[1] We can, however, hope that Beijing may change its position — especially with a generational shift within the ranks of the Chinese elite. Up until now, Beijing has been neutral or quasi-neutral as far as it has served the best interests of China in Northeast Asia. This is due to a fear of domestic instability in North Korea and in the entire region of Northeast Asia.

The key to the resolution is South Korea’s hard-line policy toward North Korea; more specifically, that policy needs to be modified. Seoul should stop or at least reduce indirect warfare operations against North Korea (stopping use of psychological weapons, stopping criticism of Pro North-Korean organizations, etc.)  While Victor Cha has asserted that such actions could be “suicidal” for any ROK national politician under certain circumstances, the benefits need to be considered: It would lead to an improvement of relations between both Koreas and would avoid a dangerous head-on collision which would destabilize not only the Korean Peninsula but also other countries in the region.

The American policy should not be limited to a policy of “strategic patience,” but should also try a proactive policy of engaging the new heads of North Korea with new negotiators. American negotiators, it needs to be kept in mind, are ever-changing, but North Korean diplomats remain the same. Kim Kye Gwan and Ri Gun were negotiating with the US during the first Clinton administration, and they can be relied upon to stay in their posts.

The mediating role of China is crucial here, but due to its stoic mindset, another key player should be more involved in the Korean Peninsula issue: Russia. Pushed in part by their leader’s interest in bulking up its Pacific profile, Russia is increasing its position in North Korea. In April, a new freight transport between Khasan and Rajin was inaugurated; it will make large contributions to the economic exchange between Russia and North Korea, and the North Koreans are reciprocating via a raft of cultural exchanges with Amur regional government bodies.

Who’s Missing? China’s President Hu Jintao (C), South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (L) and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (R) | Reuters/Yonhap/Kim Byong-man

Who’s Missing? President Lee Myung-bak (L), President Hu Jintao (C), Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda (R)

Finding a Solution between the Divide | Surveying the regional power structures and alliances, and points of negotiation, , it becomes clear that the year 2012 is crucial for the future of the Korean Peninsula. If the new circumstances in North Korea and the region are taken advantage of, there may be a brighter future in store for the North Korean nation.

A broader question in this vein: Is it conceivable for both Koreas to cooperate in the longer-term? Does it mean that both Koreas should be reunified? Observing the geostrategic situation, we may remark that unification may not be a desirable event from the standpoint of other Northeast Asian powers. First, a united Korea could push the United States military off of the Korean Peninsula.  Then, a new Korean entity may try deal with China with a vigorousness that would make North Korea a happy memory for leaders in Beijing. Finally, Japan may be isolated under a new Northeast Asian configuration.

Taking into account these realities, Lee Myung Bak proposed a three-step strategy that may lead to the formation of a United Korea.[2] First, a “peace community” should emerge alongside inter-Korean coexistence, the the main condition for the next step, which aims to build “an economic community” for co-prosperity. The final stage will deal with the creation of a “national community.” This strategy would be carried out via an increase of Inter-Korean exchanges which themselves may lead first to a dramatic improvement of the North Korean economy and then to a high degree of specialization of the North economic system.  Only after these two conditions are met can both Koreas remove the barrier of two different political systems.

Kang Chol-Hwan, Successful Escapee from North Korea and Author of Aquariums of Pyongyang

Like in cooperative federalism, a concept in which national, state, and local governments interact cooperatively and collectively to solve problems, South Korean authorities proposed a unification tax which will aim to finance preparations for the reunification in the future. The problem of this financing is that provinces and metropolitan cities may misunderstand the meaning of a unification tax, especially at a time where the world is facing a global economic crisis. [3]  North Korea may also be opposed to this policy as it is a sudden and concrete change in South Korean policy and may lead to an undesired absorption of the North by the South.

China, the Region, and Korean Unification | Naturally, merely speaking about the unification of the Korean Peninsula invokes a never-ending story, and most of the debate has now centered on China’s position towards the Korean Peninsula.  China heavily invests in North Korea, is now opening its doors to North Korean workers in Dandong and Tumen, and is therefore adverse to the idea of regime collapse and social instability in in North Korea. That’s why various joint ventures are being created within North Korea. Other foreign companies from Russia, Egypt, Great Britain, Italy and Malaysia are also investing in North Korea.  All these countries are not only sharing the “North Korean cake” but also strongly believe that North Korea won’t be reunified with South Korea.

The complex North Korea issue highlights a divide between business interests and human rights. Taking into account the economic reality, nobody wants reunification. But from a humanitarian perspective, everybody wants the collapse of North Korea. The question, then, is this: how do we cope with this divergence in interests?

According to the interviews that I conducted with defectors and with others involved with the North Korean issue, those interested in Korean unification are mainly persons whose families are on both sides of the peninsula. Only these families, divided by the border between both countries, really have an absolutely pressing need for unification. However, they are too few, and that’s why nothing is being done in order to find a solution to their problem. I think that a compromise solution may be the creation of a Reunification Center within Kaesong or a historical point where reunions may occur more often than in the past. Taking into account a possible softening of relations between both Koreas, the creation of an institution is fathomable.

The Balkanization of North Korea? Future Scenarios |  Given, then, the new realities in North Korea and the unlikelihood of unification, what are the prospects for the future of the country? The first scenario which we can take into account is an eventual satellization of North Korea by China. In this channel, not only Chinese companies are present in North Korea, but also the Chinese army. We can even imagine that at the beginning some Chinese troops may protect Chinese invested facilities. However, it is far from certain that North Koreans would trust the Chinese. Hostility has always been there, interrupted by brief periods of détente. Warming of relations take place only when one of the sides needs the other for whatever reason.

Another scenario that I partially believe in is the effective dissolution of North Korea. In the event of a collapse in Pyongyang, the United Nations would need to sanction the movement of foreign forces into North Korea, but that requires the permission of China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It would be logical that North Korean territory will be occupied for a while by troops under the auspices of the United Nations. If North Korea then disappeared as a sovereign state, it could still be a country in a geographical sense, divided into various occupation zones. This situation may be similar to the one that happened within the Balkans, where peacekeepers were sent.

Chinese peacekeepers en route to Kosovo; a model for DPRK? | Via Xinhua

In the case of North Korea, the United Nations would be going to maintain a presence, with the acceptance of China and South Korea. The Chinese may accept such a deal if they could use the North Korean population as a source of cheap labor and if the population of North Korea would have limited access to China. China would also prohibit migration from North Korean people to China, because China is afraid that this population would communicate with the Korean minority living already in China and together would have some hints of irredentism.  What’s more, the North Korean population would not be allowed to have access to South Korea either, or if some access is allowed, it would strictly limited. This is due to the fact that South Korea has troubling managing a population of twenty-two thousand defectors and although surveys show that their economic livelihood is improving but still poor.[4]

Considering the Emergence of a New Northern Elite | After a period of adaptation, a new country may emerge with a new economic infrastructure. New persons would stand at the head of this country, but who would they be? Potential future North Korean elites should, of course, be mainly recruited from North Korea and educated in political and economic management.

New elites should come from a broad variety of technocratic backgrounds.  Now is a golden time to invest in capacity building institutions and organizations.  As examples, North Korea will need a cadre of personnel trained in running some of the following: a modern, interconnected banking system, reliable power grid, a functioning infrastructure and a health care system.  They would also need to speak at least one of lingua franca of the region (English, Chinese, Russian, Japanese). Initially, the new elites would come mainly from South Korea, since they have already demonstrated proficiency in the functional arts of running large-scale Korean projects, and then give way to students trained in the DPRK who will boost North Korean economic development via their training in business capacities and foreign languages, economic policy, business and legal training, fiscal policy, and financial sector development – an effort currently put forth by the Chosun Exchange.

Conclusion | The North Korean leadership knows for sure that the best solution to rebuild the economy is to take a true path of opening and to continue reforms with or without the help of the international community. First steps should be taken with its closest allies, China and Russia. In the long run, the international community should become involved in the reconstruction of North Korea. Despite the best interest of the international community, North Korean elites will find good reasons to fear that a potential opening may be dangerous for them. The consequences would be a downfall of their centrally controlled economy due to uncontrollable forces. A generation of new elites, not only in North Korea but also in other countries with interest in the North Korean issue, should find a solution to this huge problem.


[1] If China’s basic stance of supporting the DPRK’s right to exist has remained stable, the overall Chinese attitude toward the DPRK has changed, increasingly appears to be downgrading to « normal » relations instead of « special relationship ». See http://www.nknews.org/2012/05/china-first-how-beijing-is-reconsidering-its-dprk-relations/ and http://sinonk.com/2012/05/27/das-boot-china-nkfishing-in-troubled-waters/ — Editor.

[2] Chico Harlan, “South Korean leader has reunification plan,” The Washington Post, August 16, 2010.

[3] Choe Sang Un, “South Korean Leader Proposes a Tax to Finance Reunification,” The New York Times, August 15, 2010.

[4] Shin Hae In, Ex-S. Korean envoys demand China stop repatriating N. K. defectors, “Asian News Network”, 11th February 2011.

One Comment

  1. The key to the resolution is South Korea’s hard-line policy toward North Korea; more specifically, that policy needs to be modified.

    It seems to me that this wouldn’t necessarily send the right signal to the North. Maybe I haven’t read this post carefully enough, but I can’t see from it why such a South-Korean step would lead to positive changes in South-North relations. My prediction – but I’m rather unfamiliar with Korea – would be that the North would, as a next step, demand that the South Korean press, too, become more considerate, respectful, whatever.

    What would be the dividend if South Korea’s policy changed?

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