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A reunified Korea could be a formidable power in East Asia

Bringing about this turn of events will depend on the actions of the United States as the most important external actor.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Last year marked the 70th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. While a 1953 armistice has largely held, the conditions of the accord suggest more of a ceasefire than a lasting peace treaty. This has created a seemingly permanent status quo across the Northern Pacific, locking multiple countries into rigid strategic stances that keep the Korean Peninsula as a potential global flashpoint even as the original geopolitical conditions that led to hostilities have disappeared. 

It is past time that countries with interests in a stable East Asia partner in finally ending the Korean War. Such an effort would entail a two-step process beginning with normalizing relations with North Korea by as many nations as possible. In time, the full international recognition of the North Korean state could potentially be leveraged to create the framework for a jointly agreeable reunification plan between the Republic of Korea and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. 

Even if the second phase of this ambitious diplomatic push were to falter, recognizing North Korea’s sovereignty is an important step that would, in and of itself, deliver tangible gains toward enhanced security and regional stability, particularly within the new multipolar system marked by increased great power competition. 

Second to regime survival, what Pyongyang desires most of all is autonomy — not just vis-à-vis the United States, but also towards China. Despite the general lore and propaganda, DPRK leadership have been wary and distrustful of their counterparts in the People’s Republic of China. Constantly concerned about being turned into a vassal state by the immensely more powerful and immediately adjacent Beijing, Pyongyang targets many of its actions and rhetoric towards the goal of ostensible self-sufficiency. The very development of its nuclear program would be redundant, after all, if DPRK felt comfortable inside the nuclear defense umbrella of China’s alliance network. 

It is reasonable that a more diplomatically empowered North Korea would in fact pursue greater autonomy vis-à-vis China. This means that full normalization with Pyongyang could be used as an important leverage to balance against a more confident Beijing. Adding to DPRK’s options for commerce and diplomacy with more countries would translate to lessening the North Korean dependence on China. 

Effective diplomatic normalization would also have to include a loosening — if not the outright termination — of most international sanctions presently applied to the DPRK. This would be the most controversial aspect of the change in approach, as those sanctions largely exist in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. Sanctions, however, are proportionally ineffective at modifying regime behavior, often producing a siege mentality where people and government alike rally around the flag, justifying more hardline policies. Moreover, if North Korea’s primary concerns are addressed through diplomacy, the DPRK leadership would have an actual incentive to cease escalation on its weapons program.

Bringing about this turn of events will depend to a great degree on the actions of the United States as the most important external actor. The power to make treaties with other nations is vested in both the U.S. Senate and the Executive Branch working together, meaning either chamber could initiate the process to begin peace negotiations once the situation becomes more amenable. Only after these initial steps toward resuming full diplomatic relations with Pyongyang are completed could the long and challenging coalition-building process towards realizing a form of Korean reunification commence. 

It goes without saying that Beijing’s key objection to Korean reunification is the prospect of a U.S. ally on its border, while Washington could remain similarly uneasy about China dominating the entire peninsula through a compliant Korea. Accordingly, any negotiation toward a reunified Korea must establish it as an independent sovereign state with professed neutrality toward both the United States and China, as a Korea that is party to any one alliance would risk antagonizing the other bloc enough for the idea to be unacceptable to either side. 

As such, a new Korea could be conceived as a kind of East Asian Switzerland to act as a clear buffer between the two blocs. A commitment to neutrality, with no favorable status for any outside nation, would go a long way to assuage these fears among the great powers. This would certainly be in Korea’s own interest, partly because it protects its autonomy and raises its diplomatic leverage internationally, and also since, as a fledgling state, it will have to prioritize reintegration and engage in nation-building at home. 

There are two conceivable paths to enacting a reunification policy: one is pacing U.S. drawdowns from the peninsula with North Korean denuclearization; the other is to allow the newly-formed Korean state to keep a small nuclear arsenal as a sovereignty guarantor under a no-first-use policy and conditional on satisfactory progress on the reintegration process. 

A new nation adopting the dynamic economic policies and openness to trade of South Korea but having the deterrence factor currently possessed by the North would be a formidable buffer state. A reunified Korea will also be a formidable middle power, and the stronger the middle power states bordering China, the more likely they are to resist falling into Beijing’s orbit, having the will and the capability to protect their own sovereignty and security interests. 

Such long-term goals are therefore worth pursuing as foreign policy establishments around the world begin rethinking the present approach to Pyongyang while coming to terms with the reality of resource constraints and limits to their own force projection. Additionally, a united peninsula on China’s border would mean one less possible crisis zone where Beijing holds proximity advantage.

Despite many challenges, recent diplomatic moves in the ROK imply a long-term commitment to a peace process. Therefore, at least some domestic pressure exists toward engagement between the two Koreas. Furthermore, should reunification fail or prove unworkable, there is a real chance that the two states could remain separate political entities yet still draw closer to form a more united diplomatic front in dealing with great powers under the framework of shared neutrality, international cooperation, and conflict prevention.

With possible flashpoints like Taiwan and the South China Sea looming large over much of present-day calculations about the region, it seems prudent for nations with stakes in a stable East Asia to think outside the box and begin pushing for diplomatic normalization with the DPRK. 

The first concrete step on this path will be to officially end the Korean War by replacing the present-day armistice with a proper peace treaty. Not only will such moves lessen fears of regime change by the West among North Korean elites, but they will also have the added benefit of opening up potential trade with Pyongyang as well as reducing the DPRK’s reliance on Beijing internationally. Should such initial measures prove successful, the more ambitious project of assisting in Korean reunification under a neutral buffer state framework could then become an attractive possibility — an objective that is especially salient in a multipolar world that has reignited concerns over a ‘New Cold War’ among the world’s major powers led by China and the United States.

Joint Security Area (JSA), South Korea - April 3, 2017: North Korean soldiers are filming inside Panmunjom in the Joint Security Area. (Photo: Yeongsik Im via shutterstock.com)
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