USC-CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (3): DPRK ‘Sovereignty’ is a Sino-Russian Fig-Leaf to Slow Unification and Check US Power


Here are part one and part two of this post. I spoke last Tuesday at a USC-CSIS conference on Korean unification. I learned a lot, and it was very good. If you’re interested in unification, start here with the primary report on which the conference was based. The principal investigators said a final wrap-up report will come at some point, and I’ll put up that link when it arrives.

My comments below are on the papers presented on Tuesday about neighboring states’ reactions to Korean unification. These papers aren’t publicly posted yet, so all the comments might not make sense. But in the interest of completism, I’m putting this up to round out my thinking on this excellent unification project. (For my earlier thoughts on dealing with NK, try this; for my travelogue of my trip to the DPRK, try this.)

My big beef with these sorts of conferences on NK – I go to a lot – is that inevitably outsiders, especially Chinese scholars, start laying down all sorts of guidelines, restrictions, parameters, etc. for unification, as if it’s our right to muck around in this thing. I can understand the national interest in doing so. But we shouldn’t have the temerity to try to legitimate our muddying of the waters in what is really an internal family affair. It would also help a lot if the Chinese would stop talking (not so much at this conference, but definitely at others I’ve gone to) about how Korea needs to respect its wishes, because China is big and important now, post-2008 Olympics. I heard one guy once even say that China is now the ‘veto-player’ on unification. That’s true of course in realist sense, but that sorta cockiness infuriates Koreans who’ve really soured on China in the last decade. I see the same kind of emergent Chinese bullying on unification that Southeast Asian littoral states see on the South China Sea. So I try to call that out whenever it seems necessary.

Anyway, here on my thoughts on Japan, Russia, and China’s role in this thing.


1. Japan

I thought the author got right to heart of the problem with Japan’s involvement in Korean unification, when he noted the continuing psychological barriers between the two sides at the end of the paper. He calls for the charged issue of history to be “compartmentalized” should unification occur. I agree, but honestly, I doubt that will occur. Koreans, whether North or South, will likely want no meaningful political role for Japan in unification decisions. I don’t think that surprises anyone.

I do think however, that there is an informal, not well-articulated expectation in SK that Japan will provide financial assistance for the gargantuan cost of unification. There does seem to be a broad feeling in Korea that unification might overwhelm SK state capacity (I concur), and that financial assistance from Japan, the US, international financial institutions, etc. will therefore be forthcoming. I can imagine Tokyo might not care much for that attitude – an exclusion from any meaningful political role, but nonetheless a vague expectation that Japan will help foot the bill. In the background of course would be the implicit sense that such assistance is part of Japan’s restitution for its past behavior. This could be a thorny issue, and it would be helpful if Seoul and Tokyo could actually talk about this beforehand. Even so however, helping Korea unify properly is a good investment for Japan. Even if the tough history issues persist and Korea comes to Japan with financial expectations the Japanese feel are unwarranted, it is still a good deal geopolitically for Japan to get North Korea rehabilitated. NK is so dangerous and unpredictable, that even if Seoul snubs Tokyo in the reunification decisions, it is still overwhelmingly in Japan’s national interest to abet a successful expansion of ROK authority over the entire peninsula. And that assistance may help finally end of the memory issue. Crudely put, this might be an opportunity for Japan to ‘buy out’ the history/memory issue.

b. Russia

Regarding the Russia paper, it is good to see that Russia clearly supports Korean unification, but of course, that is easy to say. More important in the paper is the admission that Russia supports unification on Southern terms (p. 4). At some point, NK will implode; its model is not viable, and even if it were, it is such an orwellian tyranny, that Northern-led unification is simply not a morally acceptable alternative. Hence, it is crucial to get all the surrounding states to accept and support Southern-led unification, ideally in print in government white papers. And by “Southern-led unification,” I mean the effective absorption of the DPRK into the ROK at some point. The paper seems to broadly accept that.

Next I was surprised to see so much emphasis placed on the avoidance of military force. I have the sense that this anxiety is a remnant of the George W. Bush era. But no one is talking about invading NK. More generally, it is fairly obvious that much of commentary, as in the China paper too, is directed at the United States. It would be shame if NK, like Syria, became a proxy for a Sino-Russian desire to check American power. That instrumentalizes the suffering of the North Koreans to geopolitics.

I agree that major military action could be hugely destructive, but I am fairly surprised that so much emphasis was placed on lengthy KPA resistance, insurgency, and popular opposition. Most of the work I have seen on the Korean conference circuit suggests that a war with NK would end with the conclusive defeat of the KPA. Perhaps our USFK representative might like to speak to that. And regarding the notion of a Northern insurgency, that strikes me as an improper analogy from the war on terror. Instead, I would refer to today’s two South Korea papers, where the authors note how SK would enjoy far greater legitimacy in NK than outsiders did in places like Iraq or Somalia or the other comparison cases of occupation and reconstruction considered in the Phase II report.

SK is not really an ‘outsider’ in NK, and NK is a classic case of what social science calls ‘hidden preferences,’ which is to say that we have no idea how North Koreans think, because it is in their existential interest to lie about their support for the regime. I concur with today’s Korean contributors that the ROKA is far less likely to be perceived as imperialist occupiers in NK, however much stoking that fear may suit Sino-Russian interests as a deterrent to ROK-US action here.

At a few points, the author mentions Russia’s unique and long-standing relations with NK. I would ask first that he elaborate on what exactly that means. I wonder if old, communist-era relations matter that much to leaderships as ruthlessly pragmatic as Russia’s and NK’s today, but perhaps. Please tell us more. Second, if the relationship is so close, I would ask if there is any way for Russia to put that to good use in opening NK or at least tempering it. Just because Russian and NK diplomats may have shared memories of the Cold War does not mean that Russian diplomacy is actually influencing Northern behavior for the better. The Chinese often say they too have ‘unique leverage,’ but the North Koreans don’t seem to listen to them either. In any case, elaboration here would be valuable.

I’m fairly skeptical of the possibilities of NK marketization. I do realize that this has become a matter of major dispute in NK studies now. But the outline suggested in this paper, that NK, independently of unification, could develop private property and industrial conglomerates on par with the chaebol, strikes me as extraordinarily optimistic. My own sense is that post-famine marketization is illicit, informal, and still reversible. I do agree that such behavior is widespread, but to me, that is more a mark of how corrupt NK has become as the public distribution system has collapsed. I suppose one might argue that corruption itself is an indicator of privatization, but of course that would be fairly controversial claim.

Finally, I would note that the ultimate disposition of NK, and the alliance posture of a unified Korea, are up to Koreans themselves. The paper at one point say Russia has ‘legitimate and serious’ interests in Korea and unification, and the China paper notes as well that China has ‘core’ interests here. More generally, I hear that sort of talk a lot from Chinese scholars at conferences now. I would be extremely wary of using such language. I certainly agree that Russia, China, Japan, and the US all have national interests at stake here. But we should not use words like ‘legitimate’ that accord those interests any moral or normative weight. We are all outsiders here, and this is a Korean family affair. We should not manipulate this situation for our own benefit and then have the gall to call that ‘legitimate.’

Indeed, the only morally defensible position on the Korean division anymore – now that the Cold War is over and Vietnam, Germany and Yemen are all reunified; after the Arduous March and half a million man-made famine deaths; and given all we know about Northern gulag-totalitarianism from the defector literature of the last two decades – is the immediate promotion of Southern-led Korean unity and the end of the Kim family tyranny. That Russia, and China, may not find that outcome in their geopolitical interest is entirely understandable. We all know that Russia and China do not want USFK on the Yalu, and that is why they drag their feet on criticizing NK.

But there is nothing upright, moral, legitimate, etc. in instrumentalizing the pain of Korean disunity like that. Keeping Korea divided by referencing Northern sovereignty at the UN is a callous fig-leaf, an artifice to prevent a change in the regional balance at the expense of China and Russia. Russia and China have no real allegiance to UN ‘due process’ or international law regarding the dictatorships like the DPRK or Syria. This posturing is all about maintaining a favorable northeast Asian regional balance. But of course, that regional balance is paid for in the terrible suffering of everyday North Koreans. There’s nothing ‘legitimate’ about that; that’s just classic realpolitik. If China and Russia wish to be genuinely ‘responsible stakeholders’ in the region, and not just selfish, they would help push NK toward collapse, not crassly delay unification, or try to structure it to their benefit.

c. Phase II Comments

Lastly, I would like to suggest one major constructive criticism of the Phase II report. Its arguments are generally modeled on a Southern occupation of NK as akin to the US experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the experience of the FRG absorbing the GDR has gone mostly unreferenced. But it strikes me that Germany is much more analogous to the Korean situation than the greater Middle East.

The German case had: reunification, peacetime reconstruction, a Cold War-inspired division into democratic-capitalist and Soviet-communist halves, a singular, undisputed national-cultural identity, and massive transfers from one to the other to pay for unity. Iraq, by contrast, was an occupation by a foreign power after an aggressive invasion, with reconstruction under fire by highly identifiable and disliked foreign elements, and deep ethno-sectarian splits that divided, not unified, the country.

Hence, I think the Project really only needs to look at full-blown reunification, what Dr. Yoon calls the German model, for reasons well laid out in Dr. Choo’s paper: NK is so different in regime type from SK, that a ‘one country, two systems’ model is all but impossible. If it happened, NK would insist on retaining so much of its distinct identity, including most obviously, the Kim dynasty and the system of repression, that joint covering institutions would be thin and powerless. Instead, a federation would likely be a gimmick to get Southern wealth transferred to the North. In greater China, which is often used as an example, Hong Kong, Macau, and the People’s Republic are not so politically far apart as to make federation impossible. All share a technocratic, developmentalist ideology and a reasonable amount of social pluralism and individual freedom. By contrast, a Korean federation with an unreformed DPRK would look like the United Arab Republic or ASEAN, a shallow club of states unwilling and unable to genuinely integrate.

Conversely, if the DPRK did change enough to achieve political compatibility for a federation, then it would have changed so much that it would be little more than a poorer version of SK. SK is not going to become more autocratic and illiberal to achieve a federation; NK would have to do all the changing, in effect becoming more like SK in order to get SK to accept a federation. But at that point then, why would the DPRK need to exist at all? In short, I do not believe that NK can meaningfully reform, because that destroys its raison d’etre as an independent Korean state. The likely peninsular outcomes are therefore either, the continued stalemate we have today, or implosion resulting in total absorption as in Germany.

10 thoughts on “USC-CSIS Conference on Korean Unification (3): DPRK ‘Sovereignty’ is a Sino-Russian Fig-Leaf to Slow Unification and Check US Power

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  3. I blogged about this in 2010 (on the minimal basis of a single holiday!) and am therefore glad that serious thought is at last going in to planning for Korean reunification:

    The discussion misses the constitutional aspect I raised. It looks more straightforward than in federal Germany, but this needs to be confirmed.

    I also feel the discussion downplays the extreme importance of a clear policy on internal migration post- NK collapse. If temporary controls on movement of NK citizens are unacceptable or unconstitutional (Article 14 of the ROK constitution), then you need to find workarounds to prevent a mass flood, such as subsistence support tied to residence.

    The US Army trained 10,000 civil affairs officers in 1942-1946 in preparation for the governing of occupied territories. The contrast with the Iraq fiasco is striking., page 8.


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  6. I may have missed it in your posts or throughout the associated literature, or it might just be unreasonable for reasons I can’t think of, but wouldn’t China’s fear about US and SK troops on the Yalu mean that they would move in to North Korea the minute the state seemed to be dissolving (maybe even before that) and take over administration?

    By installing a puppet government, they’re continuing the rhetoric around NK’s sovereignty, can claim that its a humanitarian move (giant fig leaf again given their usual lines around that), and would get to retain that lovely buffer from the 38th upwards, not to mention the resources etc.

    Why is this less likely than the chaos of reunification with the South which China gains so little from? My understanding of the Korean war is that they essentially did this when the UN troops got too close.

    I can see the press releases now: “By special request of the North Korean government and in light of the removal of Kim Jong Un from power, China is now providing close assistance to the North, supplying administrative and security support to the failing state. No timeframe has been given for withdrawal…”


    • That’s an intriguing alternate scenario. You should write that up. My own sense of the debate is that the Chinese don’t want to run NK. It would be too difficult. The place is falling apart; Koreans are petty nationalist, so there’d definitely be an insurgency; world opinion would almost certainly reject it as imperialism.

      So the best option in this bad situation is to prop up NK as long as possible, but not actually take it over when it is really is on its way out. But then, NK has turned out to be far more stable than we thought, so this is actually a pretty good strategy for the Chinese.

      Good observation.


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