If Korea Were to Unite...
Image Credit: KOREA.NET

If Korea Were to Unite...


Discussions on Korea today often revolve around North Korea and its nuclear weapons program. Yet, it is highly unlikely that the Korean Peninsula will remain divided forever, and emergence of a successfully unified and stable Korea is certainly one of many possibilities that merits close attention. Such a scenario would have far-reaching and potentially destabilizing consequences on the balance of power in Northeast Asia, especially with regard to a rising China and a normalizing Japan, both of which have critical security interests on the Korean Peninsula.

For the time being, there is in fact a great power status quo on the Korean Peninsula, as North Korea in many ways is an issue that unites the major regional powers who are often at odds with each other, including Japan, South Korea, China, the United States, and Russia. In the most basic sense, all five countries support North Korea denuclearizing and not collapsing, and oppose actions that could lead to war on the Peninsula. Thus, the lack of policy coordination among the different powers has been due to differences in priorities more so than interests.

Korean reunification would dramatically alter the consensus that now exists. Notably, China and a reunified Korea (under Seoul) will have direct security issues due to their shared borders and outstanding border disputes. Beijing will be particularly worried about Korean and U.S. troops moving up to the very open China-Korea Yalu River border. Even if the U.S. military were to remain below the DMZ line or leave the Korean Peninsula entirely, China will still have to worry about the South Korean military, which is well equipped and has nearly seven-hundred thousand troops (one of the largest in the world). Without North Korea and its 1.1 million troops serving as geographic and human buffers, Beijing will consider Korean and U.S. troops as serious regional threats.

Furthermore, a reunified Korea would be able to direct more energy to issues that received less attention before, especially highly charged historical disputes with Japan. There are several unresolved issues between the two countries, including the territorial disputes (Dokdo/Takeshima Islands, names of the Sea of Japan/East Sea) and numerous issues originating from Japan’s colonization of Korea and World War II (for example, the comfort women issue). Focusing more on these issues would fuel nationalism in an increasingly confident, assertive, and powerful Korea. This might be useful inbuilding cohesiveness among the formerly split Korean people, but Tokyo would likely feel threatened by Seoul’s intention to address its past grievances. While the two countries might not become openly hostile, their relations would almost certainly deteriorate, intensifying the tension in the region.

The second factor, which will further complicate the situation, is the on-going rise of China, assuming that it continues to grow without experiencing serious domestic instability. In the future, an increasingly powerful Chinese military power will render U.S. security guarantees in the region less credible. Despite the so-called “pivot,” the fact of the matter is that Chinese military power will grow relative to U.S. military power in the region. Given the Korean Peninsula’s importance to China’s security, Beijing may push Seoul to distance itself from Washington or even to align with it.

In its own response to a rising China, Japan could become a fully normal nation without any constitutional limit placed on its military power. Japan remains the third largest economy in the world, while the Maritime Self-Defense Force at this time remains the most powerful naval force in the region after the U.S. navy. Tokyo would consider the possibility of Seoul aligned with Beijing a serious national security threat, “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan,” as Korea could be used as a springboard for attacks against the Japanese Isles (Pusan, a major Korean port, is less than two-hundred nautical miles from Yamaguchi Porton the Japanese mainland).

With the reunification of Korea and a rising China, the Northeast Asia of the future will be fraught with security dilemmas. Given Korea’s strategic location and the fact that it has become a significant middle power in its own right, Seoul’s choice of alignment among the great powers competing could potentially tilt the balance of power in the region in favor of one side or another. Such a shift would no doubt cause dangerous destabilization in the region, if there is no dominant force to keep stability.

In such a circumstance, one possible strategy that Seoul could pursue is balancing without alignment. Korea’s potential role as East Asia’s political and economic intersection point— and perhaps even as an independent balancing player in its own right— is being increasingly discussed in the country. Many Koreans today are hoping that Seoul in the future could be the country where regional political issues and economic exchanges are mediated, despite the fact that balancing has historically been an extraordinarily difficult feat for Korea.

In fact, Korea experimented unsuccessfully with a similarly independent balancing strategy before during the late 19th and early 20th century, when multiple great powers were competing for regional dominance in East Asia. China’s Qing Dynasty at that time had weakened significantly, and it was too risky for Korea to rely on the Middle Kingdom as the guarantor of security. Instead, Seoul tried to forge relations with as many great powers as possible and play them off one another so that none of them would be able to actually control Korea. The gambit, however, failed, and Korea came under Japanese rule between 1910 and 1945.

In the end, the best strategy (or rather, the least bad option) for Seoul may be retaining its alliance with Washington (even if its influence declines in the region), while attempting to remain as neutral as possible between Beijing and Tokyo, as difficult (and perhaps even unsustainable) as it may be. Korea should strive to act as an absolutely neutral buffer between China and Japan– a status that should preferably be guaranteed by the United States, which might still be able to play the role of a distant, neutral arbiter. This strategy would be one of neutrality guaranteed by an outside actor as opposed to active balancing without aligning with one actor. It is certainly not a risk-free strategy, as maintenance of neutrality is almost as difficult as balancing, but it may be the only viable strategy.

The primary threat to this policy remains nationalism, which will constantly push Korea to adopt a more assertive foreign policy. Maintenance of neutrality will require all the tact, restraint, and subtlety that Seoul can muster. Resolving the East Asian countries’ historical grievances with each other might be one way to moderate Korean nationalism. Washington could also further defense and technological cooperation with Seoul to strengthen the latter’s military so that it may fend for its own security to some degree.A strong Korea that is able to resist pressure from both China and Japan might lead to a more stable Northeast Asia.

Other major actors in the region too, including the United States, should recognize the pivotal importance of the Korean Peninsula in maintaining stability in the region, and work together to keep the peninsula an independent buffer state. No state should attempt to disturb the status quo and bring Korea under its dominance, and in this endeavor, the United States should continue to play its part as Northeast Asia’s peacekeeper in the future.

Sungtae“Jacky” Park is a research assistant at Center for the National Interest. He has previously written for CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies), France 24, and the International Affairs Review.

The Guatama
August 18, 2013 at 03:17

South Korea should take the North because the poeple of the entire Korean peninsula are better off in peac ADN this is technically Japan's fault, it had never taken the peninsula in 1910 then the Koereas would either remain independent or would be part of China and also I agree that if the South would take the North they would have to spend a massive amount of money on fixing the mess up but hey! The South is rich and has a big military  and if Britain, the EU and Sweden are at peace then they still have a boatload of problems just like asia and the south will a have to deal with china and japan and this will even sow tensions between other nations

June 4, 2013 at 15:14

North Korea was part of China.

March 7, 2013 at 22:32

Germany's army currantly stands at around 220,000 men. They re-armed years ago, they are just very reluctant to fight in wars. They are considered to be a defensive only force (kinda like the japanese military). In comparrison the United Kingdom only has 105,000 armed forces personel.


February 22, 2013 at 01:26

One issue the author failed to mention would be the process of reunification and the how it would create an internal focus.  In short, Korea might be more focused on integration than setteling regional scores.  Think of what it took to unify the Germanys?

February 16, 2013 at 10:44

A little bit off topic, but food for thought in context of Naval expansion all players and the comment above of Eastern Russia as a 'new state'… is all this new naval sparring relevant to a new strategic reality emerging of the melting of the Artic Ice Pack and the opening to shipping of new routes to Europe and North America via the Artic?

February 16, 2013 at 04:27

Bankotsu is doing the old 50-cent troll routine again. Not clear what he really knows, but it doesn't seem like much.

February 12, 2013 at 11:25

Agree that there will be lots of internal problems to deal with, in case of reunification – a fairly obvious point.

This article specifically refers to a hypothetical scenario, in which Korea emerges as a stable, unified state.

TV Monitor
February 10, 2013 at 07:32

@ Christian

You need to check your history education. North Korea was never a part of China.

Vic Mackey
February 9, 2013 at 19:22

Agreed, then DPRK is just China's problem.

Vic Mackey
February 9, 2013 at 19:20

Although I agree that it is absurd to believe that overnight a united Korea would suddenly emerge as the key stakeholder in regional pol-mil relationships I still value the author's imagination.  The idea that there are alternatives to the current structure of relationships in Northeast Asia is intriguing.  It is equally of interst to consider how much the United States can rely on Seoul as an important regional ally.



Yuri Shukov
February 9, 2013 at 01:19

You Amerikan trolls aren't exactly very good actors, are you?  Mis-spelling?  My foot!  What the original writer intended was to describe the US as what it truly is :  A police state called Amerika.  CIA trolls like who are recruited to drown out or shout out, or ridicule out, or to slander, misinform, and disinform with BS propaganda are part of the organs of an oppressive police state.  And "Amerika" describes it perfectly!

Bill Rich
February 8, 2013 at 13:12

Forever is a long, long time. I don’t think North and South Korea will stay split forever. However, the split can last a long time. Just look back at Korean history. It was split three ways and that last over a hundred years. China was split in many states for hundreds of years at a time several times. So, not a long, long time. But in Asia history, a few hundred years is only a long time.

February 7, 2013 at 19:08

Present day North Korea was once part of the Chinese Imperial empire.
It would be more convenient for all concerned if North Korea becomes a province in the PRC. 

Lady Sang-Hwa
February 7, 2013 at 12:15

Again, a Chinese wumaoer's ranting nonstop.

Lady Sang-Hwa
February 7, 2013 at 12:09

'Amerikan' has been used by the same Chinese vumaoer disguised in Western names but you spot it on, Errol.

February 7, 2013 at 01:32

This is off-topic maybe, and I've no gripe with everyone's spelling, but the word 'Amerikan' has been used several times in multiple posts, under different names. Are they all from the same person? Coz this has never happened last year, at least.

Charles Strummer
February 5, 2013 at 15:46

You've got something against the Chinese?  They have achieved much these last 30 years.  One should tip one's hat to them for their successes.  Maybe you are a typical right wing neocon white Amerikan troll pretending to be a a Korean here?

February 5, 2013 at 10:58

@TV Monitor. Read what I wrote carefully. You are basically repeating what I wrote more or less.

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