Similarly, sudden unification could produce fateful new geostrategic fault lines. Recall that in 1945-1947, US patience and diplomacy were slowly overtaken by a congealing animus and strategic competition that remained frozen in the 40-year-long Cold War. In addition, mistrust and miscalculation could catalyze a Sino-American rivalry that might polarize all of Northeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific region.
Some scholars have argued that Sino-American competition is anyway inevitable, and that engagement can’t alter that trajectory. But for those of us who believe human agency and effective institutions have something to say about the future, there would be a profound sadness because of the missed chance for great power engagement and cooperation.
China’s leaders should therefore try to better align their interests with South Korean, US and Japanese interests with respect to North Korea’s lethal use of force and nuclear ambitions. This hypothetical scenario, given fresh impetus by the sweeping changes now underway in Egypt, reminds us that it behoves officials to have persistent, in-depth, detailed discussions to plan for a range of contingencies on the Korean Peninsula.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
There would be much to plan for in the event of sudden unification. Hard security issues, for instance, would include the disposition of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery; the movement of military troops and major combat platforms like aircraft carriers; the disarmament and reintegration of the 1.1-million Korean People’s Army; and the future location of alliance bases and forces.
Meanwhile, a raft of state-building issues would ensue, with perhaps the biggest being an unrealistic expectation in northern Korea for a massive economic transfer for which the world would have to be ready to help pay for. That would require new infrastructure, including regional energy grids, all in the midst of turmoil over migration, property rights, educational reform and environmental cleanup. Retributive justice could follow and might well spill over into the region. Things certainly wouldn’t go smoothly.
But the upheaval and the potentially devastating long-term consequences of not planning for such a scenario would undoubtedly be worse. Last month in Beijing, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said, ‘We are in strong agreement that in order to reduce the chances of miscommunication, misunderstanding or miscalculation, it is important that our military-to-military ties are solid, consistent and not subject to shifting political winds.’
Egypt is a reminder that those winds could shift much faster than we ever expected.
Dr. Patrick M. Cronin is Senior Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Programme at the Center for a New American Security