The Debate

If Korea Were to Unite…

The balance of power in Northeast Asia could be dropped on its head. Old tensions — and new ones– could be unleashed.

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.