Is Korean Reunification a Dream Worth Chasing?

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A couple of months ago, it would have been considered paranoid to discuss the possibility of  reconciliation on either side of the Korean De-militarized zone (DMZ), which contrary to its name, is one of the most heavily patrolled borders in the world. There are ample examples to prove this point. North’s flexing of military muscles by conducting various nuclear tests, detonating thermonuclear weapons and launching Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) have invited wrath from global community in the past. The complete disregard of state sovereignty owing to multiple missile tests last year over the airspace of Japanese island of Hokkaido had rendered the prospects of reconciliation bleak. Amidst such manoeuvrings, the historic meeting between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-in did open doors, albeit for short time, for more meaningful negotiation on pressing issues concerning both countries as well as international actors like China, USA, Russia and Japan. These issues include reunification, complete denuclearisation of Korean peninsula and removal of American troops from South Korea. More recently, the first ever USA-DPRK summit in Singapore raised hopes for escalation of peace in the Asia-Pacific region. Denuclearisation featured as the single most important agenda, though both sides have markedly contrasting interpretation to this term. With the ‘Reunification’ issue losing its ground, one question deserves serious cogitation: how feasible is the prospect of a peninsular reunification?

ECONOMICS AT PLAY

A realistic perspective to look at reunification is the economic one. Reunification threatens to impose huge economic costs on the South Korean citizens to bring their northern counterparts at par with their standard of living. A study published by the Humboldt – Universität zu Berlin finds that the cost of reunification stands at 13-15% of South’s GDP. A report by South Korea’s Financial Services Commission portrays a similar picture.

The evolution of the Koreans on either side of 38th parallel have been divergent for the last 60 years. This cultural gap applies more to the youth who are the future taxpayers and will bear the economic brunt of reunification. Notably, the youth doesn’t share the sentiments of older generation of being separated from their closed ones and hence are less supportive of any coalescing exercise.

On the contrary, North Korea sits upon mineral reserves many times its GDP. There are estimated reserves of about 200 kinds of minerals including the strategic rare earth metals used in smartphone technology. As per a 2018 report by the U.S. Geological survey, North’s graphite production increased from 2016 to 2017 whereas magnesia exports to China are underway despite some restrictions by Chinese government. A united Korea with free markets and access to new technologies may enable commercially viable extraction of North’s mineral resources. There also exists tremendous potential for tapping the human resource of North that has long stood unutilised due to economic stagnation. However, in the hypothetical scenario of reunification, the nature of resultant political and economic systems will dictate the future arrangement.

DENUCLEARISATION & WITHDRAWAL OF TROOPS

Even though the US dreams of a nuclear free Korea, complete denuclearisation is a complicated proposition for North Korea, whose upper hand in non-conventional deterrence vis-à-vis South provides a level playing field in the international forum and elevates its stance on the negotiating table. The nature of military relationship between the US and South Korea is also witnessing major breakthroughs. Both have already agreed upon a gradual decline in US troops and rearrangement of military command structure to provide greater say to South Korean generals in decision making.

However, complete withdrawal is a difficult choice for the US too. The lobbies from the American military industrial complex have a notorious reputation of supporting the status quo in conflict scenarios. This applies especially to South Korea, which is a major buyer of US weaponry. According to a report published by ‘Security Assistance Monitor’, South Korea featured in top 20 recipients of US arms sales notifications in 2016. Moreover, South Korea featured 2nd in terms of number of arms sales offers including foreign manufacturing. The sale of Maverick and Sidewinder missiles to South Korea has been approved by the US State department, whereas the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defence system has been operational since last year. So, the American Deep State isn’t very supportive of a peaceful conflict resolution.

THE GREAT GAME IN ASIA-PACIFIC

Since the signing of Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953 and establishment of United States Forces Korea in 1957, South Korea has enjoyed two-fold benefits: presence of US ground troops on its soil and assurance of the nuclear umbrella. This assurance was recently reaffirmed by Randall Schriver, Assistant Secretary of Defence for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, during the 2nd Asia-Pacific Geo-Economic Strategy Forum.

However, in geopolitics there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, but only permanent interests. The long term imperative for the US in Asia-Pacific region is to secure the strategic trade routes for itself and its allies. The Strait of Malacca is one of the significant naval choke points and caters to much of the energy needs of China, Japan and South Korea, which are largest trading partners of the US outside North America. Also the volume of trans-pacific trade is highest sea-borne trade in the world. Naturally, it is in America’s interest to defend its oceanic backyard.

North Korea, with an arsenal of long range missiles and nuclear warheads, poses greatest threat to Pacific trade and lends credibility to the US position in the Korean conflict. In the larger scheme of things, presence of US air and naval assets in the Yellow Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea as well as ground troops stationed in the Japanese archipelago close to Chinese mainland enables American power projection in the Asia-Pacific and puts in place an effective counterweight to a hegemonic China.

The status quo favours China to a certain extent. North Korea acts as a buffer state between China and the US allied South. However, a nuclear armed North is more of a threat than buffer. Should North fall into political turmoil, it will be a chaos to manage due to its possession of nuclear weapons. Hence, an alteration in status quo (reunification) is amicable to China only if political transition is peaceful and perceived American threats, both conventional and nuclear, are alleviated. Both these are highly unlikely scenarios.

Japan, with an ageing and population, could benefit from Korean reunification by getting surplus labour from North Korea. As per Bruce Klinger of the Heritage Foundation, Japan incurs heavy opportunity cost for deploying ballistic missile defence system and stationing US troops on its soil. A unified Korea would attenuate some of these costs. However, Japan won’t be as proactive as the US because of the Koreans’ bitter wartime experience with the Japanese and Japan’s pacifist outlook since WW2.

Russia’s emergence in global affairs are reminiscence of its Soviet days. From projecting power in its immediate neighbourhood (Georgian crisis, 2008 & Crimean crisis, 2014) to showcasing military prowess in Syria, the Slavic giant is desperate to make its mark. But Russia is no USSR and since the fall of the communist state in 1990, it no longer plays a major role in Korean peninsula.

The international community together with both the parties must discuss alternate avenues of conflict resolution. The ‘Pariah State’ should be incorporated into the global trade network. As recommended in a report published by the Council on Foreign Relations, ‘The United States must seek ways to integrate North Korea into the international community, including through cultural and academic exchanges’. The long-standing American policies of barring North Korea to participate in the International Financial Institutions (IFIs) has to be reversed.

However, the integration process has to be gradual so as to avoid rapid instability and regime fall that could potentially result in refugee crisis in both China and South Korea. Also, receiving loans from IFIs is no walk in the park as it requires adherence to international standards of reporting about the country’s financial system; something an opaque Kim regime has regularly restrained from doing. Hence, this option should be exercised cautiously.

Despite all the rhetoric on reunification and the associated benefits, recognition of a two-state solution may be the more pragmatic step towards the resolution of all outstanding issues between the sister nations. As long as status quo favours the vested interests of geopolitical players, permanent solution to Korean problem will continue to be a far-fetched dream.