The Best Time for Korean Unification Is 5 to 10 Years


Korea Herald, August 17, 2007


The upcoming Korean summit is scheduled to focus on on issues of peace and joint economic developments, and it is not clear how it will contribute to future unification of Korea. What seems clear, however, is that Korean unification, while not imminent, is historically inevitable. The progressive power differentials between the South and the North are all too obvious with the former booming and the latter barely surviving on foreign assistance. The surrounding great powers, such as China, the United States and Russia, are in no position to prevent a future Korean reunification even if they would want to.


The question is how soon the reunification is to take place and to what extend it is likely to be shaped by the mentioned outside powers. At the moment, the international developments suggest a possibility that such unification may take place essentially on terms of Seoul, rather than outside powers.


Normally great powers play a critical role in determining process and outcomes of national unification or disintegration. Suffice is to recall the twentieth century European history. German unification took place under conditions of explicit patronage of the United States and benevolent attitude of the liberalizing Soviet Union. Ukraine was united by an explicit agreement between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, and, if it wasn’t for the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Ukraine might still be divided between its eastern and western parts. No less telling are multiple examples of partitioning Poland – something that helps to understand the nation’s current pro-American stance and its reluctance to follow political agenda of Russia or the European Union.


In the East Asian region, great powers have important stakes in a future Korean unification, and although none is able to set the terms of such unification, each has its own interests to advance.


China is potentially the most important player. Its recent role in getting the North to renounce its nuclear tests and return to the six-party negotiating table is an important indicator of China’s potential, as is its continuously growing economic and military power.


Still, Beijing is far from able to single-handedly control process of Korean unification, and, should such unification to begin today, it would likely be the United States and Japan benefiting from it the most. While the United States and Japan, too, cannot determine outcomes of Korean unification, they stand on their feet firmly and are not burdened by needs to radically modernize their industry and improve living conditions of their citizens. Economically, socially and politically, they are at the center of the international system, while China is still on its way to become its member.


Chinese political class understands this well by signaling it is not yet interested in the unification. The majority of experts favor status quo by viewing North Korea as a necessary buffer zone in relations with the United States, Japan and South Korea. The current mood is in favor of cultivating ties with the North and, in words of a People’s Daily column, against “sacrificing relations with other countries for the sake of stable Sino-U.S. ties.”


On the other hand, The United States and Japan since the Cold War have shown their keen interest in Korean unification hoping to strengthen their position on the Peninsula. Today, however, the momentum is gone, and neither one can hope to play a determining role in the process. For the last fifteen years, South Korea has grown increasingly critical of US role in the region and developed its own power and ambitious policy vis-à-vis the process of integrating the North. The United States remains a formidable power, and few doubt that it will preserve that power for many years to come.


Still, that power is currently overstretched, and Bush administration inability to understand its limitations has already caused number of failures to shape process of negotiations with North Korea.


Koreans have been equally critical of Japan’s role in the region – partly, in response to Japan’s own unwillingness to take responsibility for past mistakes and initiate a new dialogue with its neighbors.


Finally, Russia is reasserting its power and potential to play a greater role in East Asian affairs. Yet, Russia – even more so than China – must improve its domestic conditions before it is able to seriously participate in the process of Korean unification. Within the next ten years, the best it can hope for is to increase its economic presence on Korean peninsula and participate in collaborative international arrangements.


Russia therefore has no choice but being versatile in developing economic relations through strengthening relations with the United States and promoting trilateral cooperation with South Korea and North Korea. In particular, Russia hopes that the meeting between the leaders of the two Koreas in late August will help to connect the Trans-Siberian railway to the railways on the Korean peninsula, in addition to reinforcing the region’s security. Only through development of multiple ties in the region with all the sides involved—China, South Korea, North Korea, the United States, and Japan—does Russia stand a chance to reap economic and security benefits.


Aware of China’s rapid advancement, Russia also supports a faster reunification of the two Koreas, provided that it is orderly and not destabilizing in nature. Russian analysts commonly consider a unified Korea a potential strategic partner that would balance Chinese and Japanese aspirations in the area.


This composition of international power suggests an explanation why South Korea is facilitating the process of inter-Korean dialogue – read: unification – now, rather than before or later. To be relatively independent of foreign influences, the unification must take place within the next five years or so. Time has shown that some balance of power has been worked out in the region, and the process of further rapprochement between North and South can now take place without an US/Japan excessive interference. Within the next five to ten years, China and Russia too are unlikely to be overly intrusive due to their continued preoccupation with domestic modernization issues.


In the meantime, as Koreans are facilitating the process of their cooperation, it may be a high time for the surrounding great powers to devise some more clear rules of their participation in changing the political environment in the region. There is a good chance that a future unification may become an area of competition, rather than cooperation, and it will take a great deal of efforts for this inevitably painful and resource-consuming process to yield positive results for all the participants involved.