North Korea stands out in the world as a lone bastion of near-complete secrecy and isolation. It has existed as a modern country for almost 70 years, separated from the southern half of the Korean peninsula as part of wider Cold War struggle. In a sense, the separation of North and South was similar to that of East and West Germany, which occurred during the same period.
So why couldn’t the region’s leaders figure out a way to make North and South Korea to accept the same reunification conditions as East and West Germany when they reunified in 1990? When the Soviet Union began to collapse, East Germany fell out of Moscow’s grip. Finally free from the Kremlin, the East chose to reunify with the US-backed West Germany. North Korea however was still under Beijing’s influence, even as China continued to shed much of its communist identity. A light stranglehold on North Korea’s foreign policy offers a glimpse as to why it did not reunify with the South at this time, but there are several more complex reasons.
North Korea — adapting to a post-Cold War world
The end of the Cold War heralded the end of Pyongyang’s ability to “play” the two communist powers of Russia and China against one another. North Korea would always oppose the US, but it sometimes had leverage over which side of the communist bloc it placed itself on. North Korea’s swaying allegiance was rewarded with aid and support in turn by Russia and China. Both were attempting to lead the communist bloc against each other and the US. Once the communist ideology was widely abandoned in almost every country, North Korea’s leadership found itself subject to the whim of Chinese demands.
That all changed when North Korea developed nuclear weapons in 2006. Its leadership was given a new suicidal lease on life. The act also instigated the US to double down on efforts to isolate the country further. China, the only supply line the North Koreans had left, began to see it less and less as a country to influence and more of a country to contain. But a military operation against North Korea by either the US or China suddenly became vastly more complex. North Korea’s army, though large, has always been under-equipped and technologically outmatched by major powers. The possibility of a nuclear explosion, no matter how technologically inferior to their own arsenals, is now far too much for the US and China to risk.
North Korea remains dependent on China and pressured by the United States. Russia continues to hold a presence in the region, but no longer feel the need to offer much help to the North Koreans every time they threaten to embrace China or get in trouble. South Korean and Japanese leaders remain wary of the North’s erratic behavior, and are largely supportive of an American military presence within their countries. Though South Korea and Japan would like to see the end of North Korea as a security threat, several potentialities and realities make this idea less feasible.
South Korea — Southern Comfort
South Korea is eons ahead of the North in what we may call societal advancement — where economic, technological and cultural evolution has occurred at a faster pace. Though a similar phenomenon had developed between East and West Germany, it was not quite to the same extent of two Koreas.
In terms of population size, both North Korea and East Germany were smaller than their geographical counterparts. With roughly 16 million people at the time of reunification, East Germany was dwarfed by West Germany’s 63 million. Bringing the eastern population up to a more universal German standard was incredibly expensive (by some estimates over 2 trillion euros) but was generally seen as worth the cost.
Today, South Korea’s population stands at 50 million, while the North is believed to have roughly 25 million. South Korea has become wealthy after decades of strong economic growth, while the North lags far behind in almost every aspect of societal advancement Reunification would be an expensive burden for the South, as they would have to bring the North up to a more equal standard of living. It is easy to see why they might be apprehensive about the entire process. The culture shock as the two countries absorbed back into each other could also cause a number of social problems, with no easy solutions.
Despite its advantages, South Korea generally has to remain on high alert militarily. The Korean War, which created both countries, never ended with an official peace treaty. Both North and South are still technically at war, in a frozen but active conflict. South Korea maintains the 10th highest military budget in the world as of 2016. Though the North occasionally likes to violate their ceasefire agreement, the South can do little back, in order to avoid escalation. Only a full-scale assault by the North is likely to prompt the South to retaliate unilaterally, which it would do in tandem with the US. Over 28,000 American troops remain in the country as a show of force and in support of Seoul, making the Americans South Korea’s most important military ally.
Japan — identity crisis
Since their defeat in World War Two, Japan has only been allowed to have a passive military, collectively named the Japan Self-Defense Forces. It has the 8th largest military budget in the world as of 2016, but the country is forbidden by their constitution to act in any way but self-defense. The terms of that defense would be organised in cooperation and guidance with the US. Japan considers the US its most important bilateral partner and over 54,000 US troops remain in the country. This is also an American show of force to China, North Korea, Russia and perhaps Japan too.
A unified Korea would come to rival Japan in terms of population size. Japan is already engaged in a fierce debate over whether or not to allow the military to take more responsibility in regional order and security. A reunified Korea would almost certainly make that happen. The US might begin withdrawing their forces in response, making Japan more vulnerable to China and Russia, both of which it has territorial disputes with. So long as American troops remain in the country to deter North Korea, Japan remains untouchable to other major powers. Despite the danger North Korea poses, to some in the Japanese political and military leadership, it may be viewed as a necessary nuisance.
China — Pyongyang’s hesitant partner
China has maintained its rocky relationship with North Korea from the end of the Cold War. But they are by no means allies, despite what either countries’ media proclaims. Nonetheless, the relationship North Korea has with China is undoubtedly Pyongyang’s most important.
From the Chinese perspective, a sudden reunification of the Korean peninsula would raise many questions. Would American troops, already stationed in South Korea since the Korean War, remain in a unified Korea? If they left, would that make Japan renege on its pacifist constitution, and increase the capabilities of its military? Could there be refugee flow over into China from North Korea, should social conflict erupt on the peninsula?
As long as China believes it can contain North Korea, it will continue to do so. It can scold them at the UN whenever the North Koreans do anything provocative, knowing full well that North Korea’s lifeline is them and only them. For both Russia and China, North Korea remains a distraction for the US, allowing them to pressure the American global order in other areas. China sees the US as its biggest competitor in the region, and the largest obstacle to them establishing a regional dominance over its neighbors.
US — power and projection
The US remains committed to the region for several reasons. Most importantly, it has to act as a balance to China. In his book Perspectives on International Relations, Henry Nau upholds that “ultimately, states have to base their calculations on capabilities, not intentions”. China’s capabilities have been rising steadily for decades. It now has the second highest military budget in the world as of 2016. The US is committed to defending the order that it largely established in East Asia after World War Two. It fears China will upend that order and establish its own.
Even Vietnam, which had to fight a brutal war against the US on its own soil decades ago, is now actively calling on the US to maintain its presence in the region against China. Such a pragmatic reversal in relations no doubt stems in part from Vietnam’s territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea, and the belief that only the US can effectively block Chinese power.
Having a military presence in Japan and South Korea can be justified for the Americans so long as North Korea remains a perceived-threat. It is unclear if an American military presence would remain in the Korean peninsula upon reunification, or if China could even replace them. Would Japanese forces, perhaps no longer bound by its pacifist constitution, make moves to be independent from American protection? If so, would they be able to contend with China’s superior strength and a larger single Korea? Furthermore, would a reunified Korea and a re-militarized Japan remain helpful to the US’ regional foreign policy?
The Americans are also aware that they need to prevent North Korea from destabilizing South Korea and Japan. Working out a reunification agreement between the North and South is off the table for the moment. This means the US has to maintain a presence there to prevent North Korea from acting too boldly. Pyongyang has already proven itself to be nuclear-capable. Though it cannot contend with American and Chinese nuclear power, it can still seriously intimidate South Korea and Japan.
DPRK — here to stay?
The conflict between North and South Korea is unlikely to be resolved soon. Ultimately, the South is for unification in public only. Both its’ leadership and citizens know the cost of reunification would be one of significant financial magnitude. It could significantly diminish the economic and social progress made over decades. Japan, China and the US are all in turn unsure of the geopolitical re-balancing that could affect the region, should a unified Korea emerge.
North Korea’s leadership is unlikely to succumb to outside pressure any time soon. Their nuclear weapons are their most important possession, worth the cost of further isolation. China, South Korea and even the US occasionally offer aid to appease the leadership in between acts of diplomatic disputes. This is done for many reasons, not least to prevent North Korea from ever being desperate enough to reach for the nuclear button.
North Korea’s leadership appears capable of surviving for the time being. The world can wait for them to suffer from internal collapse, or for them to give up power willingly. For the latter to happen, an attractive-enough deal by other countries would have to be offered, in order to ensure a peaceful transition of power.
But why would any of them want to do that?