Pillars of a unified Korea
One evening last week I arrived at a Chinese restaurant 30 minutes late, but other North Korea experts had already found a table and were waiting for me. A simple gesture of seasonal greetings, albeit it seemed untimely, was exchanged while a waitress came in to set up the table again. As soon as I sat down, the waitress filled the empty glass with water. I took a sip of water as the dialogue, which was interrupted by my late show-up, continued.
To summarize the discussion: at a recent seminar in Seoul, some prominent American experts on Korea seriously asked their South Korean counterparts about the end state of a unified Korea, which would include the presence of nuclear weapons, the continued stationing of U.S. military personnel and the deepening relationship with China. Judging from the tones of the senior participant who had witnessed the closed-door seminar, I presumed that the American scholars were extremely unhappy, perhaps, about how the left-leaning South Korean governments had done against the United States and what had happened here since. All other seniors nodded, and for good reasons.
Firstly, China’s willingness to listen to the right-leaning Park Geun-hye government on the unification issue might have raised suspicions about the real motives behind those who wish to establish a better relationship with South Korea. While it was no doubt interpreted as China’s smart diplomacy for a longer term, we believed optimistically that the Seoul government would not likely lean on Beijing so fast. It means that unlike China, the United States remains the only ally who fought together against the Communist North Korea.
Almost all the South Koreans firmly believe that the blood-bonded alliance, which has been the hallmark of the two nations for more than six decades, could not be like shifting the phone receiver from right to left. Seoul’s close cooperation with Beijing in recent years has nothing to do with a growing pro-Chinese feeling here in South Korea, although the two neighbors can help each other help themselves by discussing their shared geopolitical challenge in Northeast Asia. After all, our judgment was that the specialists from a Washington-based think tank found themselves overwhelmingly sensitive of Seoul and Beijing cooperation on Japan’s past.
Secondly, most South Koreans are still supportive of the trustworthy alliance. South Korean and American leaders often speak out the natural affinities between the two countries. Even a lot of liberal pundits are in favor of the continued necessity of the U.S. troops stationed in the Korean Peninsula even after Korea is peacefully unified. In addition, critics of the U.S. policy accurately predict that the American military presence after the national unification would remain critical to enable the United States to continue its role as regional security guarantor.
The late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, for example, had told his counterpart, the late Kim Jong-il, in the North that the presence of American troops in South Korea served the interests of the two Koreas as a balancing force against other potentially hostile powers. The progressive president’s North Korea policy unexpectedly led the country into ideological polarization, but in a deeper sense the structure of military capabilities needs to be flexible, prepared to alter its shape as the unification process advances.
Lastly, we all laughed big over the “automatic acceptance” of clandestine North Korean nuclear weapons upon achieving unification. We laughed because a unified Korea with nuclear bombs would be a mirage. This idea is being peddled by nationalistic hawks, including the right-wing media machine. In truth, quite a number of common South Koreans are fooled into believing that nuclear weapons are unquestionably integral to restoring Korea’s war-torn honor and modern-day national pride. Under the politically conservative atmosphere, nukes are no longer taboo.
Many people still appear to know nothing of global nonproliferation rules and norms, studiously ignoring that North Korea created these treaties to create a nuclear monster. But we know with certainty that the existence of nuclear weapons under a unified Korea would cause a unified Korea be a slippery slope to isolation and poverty and to weaken its desire to be seen as a peace-loving country (History shows that Korea has never attacked other countries at all). That said, this is far from an image of a unified Korea that we envision.
All in all, there is no reason to believe that a unified Korea will seek to get nuclear weapons, disallow the presence of U.S. troops and move rapidly closer to China than people expect. In the future, a unified Korea’s foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors” should be the starting point in assuaging their concerns about the threesome. To make it happen, there is no question that strengthening the mutual alliance should be pillars of a unified Korean foreign policy.
We tacitly concluded, after almost three-hour long conversation over dinner, that a few American pundits’ dissatisfaction with South Korea might well be buried. Yet, ironically, it convinced me how sturdy pro-Americanism has long remained in the country where we belong.
The author is the director of Nonproliferation Center at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation.
by Lee Byong-chul