Kim Jong Un attends a women's soccer match in Pyongyang, October 2014
KCNA / Courtesy Reuters

A SCARY SCENARIO

North Korea’s implosion is imminent, South Korea’s absorption of the North will represent a boon to all, and policymakers in Washington and Seoul should start planning for a military intervention to reunify the Korean Peninsula -- at least according to Sue Mi Terry (“A Korea Whole and Free,” July/August 2014). Although the idea that the regime in North Korea stands on the brink of extinction dates back decades, Terry’s insistence that the benefits of collapse will outweigh the costs is novel. Yet her assessment grossly overstates both the feasibility and the desirability of reunification after a sudden regime change. 

For starters, the benefits that Terry claims will accrue from reunification rest on dubious assumptions. In the event of regime change in the North, she asserts, South Korea would enjoy major savings up-front by shrinking its defense budget in the absence of the North Korean threat. In fact, defense spending would have to skyrocket at first, due to the costs of stabilizing the North. As with de-Baathification in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion, demobilizing Kim Jong Un’s million-man army would pose a huge cost. And even if the necessary initial outlays subsided, the new Korea’s national security strategy would require increased defense spending to keep up with China’s rise and Japan’s resurgence. Planners in Seoul would be making a serious mistake if they counted on a peace dividend to offset the costs of absorption. 

Terry also argues that a reunified Korea would reap economic gains from the combination of the North’s labor and resources and the South’s capital and technology. But the more likely result is systemic dysfunction. As people, goods, and services suddenly flowed freely, the North-South wage gap would close, meaning that labor costs would not fall as low as Terry implies. Once it joined with the South, the impoverished North would automatically enter the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and thus forfeit any foreign aid from its members (as was the case when East Germany joined West Germany). Similarly, the North would no longer enjoy the benefits of the World Trade Organization’s system of preferential tariffs for developing countries. Complex litigation over property rights would clog the new country’s courts. Chinese investors, meanwhile, would demand that their existing contracts with northern firms be recognized, adding to the prohibitively high costs southern firms would face when trying to enter the northern market. 

The societal problems of sudden integration would be legion, too. Reunification would not, as Terry asserts, represent a demographic boon for the South, counteracting its low birthrate and rapidly aging work force; in fact, North Korea also suffers from an aging population, due to its relatively high life expectancy and low birthrate. The prospect of South Korea’s medical insurance system incorporating 25 million new members -- including malnourished children and adults with chronic diseases such as tuberculosis -- is daunting, to say the least. When it comes to inequality, Northerners would naturally expect the state to undertake a major redistribution of wealth to close the wealth gap, whereas southern taxpayers would naturally resent the burden. Some South Korean corporations would make windfall profits as they gained access to undervalued assets, but those revenue flows would bypass managers, workers, and farmers in the North. Preexisting regional rivalries and ideological differences would likely increase, and the addition of a bloc of voters from the North could further destabilize the already divisive two-party political system in the South. 

STAYING POWER

The good news is that Terry exaggerates not just the benefits of a regime collapse in the North but also its likelihood. Despite a hurried succession process, Kim appears to be firmly in charge. The purge of his uncle Jang Song Thaek has not unleashed a wave of elite defections, nor has China severed ties to the country or sealed the border. Although North Korea lags far behind the rest of East Asia, the country’s economy is growing steadily, as visitors to Pyongyang in recent years know well. Kim has prioritized economic development, promising, in his words, never to make his people “tighten their belts again.” He is experimenting with reforms that empower farmers, factory managers and entrepreneurs and has created more special economic zones to invite foreign investment. The results remain modest, but for now, each year is moderately better than the last, progress that serves to strengthen the regime. 

Even if, as Terry predicts, North Korean elites tired of their “hotheaded” young leader and pushed him out, North Korea as a state would survive. In the unlikely event of a coup, the generals and party elders that formed a new regime would have nothing to gain from turning over the reins of power to Seoul. Indeed, the new leaders might turn out to be far less preferable than Kim, just as the rise of extremists in many post–Arab Spring countries has made the old strongmen look desirable in comparison. Outsiders should be careful what they wish for.

North Korea’s neighbors are well aware of such dangers. China would prefer to avoid a calamity on its border, especially since North Korea’s collapse would destroy China’s strategic buffer and probably bring U.S. troops too close for comfort. Moscow, too, would prefer to keep a buffer beneath the Russian Far East and avoid a meltdown that could undermine its economic development efforts there. Leaders in Japan, despite their enmity toward the Kim regime, feel ambivalent about the prospect of a reunified peninsula, in light of their country’s repressed rivalry with South Korea. Even South Koreans, who live under the threat of attack from the North, have mixed feelings about the fall of North Korea, given the costs. In other words, nowhere in Northeast Asia is there the political will to overthrow the North Korean state. 

That reluctance, of course, owes in large part to the most powerful factor propping up Pyongyang, which Terry leaves out of the equation: its nuclear deterrent. Facing the threat of nuclear retaliation, neither the United States nor South Korea would dare attempt to overtly topple Kim. That is precisely why it is so hard to convince the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear program, and why an externally triggered regime change is almost inconceivable. 

A BETTER WAY

Fortunately, the Korean Peninsula need not reunify in the way Terry imagines. Rather than prepare to swallow North Korea whole, South Korea, with the help of the United States, should work on a long-term strategy for the gradual merging of North and South. Economic integration between the North and the South -- a grand project initiated in the late 1990s, then interrupted under the previous South Korean administration, but hopefully resuming now under South Korean President Park Geun-hye -- represents the only cost-effective way to reunite the Korean people. 

As part of this effort, Washington and Seoul should prudently but proactively engage Pyongyang, as other players in the region are already doing. The most dramatic recent example is Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun lifting sanctions in order to convince Kim to reopen the investigation into Japanese citizens abducted by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Russia has stepped up its economic presence, forgiving North Korea’s massive Soviet-era debt and investing in a North Korean port. And China has continued to trade and invest in North Korea, despite Beijing’s displeasure with Kim. The United States’ insistence on sanctions and opposition to negotiations look increasingly out of tune with developments in the region. Park, to her credit, has kept the door open to resuming the interrupted process of inter-Korean reconciliation.

Reunification remains the ultimate goal for all Koreans, but it will be a hard slog. For now, the fact on the ground is that the peninsula remains divided. Policymakers in Washington and Seoul need to deal squarely with that reality -- instead of preparing for a hypothetical scenario that never seems to come true. 

JOHN DELURY is Assistant Professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies. CHUNG-IN MOON is Professor of Political Science at Yonsei University and a member of South Korea’s Presidential Committee for Preparation of Reunification.

TERRY REPLIES:

John Delury and Chung-in Moon do a good job of refuting an article I did not write. I never claimed that “North Korea’s implosion is imminent,” that “Washington and Seoul should start planning for a military intervention to reunify the Korean Peninsula,” or that reunification would be problem free. I never once suggested that the United States or South Korea should use military action to bring about North Korea’s demise; in fact, I described reunification through war as the worst possible and least likely scenario and argued that the United States should ratchet up sanctions to hasten North Korea’s peaceful demise. Nor did I deny the many problems that reunification would bring in the short run -- some of which Delury and Moon highlight. As I wrote, “The Kim regime will probably not come to a neat end; the collapse of a state is always messy, and it will be particularly so for a regime so militarized and desperate.”

Nevertheless, I did argue that the North’s collapse is, on balance, likely to be for the good (barring disasters such as nuclear proliferation, as I mentioned in my article). Even if “complex litigation over property rights” were to “clog the new country’s courts,” as Delury and Moon allege, this seems a small price to pay to rid the world of a regime that ranks as the worst human rights abuser on the planet and that regularly threatens its neighbors with nuclear annihilation.

Delury and Moon exaggerate the problems that a reunified Korea will face. They claim that its “national security strategy would require increased defense spending to keep up with China’s rise and Japan’s resurgence.” But they offer no reason why a reunified Korea would feel any more threatened by China or Japan than South Korea does today. Moreover, their analogy to Iraq after the U.S. invasion is misleading. There was no South Iraq to absorb the newly liberated state the way that South Korea could absorb the North. And unlike Iraq, which is fragmented along sectarian lines, the Korean Peninsula is one of the most ethnically homogenous places on earth.

Although Delury and Moon may not like the idea of North Korea’s collapse, that is a far more likely scenario than their fantasy of “the gradual merging of North and South.” South Korea has tried to make that dream come true before, through the so-called sunshine policy it pursued from 1998 to 2008, and the result was unambiguous failure. During those years, South Korea gave North Korea $8 billion in investment and assistance. In 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung even handed Kim Jong Il $500 million in cash to stage a summit (an act that earned the former the Nobel Peace Prize). In return, Seoul got, well, nothing. Pyongyang advanced its development of nuclear weapons and missiles, conducting its first nuclear test in 2006, and remained as repressive and dysfunctional as ever. Delury and Moon make no case for why a new sunshine policy would work any better. 

Delury and Moon may think that Kim Jong Un is initiating serious economic reform, but the evidence does not bear this out. He is merely tinkering around the edges of a Stalinist system, just as his father and grandfather did. Kim has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on dolphin aquariums, water parks, and ski resorts that cater to the elite. The 84 percent of North Korean households that the UN maintains suffered from “borderline” or “poor” levels of food consumption in 2013 might beg to differ with Delury and Moon’s characterization that “Kim has prioritized economic development.” If Kim were a real reformer, he would have no problem taking the modest step of cutting his country’s bloated defense budget by five percent, which would free up enough money to end the country’s food crisis. Moreover, by executing his own uncle, Kim showed himself to be even more cruel and capricious than his father and grandfather -- and that’s saying something.

Delury and Moon call North Korea’s collapse “a hypothetical scenario that never seems to come true.” That, of course, is what people used to say about the possibility that the Soviet Union, East Germany, or other communist regimes would fall. Sooner or later, North Korea will go the way of those other failed states. Outsiders should prepare for this scenario now, rather than pretending that the Kim family’s dysfunctional dictatorship will last forever -- or dreaming that after 66 years, it will magically transform into a democratic, capitalist country that respects the rights of its citizens and neighbors.