Can Park Geun-Hye prepare Korea, and the world, for reunification?

Yesterday, Yonhap reported that an unusual billboard had appeared in Times Square in New York: “Korean Unification would be an immeasurable BONANZA for any nations with interests in the Korean Peninsula.” To most of the Americans who read it, the billboard will seem odd, but Korea-watchers will recall when Korean-Americans took out similar ads in the United States, about things that matter much less. Beneath the paywall, we learn that “[t]he ad was set up by Han Tae-gyuk, a 66-year-old Korean-American man, at his own expense,” because Han “wants to publicize the importance of Park’s recent message on the future of the two Koreas.”

(Update: Here’s an image of the “billboard.”)

We could speculate as to whether the Korean government prompted or encouraged Mr. Han, and that is also remarkable if you knew the Korea I knew just over a decade ago. Lately, President Park herself has taken to promising Korea’s neighbors (read: China) that they will share in a “jackpot” when the day of reunification comes:

South Korean President Park Geun-hye said Wednesday that the Korean unification would be a blessing not only for the Koreas but for neighbors as well, citing investment opportunities in the communist North. Park made the remark during a question and answer session after a keynote speech at this year’s meeting of the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos. She said unification of the two Koreas would be a “jackpot” for all of Northeast Asia.

“I think unification will be a great benefit for neighboring countries,” Park said, adding that unification will touch off massive investments in North Korea, mainly infrastructure projects, and revitalize investments in neighboring China and Russia too.  “As unification can provide the Northeast Asia region with a fresh growth engine, I think unification will be a jackpot not only for South Korea, but also for all neighboring countries in Northeast Asia,” she said. [Yonhap]

In case you think Park is talking about some hippie-drum-circle fantasy that preserves the North Korean political system, read on:

Park also said that unification would also be meaningful in that it will free North Korean people from the starvation and human rights violations they suffer under the communist regime. Park also said the best way to predict the future is to map out your own future. She added that she is trying to make unification happen by creating the right conditions for a peaceful unification, rather than just sitting by and waiting for it.

If you didn’t read that last passage carefully, reread it and measure the immensity of all that it implies. Read it as if you were in Beijing, Pyongyang, or Chongjin.

In a possibly related development, the Unification Ministry has just launched a (Korean-language only) portal (http://nkinfo.unikorea.go.kr) to “provide comprehensive information on North Korea ranging from politics and the military to economy and social issues,” including “information on more than 290 high-profile North Korean officials, as well as information on geographic features of the isolated country.” Secretary of State John Kerry also says he will raise the topic of reunification during an upcoming visit to China, something he wouldn’t have done unless President Park had asked him to so.

So who is this woman, and what has she done with the consistently cautious, visionless, and pragmatic Park Geun-Hye we all thought we knew, and for whom a narrow majority of South Koreans votedShe sounds like John Bolton … not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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Officially, Park Geun Hye’s policy toward North Korea had been something called “Trustpolitik.” (Now there’s a word you haven’t heard for a while.) If you read Park’s “Trustpolitik” manifesto closely, however, it’s tougher than its gauzy label suggests. It isn’t Sunshine 2.0, and it isn’t about taking risks to earn North Korea’s trust. Instead, it puts the onus of earning Park’s trust on Kim Jong Un, because it is his government, after all, that has repeatedly broken its commitments. Trustpolitik is about holding North Korea to its commitments and to international norms, and it is about imposing consequences when the North breaks them. It is a sober, grouchy policy that fits South Korea’s mood today. Above all, it is passive. It isn’t about forcing change. It’s about reacting to change it can’t believe in. Cynical, calculating, hard-nosed, and reactionary — that is the Park Geun-Hye I know, but assuredly do not love.

By contrast, Park’s talk of reunification isn’t passive. It might even be revolutionary, and not in the usual trite way you’re used to hearing in car commercials. It’s selling the biggest change in Korea’s political status since 1945. Depending on exactly what Park has in mind, you could call it “bold,” “ambitious,” “historic,” or “grandiose,” or just a lot of talk. I could be reading what I want to see here. Like any good politician — or psychiatrist — President Park shows us an inkblot and lets us see our own fetishes in it. (If you want an especially cynical view, please see Dr. Foster-Carter’s.)

For years, the conventional wisdom has held that reunification of the Koreas would be immensely costly. This wisdom has persisted because (a) it supports the argument that favors a gradual, negotiated reunification, and (b) because it happens to be trueA declining percentage of South Koreans say reunification will benefit their country, and few think its benefits will be worth its costs. The leader of the Democratic Party, which has recently triangulated toward the political center, must think that Park is overreaching, and that his party can gain an advantage on this issue:

He especially expressed reservations about President Park Geun-hye’s analogy of reunification as a “jackpot,” claiming it painted too rosy a picture of reunification and gave the false impression that it could happen anytime. “For reunification, the process is very important,” Kim said in his address to the National Assembly. “Without consistent cooperation for reconciliation and efforts and steps to improve ties, the ‘reunification is a jackpot theory’ can easily be misunderstood as an impending sudden change.” Kim stressed that his party is against reunification by absorption due to the enormous costs and confusion it would bring to society. [Yonhap]

But what that really means is more indefinite preservation of the status quo, at an incalculable cost to North Koreans, and to the security of both South Korea and the world.

There is no question that reunification will be costly and painful in the short term, although the South would be able to impose a degree of gradualism if the Kim Dynasty falls tomorrow by controlling the movements of people, money, goods, and property until the two economies reintegrate.

In the long term, however, Park is right — reunification promises to be an engine of spectacular growth, prosperity, and power for both Koreas. Once the overburden of the North Korea’s dysfunctional political system is stripped away from its natural and human resources, its wealth will be unlocked by the South’s economy, capital, and legal system, and North Koreans will be able to earn a living wage. And also, to live.

How can President Park expect to win votes campaigning for something that scares more South Koreans than it inspires today? She certainly hasn’t communicated any specific plans for achieving “peaceful” reunification or economic integration recently, except as small throwaway ideas. So what is Park thinking with her talk of reunification? Are these her first cautious steps toward beginning a national conversation about reunification, in the hope that she can make South Koreans think differently about it? Is she preparing the diplomatic and political ground for something she believes is inevitable, and that will be revealed to us in due course?

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I don’t know the answer to these questions, but it would be presidential malpractice to fail to prepare for what expert opinion sees as increasingly likely, whether South Koreans are mentally prepared for it or not.

Uncertainty about North Korea’s regime has grown since the downfall of Jang Song-thaek, who was the country’s second most powerful figure, a U.S. congressional think tank said. Jang’s demise in December indicates the “boldness” of young ruler Kim Jong-un, which could lead to more provocative and unpredictable actions in the future, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

“The chilling effect on the elite in Pyongyang could lead to internal unrest as those who considered themselves secure look for reassurance from other potential power bases,” it said in a recent report, titled “North Korea: U.S. Relations, Nuclear Diplomacy, and Internal Situation.” The CRS pointed out the sudden purging and execution of Jang, Kim’s uncle by marriage, was unusual because of his elite status and top-ranking posts. It completed “nearly a total sweep of late ruler Kim Jong-il’s inner circle, signaling Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of authority in Pyongyang,” said the CRS. [Yonhap]

The U.S. military says that it is “updating its contingency plans for a possible regime collapse in North Korea,” and ordering “detailed planning” for “a rapidly changing situation that would require stabilization of the peninsula,” but not all of the plans are so passive. Robert Beckhusen points to this fascinating article in “Special Warfare,” a publication of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, about last year’s joint “Balance Knife 13-1” exercise, between U.S. and ROK Special Forces, which tested their readiness to act “if tasked to conduct unconventional warfare in the Korean Theater of Operations.” And by “unconventional warfare,” the Army means “activities conducted to enable a resistance movement or insurgency to coerce, disrupt overthrow an occupying power or government by operating through or with an underground, auxiliary and guerrilla force in a denied area.

The exercise included “a reassessment of infiltration methods and the various risks the [Korean Theater of Operations] poses to each,” and examined such practical problems as evacuating wounded, traveling in mountainous terrain, finding food in a starving country, and communicating without a communications infrastructure. It also discussed the tactical and logistical challenges of supporting an insurgency inside North Korea. A small sample:

Many ROKSF soldiers still have family in the north that they may or may not maintain contact with. These divided families provide strong relationships that transcend NK ideology and can serve as a foundation for the development of a loyal resistance organization.

The Balance Knife exercise was held within the context of the big annual exercise called Foal Eagle, which also stressed readiness for “combined unconventional warfare.” The willingness to acknowledge and talk about supporting a (still hypothetical) North Korean resistance is essential to preparing ourselves to support one, should one emerge. (And when one does emerge, it’s almost certain to emerge suddenly.)

All of this planning and training is still in its infancy. It should be viewed as nothing more than prudent contingency planning for events we can’t anticipate. In other words, U.S. and ROK forces are preparing for what we weren’t prepared for when events in Libya and Syria took us by surprise. In both cases, the length of the conflict was inversely proportional to the quality of the outcome. If there is some low-risk alternative that can influence the outcome of a North Korean civil war, we won’t be able to do it if we haven’t planned and trained for it.

For now, of course, there is no North Korean opposition of real significance, so any discussion of whether and how to support one is entirely speculative. But if you still haven’t read Bruce Bennett’s RAND study of the problems we’ll face when the regime collapses, you’ll understand why we can’t afford to ignore the question. Simply put, South Korea doesn’t have enough manpower to reestablish order in the North. (I’ll add that America may well decline — and probably should decline — to contribute that manpower.) Enabling indigenous forces to resist the regime and reestablish order in “liberated zones” could make the difference whether Korea is re-stabilized under a unified government or becomes a source of chaos and great-power conflict. The only plausible way to stabilize North Korea is to enlist the North Koreans themselves. We are far more likely to form those alliances if we being to “engage” the North Korean people, and persuadable demographics within the security forces, now. The decisions North Koreans make within the first 72 hours of a crisis could determine the course of Korea’s history. For example, the emergence of a strong, pro-South Korean opposition in the North would reduce the risk of a Chinese intervention and great-power conflict dramatically. It would also reduce the odds that South Korea asks the U.S. to help occupy the North.

Certainly there is room for argument about how Korea reunifies. That argument may soon begin in earnest. But there is no higher objective for the Korean nation-state than to form one free Korea — reunification under an independent and representative government. For the sake of her nation, I hope President Park will undertake this campaign as carefully and methodically as she undertook her campaign for the presidency. If she manages it, she will easily eclipse her father’s place in history.

3 Comments

  1. I’m more concerned whether or not the country is financially prepared to pay the costs of unification. East Germany looked in better shape than North Korea.
    I wonder if the folks in Yoido have a direct line to the IMF or World Bank, with documents pre-printed out and ready to sign if and when the regime collapses.




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