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Archives of the Korea Herald, 30 January 2001. © The Korea Herald
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[Hearts and Minds] Will Korea Be Unified
--Under What Circumstances?

By Rhee Tong-chin, Ph.D.

*The views expressed are the author's own and do not represent those of any organizations
 to which he may belong.


Under the prevailing conditions today and circumstances that can be conjectured in the future, Korea's unification is only a very remote possibility. When and how it may be achieved is a question that can be addressed only in a world of fantasy.

Although no one today can realistically predict the scenario of a distant possibility, it might still be a useful exercise to speculate how the unification may one day come, by postulating (a kind of hypothetical "gaming") the likely circumstances under which it could or might be done.

Exactly what international conditions must be met to enable Korea's unification? Although no one can define the smallest actual requirements that must be met before the unification can be achieved, one could still discuss the larger frames under which it could be realized.

At the very top of the list, one may argue confidently that no unification in Korea will be possible as long as China is against it and/or that there continues the fundamental discord between China and the U.S. over the larger vista of East Asia's basic strategic conditions. So long as the two countries consider each other as the chief opponent to each other's vital interests and security, Korea will never be allowed to unify. As a smaller country entangled, against its will or interests, in the great powers' geostrategic ambitions, Korea will never have independent means to overcome or bypass their central interests or strategic calculations. Compared to the circumstances as well as the processes of German unification, the Korean situation is too fundamentally different to be usefully compared.

The inhibiting factors that work against Korea's unification will become even more insurmountable if the Sino-American conflict becomes more complicated, especially if it is more clearly transformed into a bloc-to- bloc confrontation by adding Russia and Japan.

However for now and through the foreseeable future, the following would be the minimum necessary preconditions for the successful unification of the Korean Peninsula:

The first will have to be the U.S. decision to finally detach itself from Taiwan in genuine conformity with the spirit and letter of all the existing Sino-American agreements since the first Nixon visit to China in 1971.

Among other things, this will mean the withdrawal of all naval and air units from the Taiwan area, along with a complete stop to any military cooperation with Taiwan as well as a total stop in weapons supplies. Only then can there be genuine "give and take" dialogue between Taipei and Beijing for peaceful resolution of the unification issue. The U.S.

persistence on the present course of policy, reinforced by surreptitious backdoor military connection to Taiwan, can only be construed as the continuing American strategy to frustrate, block, and defeat China's national progress well into the future will be met with equally hostile response; and as China's power rises, the U.S. future in Asia will be more thoroughly blocked, and will only expedite the end of American role and presence in Asia. As long as the U.S. and China are thus divided on Taiwan and on China's future role, no satisfactory resolution will ever be possible for Korea's unification.

Only when the U.S. is removed from the Taiwan-China equation, can there be a true beginning of mutually beneficial relations between Beijing and Washington. Without the genuine improvement of Sino-American relations based without the imbroglio of Taiwan and Japan alliance, Korea's unification will remain forever impossible.

Second, the conflict between China/Russia vs. US/Japan will have to be ended or resolved. This can happen only when the potentially offensive- minded U.S.-Japan alliance is either transformed to a more innocuous form or terminated altogether, preceded by genuine American detachment from Taiwan. Although even then, Russia's grievances in Europe will continue as long as the expanded NATO continues unabated.

Third, the implosion in North Korea occurs, regardless of the policy preferences in Beijing, effectively ending Kim Jong-il's rule or any others' connected to the present North Korean political system. Very possibly, this would be followed by the deployment of powerful combined U.S.-South Korean (and even Japanese) forces along the Manchurian-Korean border areas. This presupposes a unification entirely under South Korean leadership with close strategic alignments with the U.S. and Japan. This will mean a situation where China, despite its own intense preference, for various reasons fails to stop North Korea's collapse.

Fourth, the collapse of South Korea (through economic or even internal political breakup) and its absorption by North Korea--followed by the strategic-military control of the entire peninsula by North Korea, assisted powerfully from behind the scenes by China or by the combined power of China and Russia. This is followed by large scale confrontation between the combined Sino-North Korean plus Russian forces, entrenched in Korea and the combined U.S.-Japan military alliance. Or more likely, it could be followed by a dramatic volte face by Japan; and Japan's independent and unilateral accommodation with China and Russia--followed by the general withdrawal of the U.S. from the entire Asia and Pacific line.

Fifth, China's invasion and successful conquest/unification of Taiwan, followed conceivably by the general withdrawal of the U.S. from East Asia and the Western Pacific.

Sixth, the collapse of China's centralized state and its breakup into multiple regional independent state-entities (particularly along the north- south line as in the late Qing period) and major ethnic lines such as Tibet, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and even Manchuria. If such were to happen, this would be closely followed by the collapse of North Korea, followed by South Korean absorption. As in the earlier scenario, the combined South Korean-American and even Japanese could be forward deployed along the Yalu-Tumen River line. Ultimately, however, this could seriously intensify a lasting confrontation with resurgent Russia, with even greater long-term complications for the Korea Peninsula.

Autonomous unification in Korea by the Koreans themselves without foreign intervention could happen only if: 1) both Koreas become economically more powerful; 2) the internal division in both halves stops, thus cutting off any room for foreign interventions or manipulation/meddling; 3) Korea is no longer seen or exploited as the vital strategic instrument in furthering rival great powers' long-term ambitions. This latter possibility is likely only if Korea becomes a neutral state with convincing military "denial" capability--an Asian version of Switzerland but with even greater military deterrence for independence.

If none of the scenarios above is pleasant or acceptable, one has to bear in mind perhaps that planning for future contingencies is a serious business, requiring the consideration of all possibilities, especially the ones that are intrinsically unpleasant and unacceptable. All careful plans must be based on the worst case scenarios, if the opposite outcome is truly desired.


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