Korea: Strategic Patience = Strategic Paralysis

Korean Peninsula

Korea: Strategic Patience = Strategic Paralysis

Finding the Ideal Path to Reunification to Solve the Nuclear and Human Rights Issues

“Strategic Patience,” America’s approach to North Korea, has only gotten us strategic paralysis. If the desired effects are changing North Korean behavior, fostering good faith efforts towards denuclearization, and restarting the six party talks, Washington cannot point to any real successes. There are two major challenges in North Korea: the regime’s nuclear weapons program and its human rights atrocities. There is also the threat of war and the effects of regime collapse. The United States has worked for twenty years to try to end North Korea’s nuclear program and the United Nations just published its comprehensive Commission of Inquiry report on the abhorrent human rights violations being committed in the North. Yet neither of these efforts has or will likely result in changes in this troublesome country, or the achievement of objectives desired by the U.S. and the international community.

Elimination of the nuclear program or liberating North Korea by force are not options, as the second and third order effects would be too severe to the Republic of Korea, the region, and the world. Some policymakers rely on China to influence the North to end its nuclear program and wait patiently for the regime to change its behavior; however, this has not achieved the desired effects to date.

Why haven’t we gotten anywhere? Based on our knowledge of the nature of the Kim family’s regime and its strategy, it is clear that North Korea will not give up its nuclear program under any circumstances, and the horrendous human rights atrocities will not end as long as the Kim regime remains in power. If that is the case, the question is this: what policies and strategy should the United States and the Republic of Korea develop and implement?

The answer lies in the 2009 U.S–ROK Joint Vision Statement that says the Republic of Korea and United States will seek peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. This vision was reaffirmed in May 2013 when South Korean President Park Geun-hye and President Obama met in Washington. Reunification has long been overlooked—seen as a distant dream—discounted because of the disparity between North and South, or viewed as an exclusively Korean problem. Little international attention has been paid to reunification and even less planning and no preparation made, save for the work that the Republic of Korea has done over the years.

But it is time to recognize that no change will occur on the Korean Peninsula unless there is reunification, and that the international community, and in particular the United States, should stand behind and assist the Republic of Korea in developing a path to reunification.

Some will ask how we can think about reunification when there is the threat of provocation, regime collapse, and conventional and nuclear war from North Korea. The common belief is that as long as these threats exist, there can be no possibility of reunification, let alone peaceful reunification. However, this is the very thinking that has led to the current strategic paralysis when it comes to addressing the North Korean problem.

The ideal path to peaceful reunification is built on respect, reconciliation, reform, rebuilding, and reunification (R5). The operative word is ideal. Some will immediately discount this as a mere dream; however, such a path can form the basis of a strategy and supporting campaign plan that provides multiple benefits even if peaceful reunification is not achieved in the near-term.

We should defer to (and support) the reunification plan of the Republic of Korea as President Park has initially described in her speech in Dresden on March 28, 2014. In addition to the points made in her speech, the ideal reunification plan that we should support will likely reflect several key objectives:

  • Develop a comprehensive information operations and influence campaign to inform the North Korean population about the outside world and educate about the benefits or reunification.
  • Establish peninsula-wide land ownership policies to include compensation vice recompense for those with pre-1948 claims in the North.
  • Develop military integration plans with specific focus on how the two militaries will be integrated and how senior military leaders will be treated if they support reunification.
  • Conduct detailed planning for infrastructure development and identify required government and non-government investment.
  • Conduct detailed planning for economic transition and ultimately integration.
  • Conduct detailed planning for the integration of governmental/administration functions.
  • Conduct comprehensive diplomatic coordination for international cooperation for support of reunification.

Again, these are just some of highlights of an ideal and desired path to reunification. While we should strive to follow this path, the Kim regime has a vote and for various reasons may not agree. Unfortunately, there are three other paths that the North could pursue, any of which could be more likely than an embrace of the principles of an ideal reunification plan.

Bottom up internal resistance to the regime appears to be growing among parts of North Korea’s population and even within the periphery of the political elite and military. This could create the first alternative to the ideal reunification path.  Such resistance should be monitored, assessed, understood, and possibly supported, to include through an unconventional warfare campaign led by the Republic of Korea. Although it is unlikely to lead an “Arab Spring” phenomenon, given the regime suppression mechanism, it is still possible and cannot be discounted.  Such grassroots resistance could lead to a coup that might then seek reunification with the South. The danger with internal resistance is that it can lead to conflict within the North, which could grow out of control and spill over into the Republic of Korea. However, if there was a regime change, with or without conflict, there would eventually be opportunity to get back on the ideal path to reunification. All the planning and preparation that has been previously conducted would still have value after regime change that followed from internal resistance.

The second alternative path to reunification could be the collapse of the Kim dynasty. Regime collapse is defined as the loss of central governing effectiveness of the regime combined with the loss of support and coherency of the military and security services.  Although bottom up internal resistance could lead to regime collapse it is more likely to result from the regime’s inability to support the military and security services.  Regime collapse is a result of friction within the regime elite and “de-prioritization” of key military units.  Regime collapse would likely lead to internal conflict as actors fight to retain power and resources. In the worst case, when faced with significant internal or external pressure and the threat of regime collapse, Kim Jong-un might make the decision to execute his campaign plan to reunify the peninsula under his control, thus ensuring survival of the his family’s regime (in his calculus). However, if collapse occurs without a direct attack on the ROK, the ROK–U.S. alliance, the UN Command, or both (and possibly also China) will likely have to conduct stabilization operations in the North to prevent spill over, establish security, restore stability, and relieve humanitarian suffering. Again, once the security situation is stabilized there could be a return to the ideal path to reunification. All of the planning and preparation that has taken place would still have value and be applied. Furthermore, many of the preparations could help mitigate the effects of regime collapse.

Finally, the final and worst case alternative path to reunification is through war. First and foremost the ROK–U.S. alliance must deter war, but if deterrence fails, then it will win decisively and bring an end to the Kim regime. As in the case of regime collapse, post-conflict stabilization operations can and should be shifted toward the ideal path to reunification.

While the ideal path to reunification will be peaceful the other three paths of internal resistance, regime collapse and war all could result in some level of conflict.  However, all the planning and preparation for peaceful reunification that occurs prior to conflict will support post-conflict activities and as soon as conditions warrant the Republic of Korea can return to the peaceful path.

The four paths graphically portrayed might look like this:

Paths to Korean Reunification (click to enlarge)
Paths to Korean Reunification (click to enlarge)

A shift in policy and strategy to a realistic approach focused on reunification is going to be difficult for many to support as the concept is difficult to grasp. There is great pressure to solve the nuclear problem in the near-term and taking a long-term view may be politically unacceptable to some as that could be interpreted as tacit acceptance of the North as a nuclear power. However, as stated, as long as the Kim family remains in power, there is almost nothing that can be done diplomatically that will result in a decision to give up its most important weapon and what Kim Jong-un believes is the key to survival as a deterrent as well as for support to its blackmail diplomacy. The North’s propaganda has criticized every country that has agreed to give up its nuclear weapons and has used Iraq and Libya as examples what happens when one fails to develop nuclear weapons and another voluntarily gives up its program.  Iraq’s inability to develop a nuclear weapon left it vulnerable to U.S. attack and the North believes that had Saddam developed nuclear weapons the U.S. would not have attacked.  The North also believes that had Qaddafi continued to develop nuclear weapons he would have been able to sustain his dictatorship.  It is likely that recent events in Ukraine have only reinforced the belief that to give up nuclear weapons makes a nation vulnerable to coercion and invasion.   Security guarantees by the U.S. and international community will never be trusted by the North because of the failure to uphold the Budapest Agreement. All of these are reasons why the regime is unlikely to willingly give up its nuclear program.

The path to reunification is complex. It requires detailed planning by the ROK government on how to integrate the political and economic structures and education system and rebuild infrastructure, just to name a few challenges. There are numerous policy decisions that, if made before the reunification process begins, can have profound effects on the process and the outcome. Two examples are particularly instructive: the first has to do with property and the second with the North Korean military and security services.

One of the keys to reunification will be how property ownership in North Korea will transfer to the people who live in houses and apartments. In the North, everything is owned by the state. The people, theoretically, own nothing as individuals. Furthermore, there are people in South Korea who have pre-1948 claims to property in the North and believe they are entitled to reclaiming it.

The Korean government should consider establishing a policy that will compensate those with pre-1948 claims, but will not allow them to reclaim the land. Such a policy course is vital because one of the most important objectives during the reunification process will be to ensure that the North Korean population remains in place to avoid a mass migration that could severely test South Korea’s capacity to absorb new arrivals. One of the ways to do this is to allow the people to obtain ownership of the houses or apartments in which they live. This will require some education as to property ownership and should be included as one of the objectives that supports the ideal path to reunification.

A second consideration is what should be done with the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA). A lesson learned from Iraq and the disbanding of the Iraqi army along with “de-bathification” is that such actions can lead to disenfranchisement and resistance. It is possible that there could be even greater resistance to reunification than that which confronted newly installed governments in Iraq or Afghanistan.  This is because the legitimacy of the Kim regime rests on the myth that the anti-Japanese partisan warfare resulted in the liberation of Korea in 1945, which led Kim Il-sung to develop North Korea into what author Adrian Buzo has termed a “guerrilla dynasty.”  Due to regime indoctrination the people have developed a “guerrilla mindset” and this, combined with the huge investment that the North has made in its special operations forces provides a civilian and military capability to support resistance activities. Because of this situation, a decision to ensure that the NKPA remains intact, coherent, and under a functional chain of command is required. Of course, the challenge is how to affect this outcome. One way is to initiate an influence campaign targeting the military leaders of key organizations mainly at the corps level (sometimes referred to as the second tier leadership because they are outside the core regime elite, but possess significant power because of the forces they command). As part of the ideal path to reunification, one of the areas of focus should be on eventual military integration. Focusing on this can provide a vehicle to transmit other messages to the second tier military leaders, such as assurances that if they do not attack the South and maintain control of the chain of command of their units, they will have a place in a reunified Korea. This has to be established ROK policy and must be part of an influence campaign. While there is no guarantee that this will have the desired effect, failing to plan and prepare this way almost assures that there will be significant military challenges, if not outright resistance, to reunification especially following internal resistance or regime collapse.

These are just two of the many areas required for planning and preparation for reunification. The focus on the ideal path to peaceful reunification will result in a strategy that can be applied across the spectrum of possible scenarios to include internal resistance, regime collapse, or war.

Most importantly, reunification provides a long-term policy and strategy focus that can cure the current strategic paralysis that exists particularly with U.S. policy. Both the ROK and U.S. presidents have stated that peaceful reunification is the desired end state for the ROK–U.S. alliance. Whether it is achieved through peaceful means will be up to the Kim regime. However, planning and conducting the necessary preparations as part of a comprehensive strategy can provide the alliance with the flexibility to address and perhaps mitigate the effects of any contingency. Regardless of the contingencies that occur, the alliance can remain focused on the only end state that will end the North’s nuclear program and stop the horrific human rights atrocities that have occurred for the past sixty plus years.


David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with 30 years of service.


Image: Google, Terrametrics