North Korea has been one of the most vexing and persistent problems in U.S. foreign policy since World War II, and it is certain to be a major topic of discussion this week during South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s meeting with President Obama.
The North Korean threat has not declined with the end of the Cold War, as many once predicted. North Korea continues to pose as big a threat as ever under the unpredictable rule of third-generation strongman Kim Jong Un. Soon, if not already, it may have a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of hitting the United States.
American administrations going back to the days of Bill Clinton in the 1990s have tried to address the North Korean threat through negotiations and by offering incentives like food aid and energy supplies. The North Koreans have been happy to pocket the aid, but they haven’t delivered on their promises of ending their nuclear program. Aid and negotiations won’t work any better in the future. There is only one way that the threat from North Korea will end: The North Korean state itself must end.
The U.S. should therefore set a long-term goal to peacefully reunify the two Koreas into a single, democratic, free market state that would be a bigger version of today’s South Korea. The collapse of the North may seem unthinkable today, but then East Germany and the Soviet Union also once seemed as if they would last forever. History shows that failed states cannot continue forever, and North Korea is one of the world’s most failed states.
Admittedly, unification is a difficult and risky course to pursue because the U.S. or any other outside power has only limited leverage over the “hermit kingdom” built by the Kims. But without resorting to conflict, there are still concrete steps that the U.S. and its allies can take to support unification.
As a first step, the U.S. should do what it can to help the North Korean people, including helping refugees and dissidents gain asylum in the U.S. and elsewhere. The U.S. needs to vastly expand radio broadcasts and other efforts to transmit information from the outside world into the North. The U.S. should also step up its efforts to highlight the North’s gulags and other human rights abuses, which the U.N. has called “crimes against humanity.”
Simultaneously, the U.S. must step up pressure against the North akin to the sanctions regime that forced Iran to the negotiating table. Washington, in particular, should target illicit and criminal activities such as smuggling, counterfeiting and money laundering to cut off the money that Mr. Kim uses to buy luxury goods for the elites. The U.S. can freeze the assets of Chinese and other third-country entities that trade with North Koreans on the sanctions list, export prohibited items or are suspected of helping North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. A good place to start is by enacting the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act recently introduced by Sens. Cory Gardner, Marco Rubio and James E. Risch in the Senate and similar House legislation introduced by Reps. Edward R. Royce and Eliot L. Engel.
The next step is undertaking a diplomatic offensive to secure regional cooperation on the prospect of Korean unification. The U.S. needs to support President Park’s unification agenda by augmenting current joint military planning between the U.S. and South Korea with a detailed political, diplomatic, economic, cultural, educational, public relations and legal strategy to tackle the core unification issues likely to arise. The U.S. has much to contribute to South Korea’s efforts in achieving unification. There are lessons learned from its experiences, both good and bad, with nation-building in states such as Germany, Japan, Kosovo, Colombia, the Philippines, El Salvador, Iraq and Afghanistan. Once a common vision is developed, the U.S. and South Korea could then actively identify and engage other interested parties, beginning with America’s leading ally in Northeast Asia: Japan.
The U.S., South Korea and Japan then need to appeal to China, Mr. Kim’s No. 1 patron, to stop subsidizing the North, undoubtedly no easy task. The U.S. should be working behind the scenes to make China understand that a unified Korea could be in its interest as well as ours, and that continuing to provide the Kim family dynasty with a virtual blank check is a strategic liability for China. We could even offer Beijing a deal: If you stop subsidizing the North, and if Korea is unified, we will not put any U.S. troops in the northern party of the country. We could even offer to pull out all of our troops out of a unified Korea once their job is done and there is no more threat to confront from the North.
There are, to be sure, many problems associated with reunification. Iraq, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan demonstrate what could follow the collapse of despotic regimes. There could be refugee flows, disorder, humanitarian crisis, armed resistance and, worst of all, the possibility of nuclear weapons getting loose. Unification will be also fraught with numerous difficulties including property ownership and inheritance disputes, transitional justice issues and the need to modernize North Korea’s antiquated and inadequate infrastructure and services. But with the right planning and preparation, these problems can be managed by South Korea, the U.S. and our allies.
Assuming unification is handled properly, there will be manifold benefits not only for the Korean Peninsula and the region but for the United States. The disappearance of North Korea would eliminate the biggest source of instability, human rights abuses and weapons proliferation in Northeast Asia. The new Korea, a democratic country with 75 million hard-working people, would emerge as a new economic powerhouse, a force for stability in the region and a likely American ally — with or without U.S. troops on its soil.
The unification of Korea is an opportunity that should be strongly pursued, not a danger to be feared. The sooner the Kim family dynasty — now into its third generation — goes, the better, and the U.S. should do whatever it can to bring that day closer.
• Sue Mi Terry, a former analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, is managing director at BowerGroupAsia.