A review of the successes shows how this blood alliance allowed the ROK to first survive the ruthless attack from the communist North and, in the aftermath, to rebuild a nation from the ashes of the war. The “Miracle on the Han” has resulted in the rise of the Republic of Korea as a major middle power that has developed a military that can deter and defend against the enemy to the north and contributes to global security from leading U.N. peacekeeping missions, as in East Timor, to successful counterterrorism and counterpiracy operations off the Horn of Africa and major military contributions in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Korean economy is among the most vibrant in the world, leading in many areas from steel and shipbuilding to auto manufacturing to advanced technology such as televisions, computers and cellphones. The “Korean Wave” has been a global cultural phenomenon, and Korea is set to host the Olympic Games for a second time in 2016. Korea has transformed from a major aid recipient to a major global donor. The ROK economy is some 40 times larger than that of its ailing brother to the north.
So what lies ahead for the alliance? The three most important challenges are from the North: the threat of military attack, the nuclear weapons program and the crimes against humanity being perpetrated against the Korean people living in the North. The alliance must always be vigilant in deterrence and defense, and if the Kim family regime does attack, there can be no doubt that the alliance will decisively defeat the North and put the nation on the path to unification.
The key to the future is unification. Although peaceful unification has been the stated goal of the alliance since the 2009 Joint Vision Statement and was reaffirmed during President Park’s previous visit to the White House in May 2013, unification has rarely been a topic for alliance policy, planning and strategy. Many think it is too expensive and that too many Korean people in the South do not want it. Some think that it is impossible to achieve as there are too many obstacles — from the Kim family regime, China and the cost, to fearing the possibility of war or regime collapse — that literally paralyze strategic planning for unification.
This has not deterred President Park. In 2014 she announced the Dresden Initiative to seek peaceful unification. She has set this as the strategic goal. I would offer the following points on why her focus is correct and necessary. First, unification is the only outcome that will ensure the complete elimination of the North’s nuclear program and weapons and end the human rights atrocities and crimes against humanity that the Kim family regime has perpetrated on the Korean people living in the North for 70 years.
For policymakers and strategists I would offer this as the end state for which the alliance must strive to achieve: “a stable, secure, peaceful, economically vibrant, non-nuclear peninsula, reunified under a liberal constitutional form of government determined by the Korean people.” This will lead to stability in Northeast Asia and is in keeping with the common values that bind the ROK and United States.
There are four paths to unification. The ideal path would be peaceful and built on the “5 R’s”: respect, reconciliation, reform, rebuilding and reunification. However, North Korea has the deciding vote on peaceful unification. The second is a war that would eliminate the Kim family regime, although with great expenditure of blood and treasure on the peninsula. However, the effects of war would be global, as the security and economies of nations in Northeast Asia would be impacted. Third, regime collapse also would likely cause a significant level of conflict as well as tremendous human suffering. Lastly, unification could occur if a new ruling regime were to emerge following the elimination of the Kim family regime that would seek unification through the “5 R’s.” Internal resistance appears to be growing among the Korean people living in the North, so this path may be possible in the future.
Given the strategic objective of unification, how should the ROK-U.S. alliance proceed? As the ROK plans and prepares for unification, the alliance must continue to transform its military capabilities to deter and, if necessary, fight and win against the North’s Korean People’s Army. It must prepare for the complexities of the possibility of regime collapse. Finally, it should seek support for the growing internal resistance among the Korean people living in the North and the second-tier leaders who might be able to mobilize support for a new representative transitional structure that would seek peaceful unification.
In closing, I think we should all learn two phrases that I learned from my Korean comrades in arms — “tong il,” which means unification, and which is said whenever Korean Special Forces soldiers meet and salute. The other is the motto of Korean Special Forces: “An dwoe myeon dwoe-ge ha-ra!,” meaning “make the impossible possible.” It is now time to make Korean unification possible from Halla Mountain on Jeju Island to Mount Paektu in the North.
• David S. Maxwell is associate director of the Center for Security Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel who has served five tours in the Republic of Korea.