Plans for Peace: North Korean Regime Change

The two Koreas were separately admitted as member states to the UN in 1991.

 

Having two separate seats despite a single language, culture and history is clearly not normal.

 

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the Korean Peninsula remains stifled by a wall of division.

 

I call on the international community to stand with us in tearing down the world’s last remaining wall of division.

A unified Korea will be the starting point for a world without nuclear weapons,
offer a fundamental solution to the North Korean human rights issue, and help
unlock a stable and cooperative Northeast Asia.

 

The founders of the UN were not deterred by the heat of war from looking to the
future and planning for a peaceful post-war world.

 

– President Park Geun-hye in an address to the UN on Korean Unification

 

At the 69th Session of the General Assembly, President of South Korea Park Geun-hye appealed to the United Nations for support to dissolve the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and annex its territory onto the ROK. To motivate this, she cited the benefits this might extol an international community – a “cooperative and stable Asia”, and a start of more serious nuclear de-proliferation. Geun-hye reminds the UN that it has not been deterred by the heat of war when looking to the future before. It is implied that to plan for peace, the heat of such a war is a necessity.

 

These promises are compelling. The rise of an uncooperative Asia gives the developed world a global sort of heartburn. A search engine query for “rise of asia” results in titles such as the Asian Century (“projected 21st-century dominance of Asian politics and culture, assuming certain demographic and economic trends persist.”), Why Asia is the New Europe, and The Rise of Developing Asia and The New Economic Order. The region, by every account including the World Bank, is projected to dominate the world not only in terms of growth but also in real economic output. As the center of the global economy shifts from Europe, the United States and the Atlantic into Asia and the Pacific the United States has issued itself a pivot to Asia, where it hopes to embed a continuing economic and security role under which the power elite of the United States have hoped to establish an American Pacific Century – in this last article writes Hillary Clinton: “The future of politics will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.”

 

An “uncooperative” Asia would be one that superceded the so-called developed world, leaving it behind politically and economically to pursue not only its own interests but its own place in the historical record.

 

The call for nuclear de-proliferation is another resonation with important developed world prerogatives. The current global power structure can only be maintained if when countries refuse UN resolutions, international norms, and hegemon demands they can be be subsequently punished – possibly with the violence of occupation. Nuclear force posture, even the most rudimentary capabilities, remain so potent that even military superpowers can be deterred by their possible defensive use.

 

Despite the impression that many in the West have of North Korea’s nuclear programme, the military and intelligence assessment of the DPRK’s development of nuclear deterrent is that it is entirely defensive in nature.

 

At home, the Park administration has found selling the reunification difficult. In a rare press conference she addressed the South Korean people extolling the virtues that an annexation of North Korea would have for the country. Choosing to use the Korean word daebak (roughly ‘awesome success’), the Park administration later clarified that the word was intended to mean a jackpot or bonanza. Citing the mineral resources in North Korea and the large cheap labor force, the administration cast the warmongering as a boon to the country.

 

Most citizens, especially younger Koreans, remain unconvinced. With lower bounded cost estimates of an annexation starting at 7% of the entire GDP of the country for three decades, and only rising with less optimistic projections, the younger generations of Koreans – not themselves having a stake in rejoining separated family members – maintain their skepticism. The South Korean government has taken an effort to reeducate youth apathetic to reunification with new standards for text books that prioritize history necessary to garner public support.

 

There’s uncertainty about the economic windfall to be gained by annexing North Korea. The ROK state owned mining company Korea Resources estimates that the DPRK may have $6 trillion dollars of minerals including rare earth minerals but no independent party has provided an estimate and the figures produced by the South Korean government seem both exaggerated compared with figures from Chinese mining companies operating in the DPRK and unrealistic given the geology.

 

There’s also uncertainty regarding the cost of annexation: that of managing the migration and human crises that arise, transitioning the North Korean system under ROK rule, securing borders, incorporating northern elites, warfighting, rebuilding the damage from military fallout, and of course financing the operation to begin with.

 

It’s interesting to note that South Korea has provided two different justifications to two separate audiences regarding DPRK occupation. The country told its people the plan would benefit the economy – a “bonanza”. In the same breath the ROK told the international community and UN Security Council it would denuclearize the peninsula and spearhead a cooperative Asia as it overtakes the Western economy. Which of these is true? Both? Neither? Why is the ROK interested in reunification, after having pursued for decades a peaceful two state existence? Why is the ROK now interested in denuclearization, as it nuclearized the peninsula in the 60’s and kept it nuclearized until today.

 

Without speculating on which motivation is most primary, there exists a third motivation widely discussed within the state and military, but not enumerated for citizens or the UN: national power.

 

Korea, historically one peninsula but hardly ever unified long under any particular state and only very marginally a successful empire of its own for any notable period of time, has been settled and occupied by neighboring powers (notably China and Japan) for millenia. Millions of men and women have routinely been made to work for other nations, if not in fields and mines then in beds – many women being raped to death during the brutal occupation of Japan. The horrors and atrocities of the Korean War that followed and the coups and insurrection into the 1980s have left South Korea and North Korea alike nations which have been under foreign domination for the majority of their institutional memory.

 

Today, with the opportunity of the rise of Asia and its unique relationship with the United States intelligence and military backing (so long as the current US-led world order does not collapse) South Korea can be a ‘great nation’: a regional power whose economic and national security interests have priority and whose actions and words determine more, more often than its compeditors. The administration has been building regional economic ties with Russia, China, South East Asian nations, the Pacific islands, and Japan. Plans with Russia involve trade through territories today considered their northern neighbor. The state has eagerly funded and pushed for cultural exportation – known in pop culture for K-Pop and Korean Dramas – but known among heads of state as the “Korean Wave”. The German Institute of Global and Area Studies asks “Rising South Korea: A Minor Player or a Regional Power?“. This analysis center aims to figure out whether Korea is likely and capable of playing a magnified regional role in the prospering Pacific.

 

The United States has, of course, seen its own interests in Asia grow with trends of global power shifting there. The North American based global hegemon has sought to develop comprehensive strategies to solidify its own interests. Former CIA analyst Sue Mi Terry led a study at the Council on Foreign Relations entitled “Unified Korea and the Future of the U.S.-South Korea Alliance” about the potential downside of a weakened alliance with South Korea if the United States helps it to achieve reunification. The study notes that trending increases in warm relations with China, the anti-American burden the state would need to carry with the annexed North, along with less need for American security and more national autonomy may drive the ROK to withdraw from American relations to find new Asian-center alliances. The study concludes that this is not likely, primarily because China and Japan are larger regional competitors and are both far more worrisome to the United States in regional conflicts – whose alliance in these circumstances is projected to be seen as useful.

 

The US Korean Institute study “How Korea Could Become a Regional Power in Northeast Asia” determines that an Asia with a ‘triangle’ of China, Japan and unified Korea at its regional power center may not only be maintainable, but could check-and-balance the Asian world with internal competition in a way that is likely to preserve Western influence.

 

But how should the annexation be performed? The American strategy of applying brutal sanctions to collapse the country through attrition has repeatedly failed. A number of policy engineering bodies have studied pathways to cause a collapse and have been weighing them. Feasibility studies performed within US and ROK policy planning bodies for reunifying separated territories are limited primarily to the Berlin divide and the struggles occupying the previously divided country of Iraq.

 

Most of this analysis results in the determination that if we want to force the collapse of North Korea, we need to get China to play along. Unfortunately China is deeply skeptical of regime change, and for good reason.

 

Thomas Christensen, a senior fellow of the Brookings Institute and former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs within the State Department, speaking about “Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power” (China):

 

And on regional concerns we have a big issue with the American bipartisan fetish with regime change. And that really alienates the Chinese early on the in crises. It keeps them from pressuring the regimes that are targeted. I don’t want to go into great detail on my prescriptions, I’m going to end soon, but one of the things I draw out of the history when I study the history of US foreign policy on China from George H. W. Bush – the end of the Cold War – to the present is that it has been counterproductive to open all of these crises with foreign countries with calling for the ouster of a regime in question.

 

Basically my position is sometimes we really want those regimes to go but if you really want them to go: shut up about it. Focus on proscribed behavior. Get the maximum pressure on the regime you that can by keeping the Chinese and the Russians at least nominally on board and maybe get the Chinese… some pressure. That economy is huge. Then maybe you will actually get that result; but if you open your negotiations with this regime or that regime has to go you’re unlikely to get anywhere with the Chinese. And if you don’t get anywhere with the Chinese the Chinese economy is plenty large to provide sustenance. The Russians are plenty armed to provide arms. And you end up with the worst possible outcome: which is there’s no international coordination on the issue, the regime stays in power and the problem persists.

 

Later, in the same panel, Michael Swaine, RAND Corporation expert on US-Sino relations, expresses the same motif of Chinese aversion to regime change in reviewing Christensen’s policy proscriptions:

 

“Recognize that domestic politics and social pressures can drive Chinese reactions in very negative directions. Avoid policies that accentuate Chinese fears – i.e. regime change.”

 

A statement that he (Christensen) made that in the context of Libya, Syria and North Korea is very important to understand.

 

Whether led by this advice or something else entirely, recent diplomacy with China has succeeded in garnering their support in the collapse of the North Korean state. In April and March of 2016, China has issued a series of sanctions against the state – including fuels and minerals crucial to what industry they have been able to muster under crushing US led sanctions programmes.

 

North Korea itself has circulated memos internally about the changing relationship with their Chinese neighbor, and recognize its participation in its collapse as an aggressive action.

 

Ultimately, the United States goal in occupying the peninsula is to problematize the rise of a strong Chinese competitor with forward military deployment and a continued strong alliance with Korea, as Grand Strategy Documents regarding the US force posture toward the Asian superpower recommend regime change in North Korea in its collaboration with the ROK and to strengthen it for future ‘great power’ opportunity.

 

If possible, the United States would benefit from a security architecture in Asia based on a Sino-Korean-Japanese triangle, for which balance of power politics and divide-and-conquer military stratagems can isolate the political, economic and power ambitions of the rising Asian countries to mere regional interests.

 

Not much has changed in United States foreign policy toward North Korea. Economic warfare and regime change operations have been run nearly continuously for 70 years, with a brief moment of ‘sunshine policy’ earning its activists the Nobel Peace Prize. But now the table stakes are too high. With the rearchitecture of Asia in advance of the ensuing global economic and political shift – few powers have their interests allied with the defense- and stability- obsessed North.

 

North Korean collapse are now table stakes to whichever alliance can maneuver its happening in their own interest. For the United States, the collapse is one step to ensure our continued peace through war, and our ability to project American power into the Asia Pacific.
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