28 November 2005

Should the U.S. Push for Korean Unification?

Dartmouth professor David C. Kang suggests a new tack in U.S. policy toward Korea in today's Washington Post.
The United States can improve its position in East Asia, as well as solidify its alliance with South Korea, by widening its focus beyond North Korean denuclearization and coming out strongly and enthusiastically in favor of Korean unification. Although the United States rhetorically supports unification, it has been noticeably passive in pursuing policy to that end.

Such a policy shift would achieve many U.S. goals and would strengthen our alliance with South Korea in the process.

First and foremost, denuclearization is far more likely to occur with a change in North Korea's regime and a resolution to the Korean War than it is without resolving that larger issue. Until now the United States has put denuclearization first, without making much progress. Folding the nuclear issue into the larger issue would provide far more leverage on both questions and potentially create new or broader areas for progress.

Second, such a policy would provide grounds for agreement between U.S. and South Korean policymakers from which they could cooperate and work together, rather than against each other. Exploring the best path toward unification will require both economic and military changes in the North -- changes that will provide the United States with more flexibility to rebalance its own forces in the region.

Finally, it would put the United States in a solid position to retain goodwill and influence in Korea after unification -- something that is far from ensured today, when many South Koreans are skeptical about U.S. attitudes and policies toward the region. If the United States is seen as a major source of help for unification, it is far more likely that the post-unification orientation of Korea will be favorable to Washington.

This would be a major policy change for the United States, but given the importance of the region and of the Korean Peninsula, it is the best path to follow.
I don't know how many times I've heard younger South Koreans imply--not very subtly--that the U.S. and Japan are the principal obstacles to Korean unification. Those two enemy countries just want to keep Korea divided to weaken it. Otherwise Korea would clearly dominate northeast Asia. In contrast, the addled leadership of the bankrupt brother state to the north strongly supports unification--on its own terms, of course.

I suppose Kang's suggestion wouldn't hurt. Talk is cheap, after all, although you wouldn't know it from the incredible verbal parsimony of the Bush administration. But what concrete measures should follow from this policy headfake? The U.S. is also officially in favor of a unified China, but not a violently unified one.

Perhaps South Koreans, too, need to consider more fully the "post-unification orientation" of their suffering compatriots trapped in the time-frozen north.

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