The Korean Peninsula: The Future of a Geopolitical Nexus

Commentary No. 338, October 1, 2012

Korea has returned to the world stage as a crucial geopolitical nexus in the coming decade. It will affect in important ways the future of China, Japan, the United States, and perhaps Russia as well. Yet, paradoxically, its future depends primarily on itself. 

Korea is one of that rare breed – a country with a very long history as a political and cultural entity, with varying degrees of unity as a single kingdom. In modern times, it was an independent state until Japan first made it a protectorate in 1905 and then annexed it in 1910. Japan’s defeat in the Second World War ended her rule in Korea. In the very last days of the war, American and Russian troops entered Korea, meeting at the 38th Parallel. Two states came into existence, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea).

In 1950, the two Koreas came to be at war with each other. How this started remains a subject of fierce controversy to this day. The United States, profiting from the absence of the Soviet Union from the Security Council, was able to mobilize the United Nations to come to the military aid of South Korea. There were troops from 16 countries under the U.N. umbrella, although U.S. troops constituted over 80% of the total. Soon thereafter, Chinese troops entered North Korea to support the DPRK against the U.S./U.N. troops. The Korean War thus became also, and most importantly, a Chinese-American war.

By 1953, the war was at a stalemate, and the opposing sides signed an armistice at a line that was almost the same as the 38th Parallel. In short, the war was a draw. Technically, the war has never ended. There is no peace treaty, but there also is no war, although there remains great hostility and there are skirmishes from time to time. In 1957, the United States renounced a clause of the armistice agreement and introduced nuclear weapons into South Korea, over the protest of the North Koreans.

In 2003, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and sought bilateral talks with the United States on a treaty of non-aggression. The U.S. refused bilateral talks but proposed six-party talks that would include also South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. In 2006, North Korea announced a nuclear test, and in 2009 announced that it had produced a nuclear weapon. These days, some South Korean intellectuals designate the situation with an invented term. They say the Korean Peninsula is in a state of “peacelessness.”

The U.S. goal of getting North Korea to repudiate nuclear weapons has not been achieved. On the other hand, North Korea has been suffering for quite some time from an acute food shortage, in part explained by the regime’s insistence on giving primacy to their military expenditures.

Korean nationalism is extremely strong, and both the North and the South claim to look forward to reunification. But on what terms? The level of mutual suspicion is high. And South Korea’s attitude towards this prospect is one that deeply divides South Koreans.

In 1961, Park Chung-hee led a military coup d’état and ruled as a dictator until 1979 when he was assassinated. Park believed that reunification was only possible and desirable if it involved the overthrow of the North Korean regime. In 1980, students led an uprising critical of the United States and calling for democratization of the regime. It was brutally suppressed.

After this, conservative forces dominated South Korean politics until a left-of-center party led by long-time dissident Kim Dae-jung won the election in 1997. He inaugurated the so-called Sunshine Policy. The name refers to an Aesopian fable, showing that it is easier to get someone to remove his coat if the sun shines than if the wind blows. The policy centered upon seeking concrete forms of cooperation with North Korea and repudiating any attempt to absorb the DPRK. He won the Nobel prize for peace in 2000 for this policy, which was continued by his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, president from 2003-2008.

In 2008, the conservatives won back the presidency, in part because the opening to the DPRK hadn’t proved too successful and in part because of scandals affecting the Roh government. The new president, Lee Myung-bak, vociferously repudiated the Sunshine Policy, and asserted a hostile policy stronger even than that of the United States.

It seems clear today that neither China nor the United States nor Japan nor even Russia is really in favor of Korean reunification. All of them prefer the status quo. And yet, at this very time, the forces favoring reunification over the next decade seem suddenly stronger.

There are two factors in this new situation. One is the forthcoming election in South Korea. The conservatives have put forward the daughter of Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye, who has insisted on a total justification of her father’s regime.

The left-of-center forces are currently split between two candidates. Moon Jae-in is the candidate of the left-of-center party and stands for renewing the opening to the DPRK. There is also an independent candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, who presents himself as the anti-politician candidate, appealing to those who are unhappy with both parties. However, his actual program is virtually identical with that of Moon Jae-in.

The polls show that if the two left-of-center candidates remain in the race, the conservative candidate will surely win. The polls also show however that if one of the two withdraws in favor of the other, the left-of-center forces will probably win. The likelihood of a withdrawal is high. The big question is who will withdraw in favor of whom.

If the left-of-center forces win, what will be the response in North Korea? No one knows. But everyone has noticed that the initial moves of the new leader, Kim Jong-un, seem to be rather different from the policy of his father, Kim Jong-il. He seems to be more concerned with providing more real income for the ordinary North Korean, and more open to changes. He may welcome some sunshine from the south.

If then the left-of-center wins in the South and the new leader in the North is in fact more open to sunshine, the world might see over the next decade a sort of loose confederation of north and south – ignoring the real fears of China and the United States.

A reunited Korea will have a major impact on the geopolitics of Northeast Asia, and indeed on world geopolitics. It will possibly mediate between China and Japan and enable a tristate common structure to come into existence. It may result in South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan all becoming nuclear powers.  

Furthermore, a unified Korea will link up with the repositioning of Egypt and the ever stronger geopolitical position of Brazil to entrench the redistribution of geopolitical power worldwide. And, let me repeat, this is in the hands of the Koreans themselves.