Years of negotiating with North Korea have failed to eliminate its nuclear capability. Despite seven years of six-party talks with regional countries and the U.S., North Korea claims to have expanded its nuclear weapons and improved them, tested two nuclear weapons, helped Syria develop a nuclear reactor, and likely sold nuclear assistance to Iran, Libya, and Myanmar. Recent reports suggest North Korea is now beefing up its ability to enrich uranium. Clearly, it's time for a new strategy, one that North Korea has been loathe to discuss: hasten Korean unification under South Korea's leadership.
North Korea is stumbling toward collapse even as it states publicly that it is "absolutely impossible to even think about giving up nuclear weapons." Indeed, the regime uses its nuclear might to convince elite citizens of its power as one of only nine countries to possess a nuclear arsenal. And that arsenal does deter war.
But North Korea is so abjectly poor that people starve to death daily and even elite citizens appear to be suffering. They lost much of their savings in last year's currency revaluation. "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il is in failing health and scrambling his youngest son into leadership position before he is widely accepted. The protective layer of family and friends around him demonstrates that the regime knows an impending succession is risky.
All this suggests that North Korea's collapse may be inevitable. Preparation for unification may be the best antidote for dealing with an intractable regime brandishing nuclear bombs. If the U.S. used military force it would be blamed for starting a war whose costs in blood and money would be borne mainly by South Korea. Without knowing the locations of all North Korea's concealed weapons, an attack might destroy only part of its nuclear arsenal, forcing the North into "use them or lose them" attacks. Alternatively, the U.S. and South Korea could amend their goal and freeze, rather than eliminate, North Korea's nuclear program. But this option would leave the country with its existing weapons and all the risks that entails.
Therefore, reunification is the best option, though neighboring countries are understandably reluctant to seek North Korea's collapse. China and South Korea fear they would be flooded by thousands of refugees. Seoul would have to shoulder the enormous expense of stabilizing and developing North Korea. China uses North Korea as a buffer between its northern border and a U.S. ally. Given the size of North Korea's army, the regime's collapse, prompted or not, could easily lead to protracted conflict on the peninsula.
So a reunification strategy would need two main thrusts. First, South Korea and the United States would need to prepare for a potentially massive, possibly violent stabilization effort, as well as a humanitarian relief operation. China would react to any instability in North Korea, especially if South Korean and U.S. forces move into North Korea's territory. There must be an effort to coordinate South Korean and U.S. plans with the Chinese.
The second thrust would prepare North Koreans for unification by replacing their fear with hope. Kim Jong-il has long depicted the United States and South Korea as enemies of the North Korean people, responsible for every problem. He reportedly uses films of elites in East Germany, reduced to poverty after unification there, to scare his elites into dreading their own future under reunification. South Korea must make clear that it will treat North Korean elites well.
South Korea also needs a plan for the North Korean population in general. Rather than release the million-man North Korean Army into joblessness and insurgency, South Korea might create a body like the U.S. Civilian Conservation Corps until North Korean jobs develop. This cohort could work on infrastructure repairs in the North, such as ensuring reliable electrical power and roads.
The North Korean regime will probably try to convince the regional states that it will negotiate nuclear dismantlement if only to avoid this alternative. The United States should give North Korea a deadline to complete a nuclear dismantlement plan, such as December 2011. If that deadline goes unmet, the U.S. could shift negotiations toward freezing North Korean nuclear weapons and begin to implement the only long-term strategy that could eventually strip the country of its nuclear arsenal: South Korea-led unification.
Bruce Bennett is a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.
This commentary appeared in The Korea Herald on November 23, 2010