Unification Could Be Good for North Korea

For Release

April 27, 2017

A new RAND report identifies the likely concerns of North Korean elites about their possible fates under various unification scenarios and recommends actions that the Republic of Korea (ROK), also known as South Korea, could take now to help North Korean elites feel more positive about, or at least less resistant to, unification.

While Korean unification is a major issue in South Korea, North Korean propaganda suggests that an ROK-led unification would be a disaster for North Korean elites, using this fear to bind elites closer to the regime and make them more hostile and resistant to ideas of unification. Without changing those views of North Korean elites it is difficult to imagine how peaceful unification could be achieved, the report finds.

“There are five conditions that would likely help North Korean elites feel that unification could be good for them,” said Bruce Bennett, author of the report and a senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. “These include ensuring their individual safety and security, maintaining their positions, maintaining their wealth, ensuring their family’s safety and privileges, and being able to do something meaningful for their country.”

The report does not predict unification but notes that conditions for unification could develop at any time, warranting preparation. It proposes unification policies in each of these areas that the South Korean government should consider with urgency. It would take time (perhaps years) for the North Korean elites to believe the sincerity of these policies. If the South Korean government were to wait until just before or after unification to announce such policies, many North Korean elites would not believe them.

The report notes that South Korea could address the unification issue by planning to continue the role of many elites in the combined Korean government and/or the combined Korean economy. Given the limitations of the South Korean legal system (only 50,000 prison spaces and a judiciary sized for the expected number of convicted South Korean criminals), South Korea would potentially need to consider extending amnesty to perhaps millions of North Koreans who have engaged in giving or taking bribes and other lesser crimes defined by South Korean law.

“South Korea could also be assembling funds to support the costs of unification to clarify to North Koreans the reality of South Korean planning, consistent with the vision for unification put forward by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak,” Bennett said. “South Korea would need to communicate these efforts to North Korea.”

It is impossible to determine how Korean unification might actually occur. While peaceful transition would clearly be the most desired option, unification could also occur as the result of conflict or a North Korean government collapse. Across these scenarios, a favorable outcome to unification would depend on convincing Northern elites that unification would be something they could live with, and not something unacceptably bad, the report concluded.

The report, “Preparing North Korean Elites for Unification,” was sponsored by the Korea Foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD). NSRD conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security, and intelligence communities and foundations and other non-governmental organizations that support defense and national security analysis.

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