Cover: Preparing North Korean Elites for Unification

Preparing North Korean Elites for Unification

Published Apr 27, 2017

by Bruce W. Bennett


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Research Questions

  1. What could be done that might convince North Korean elites that unification would be good for them?
  2. Who are North Korea's elites?
  3. What types of policies would be needed to gain the cooperation of North Korean elites, and what policies would be totally unacceptable to these individuals?
  4. How should these policies be communicated to North Korean elites?
  5. What are the implications of not co-opting North Korean elites as part of unification?

For years, the Republic of Korea (ROK/South Korea) has pursued a policy of peaceful reunification with North Korea. Many in the ROK believe that the ROK would take the lead in any instance of unification, in large part because the ROK dominates North Korea economically, demographically, and in numerous other ways. Indeed, then-ROK President Park Geun-hye and then-U.S. President Barack Obama made a joint declaration in 2013 that pledged to work toward a "peaceful reunification based on the principles of denuclearization, democracy, and a free market economy." Yet North Korean propaganda indoctrinates that country's elites to believe that ROK-led unification would be a disaster for them, one so awful that they are unlikely to even survive. Unless these North Korean elite views can be changed, it is hard to imagine how peaceful unification could ever be achieved.

This report examines what could be done to convince North Korean elites that unification would be good for them. It describes five areas of concern that North Korean elites would likely have about the outcomes of unification and proposes policies that the ROK government could adopt that would give North Korean elites hope that unification would be acceptable for them. The author proposes unification policies in these five areas of concern that the ROK government should consider with urgency; it may take years for North Korean elites to believe that the ROK is prepared to act in a manner favorable to them, and it is unclear that unification is that far off.

Key Findings

North Korean Elites Want Certain Guarantees as Part of Korean Unification

  • There are five conditions that would likely help North Korean elites feel that unification could be good for them: (1) have their individual safety and security ensured, (2) maintain their positions, (3) maintain their wealth, (4) ensure their family's safety and privileges, and (5) be able to do something meaningful for their country.

Senior Elites Feel That They Would Be Worse Off After Unification than They Are Today

  • The North Korean regime has made every effort to indoctrinate North Korean elites into believing that unification would be disastrous for them.
  • If the South Korean government were to establish more unification-friendly policies toward North Korean elites, their levels of anxiety about unification would likely decline.


  • Unification is not predictable, but conditions for unification could develop at any time, warranting preparation.
  • South Korea can address the unification issue by establishing a legal basis for extending amnesty to most North Korean elites upon unification and for planning to continue the role of many elites in the combined Korean government and/or the combined Korean economy.
  • South Korea should 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.
  • South Korea needs to communicate these efforts into North Korea.

This research was sponsored by the Korea Foundation and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center (ISDP) Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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