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Research Questions

  1. What are the potential paths to unification of Korea, including paths that the literature has not fully examined?
  2. What challenges could occur during the unification process?
  3. What can South Korea and the United States do to achieve a more favorable outcome?

There is significant interest in Korean unification in both North Korea and South Korea. In South Korea, most discussion of unification is based on the assumption that South Korean leaders would control the process because that country's economy and world stature significantly dominate North Korea's. But there are many ways in which unification could occur or be attempted, and each holds vast uncertainties. The literature identifies three possible unification contexts (major war, collapse of North Korea's regime, or peace), across which the author of this report describes nine alternative paths and seven challenges to any potential unification of Korea. He assesses the likelihood of each path and recommends actions that South Korea and the United States could take to achieve a more favorable outcome. The author concludes that South Korea should avoid many of the described paths — especially those involving war or a North Korea–led unification. South Korea needs to develop policies now that would provide most North Korean elites with a friendly outcome from unification. Likely the best path for unification is associated with a collapse of the North Korean regime and involves working with the government that replaces Kim Jong-un to achieve a negotiated unification; such a process would take many years.

Key Findings

The analysis of nine alternative paths to Korean unification suggests that neither South Korea nor North Korea is ready for a successful unification

  • North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to be unwilling to consider a path in which he does not have a clear win in the unification process. South Korean President Moon Jae-in appears to be more prepared for some form of unification compromise, but he has yet to take the actions needed to make a unification that benefits both South and North Koreans.
  • The peaceful unification paths appear to be (1) infeasible to achieve or (2) unstable or likely failures because of the isolation from outside information and influence that the North Korean regime requires to maintain its position of power.
  • The difficulties associated with the peaceful unification paths make it clear that the Kim family regime is the ultimate impediment to full Korean unification.
  • A negotiated unification after North Korea's regime collapses is likely the best path for unification. To facilitate this or any other unification path, South Korea needs to develop policies now that would provide most North Korean elites with a friendly outcome from unification.
  • Several experts on Korea believe that the only path to a stable unification involves regime change in the North followed by a gradual, cooperative, peaceful advance toward unification working with the new North Korean government, likely lasting for many years.
  • North Korean weapons of mass destruction and Chinese intervention would be the most serious challenges to Korean unification.

Recommendations

  • South Korea must avoid using a major war to obtain unification, even in the case of a collapse of the North Korean regime; the cost would simply be too high.
  • South Korea needs to develop policies now that would provide most North Korean elites with a friendly outcome from unification. Doing so is essential to achieving a solid initial unification and to making unification sustainable.
  • South Korea and the United States should counter North Korean efforts to create conditions that would allow North Korea to lead unification. In particular, South Korea and the United States should refute Kim Jong-un's image in North Korea as a god-like leader and his image in South Korea as a benevolent peacemaker. He is neither.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    Potential Unification Challenges

  • Chapter Three

    Unification Paths Resulting from War

  • Chapter Four

    Unification Paths Resulting from Regime Collapse

  • Chapter Five

    Peaceful Unification Paths

  • Chapter Six

    Conclusions and Recommendations

  • Appendix

    The Challenge of North Korean Weapons of Mass Destruction

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

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