With 28-year-old Kim Jong Eun propped up to handle Pyongyang’s succession crisis, three facts about North Korea are salient. Kim Jong Il, who died December 17, like his father was a tyrant whose damage makes Qaddafi seem a choirboy. After six decades of peaceful competition with the capitalist South, the socialist North’s per capita GDP is 5 percent of South Korea’s. Years of futile disarmament talks with North Korea compare with the worst peace-effort fiascoes of League of Nations days.
George W. Bush’s comment to Bob Woodward, “I loathe Kim Jong Il,” was a fitter summation of this cruel nonentity than the full-page world-historical pomposity of the New York Times’s obituary. Kim Jong Il made but two offerings to his people: poverty and nuclear weapons. Now, in rituals the world takes too seriously, his son Kim Jong Eun gathers titles in Pyongyang’s totalitarian edifice as a house may add gargoyles, but it means little. Half a dozen Communist regimes in Europe looked stable until suddenly gone.
“No good options exist,” the pundits always say of North Korea. “It’s the six‑party talks or another Korean War,” they declare. Give Seoul’s “sunshine policy” toward Pyongyang more time to mellow the Kim family regime. Results justified none of these hopes in 17 years’ arguing over the North’s nuclear program. There is no way to “address North Korea’s security concerns” when Pyongyang simply wants the United States to leave so it may grab the South.
Why did the Obama administration last month express hope for a “stable transition” in Pyongyang? John Bolton correctly wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “It is a self-fulfilling prophecy for Washington to see [Kim Jong Il’s] death only as a risk, rather than an opportunity.”
Fortunately, a good option does exist that would terminate the problem of nukes on the Korea peninsula. Talks would switch from Pyongyang’s “intentions” and weapons to the shape of a reunified Korea. The basis would be Pyongyang’s longstanding suggestion of a Democratic Confederal Republic of Koryo and Seoul’s similar idea of a Korean National Community.
Restoring the unity of a split country raises transforming possibilities; in this case, it can be “regime change” acceptable to nearly all parties. For 1,269 years there was one Korean state; for six decades there have been two. The reward for 28-year-old Kim Jong Eun would be respect from all Korea and a personal achievement absent in the life of his father and grandfather. Educated in Switzerland, with some knowledge of the West, he is young enough to glimpse redemption from his family’s horrible record by permitting peaceful reunification for the Korean people.
Hawks and doves have a rare opportunity to unite in this project. Reunification of Korea is a positive goal and susceptible to subtle negotiation. Hawks would see the Pyongyang regime swallowed into a new Korea government. Doves would see nukes gone from the Korea peninsula. A One Korea government, dominated by southerners, would renounce nuclear weapons. When did an American president or secretary of state last give a speech pushing the reunification of Korea? Obama should deliver one within weeks.
The Korean War (1950-53) stemmed from a struggle over reunification. The war was Kim Il Sung’s attempt to reunify Korea by force. The armistice of 1953 left unsolved this crucial issue of reunification and began the unfolding spectacle of freedom’s success and tyranny’s failure.
World War II and its aftermath were years of fluidity in international relations during which maps were redrawn almost by the week. The Soviet Union and the United States, mopping up against Japan, agreed on slicing Korea into two at the 38th parallel after a late night map examination by State Department officer Dean Rusk in August 1945. Kim Il Sung sought international Communist support for an attack on the South to end the murky maneuvers between his Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (proclaimed in September 1948) and Syngman Rhee’s Republic of Korea (proclaimed in August 1948), each government claiming to represent the whole nation.
During 1948‑49, on the ground in southern Korea, Washington signaled declining commitment to Korea’s unity and security as Rhee’s fledgling government dealt with Communist rebellions that Stalin was supporting.
Everett Drumright, who set up the U.S. mission to the Rhee government, conveyed the atmosphere of insouciance about the threat of Kim Il Sung: “In 1948 only two divisions of troops were left in Korea,” he said in an interview. “But, over our objections at the embassy, they were recalled in the middle of 1949.” The diplomat described Rhee’s reaction to Truman’s policy: “[He was] extraordinarily bitter about the . . . evacuation and what he saw as a lack of help by the U.S. at this critical juncture.” Drumright summed up sadly, “We didn’t know what was going on in Washington.”
At the end of 1949, Kim lacked Moscow’s and Beijing’s support to grab the South. But in January 1950, Washington disastrously signaled its limited strategic interest in Korea in remarks by Secretary of State Dean Acheson. In March, Stalin told Kim he would support an armed reunification if Mao could be brought on board.
Mao was cautious, but assurances from Stalin (of Soviet air support) and from Kim (that Washington would not jump in and that the South would rise up to embrace socialism) persuaded him to agree and prepare for war.
When North Korea attacked in June 1950, Truman reversed himself and sent substantial forces from Japan into Korea. Mao, already prepared for intervention, sent more than 200,000 troops when the U.S. and South Korean armies pushed back the North’s forces and reached the Chinese border.
China suffered 152,000 dead and 383,000 badly wounded in the war. Urgent home reconstruction tasks of Mao’s brand-new regime were also disrupted. A door slammed closed against Mao’s quest for the China seat in the Security Council of the United Nations. Incorporation of Taiwan into the PRC was indefinitely postponed. Beijing did not recover from the class‑struggle mentality developed during the “anti-imperialist” Korean War until the death of Mao in 1976.
The Korean people lost even more in the war and later from the spiritual deprivation of division and the intensifying human tragedy within failed North Korea. As a result of the role of Stalin and Mao (backing Kim) and of Washington’s failure to deter Kim, reunification was put out of reach for generations.
U.S. officials often declare the Kim dynasty inscrutable. In 2006, Nicholas Burns, then number three at the State Department, said that without a U.S. embassy in North Korea “it is hard to know what Pyongyang wants.” Not really. Kim Jong Il wanted exactly what his father sought in June 1950: a reunified Korea under Communist leadership, by military means if necessary and possible.
You would never know this from Jimmy Carter’s prattling about North Korea’s “seeking attention” and “respect” with its nuclear program. If all Pyongyang wanted was to be secure as a bug in its Stalinist rug, it would not have attacked South Korea in 1950, attempted assassinations of two South Korean presidents, and continued to attack the South—torpedoing the naval vessel Cheonan and shelling Yeonpyeong Island—even into the Obama years.
Our best tribute to the bravery of U.S., South Korean, and other soldiers 60 years ago, and our most appropriate response to the sudden political fluidity in Pyongyang, would be the reunification of Korea under democracy. It would be a smoke-and-mirrors process of negotiation that offered benefit to all parties—until the last stage.
A quiet bargain between the United States and China is the key. Beijing accepts the end of Stalinism in North Korea. Washington and its allies offer Beijing a reunified Korea free of U.S. troops and nuclear weapons. Given Pyongyang’s virulence toward Seoul last week, no chance exists for the two Korean states to take the first step. Obama and Hu Jintao must jointly urge the reunification process.
Beijing has long preferred the devil it knows (a Stalinist ally in Pyongyang) to an unknown devil (a unified Korea). But a threshold was reached in 2006 when Beijing said it was “brazen” of North Korea to perform a nuclear test; leading Korea specialists in China later declared past negotiations with Pyongyang “a failure.” Pyongyang’s defiance of Beijing, said Professor Zhang Liangui of the Central Communist Party School, is “the worst setback for Chinese foreign policy in the history of the PRC.” Yan Xuetong of Qinghua University compared the breach between North Korea and China to the Sino‑Soviet split of the 1960s. “The old relationship has gone to hell,” he declared. “It’s a big slap to China.”
This was strong medicine. These specialists did not speak out without a green light from a senior figure. One must be restrained in hoping for a better Korea policy from a government headed by Hu Jintao, who has praised both the North Korean and Cuban regimes, but Beijing’s tie with Pyongyang seems atavistic for a modernizing China. An adviser to Hu Jintao at People’s University told me over dinner in Beijing in November that Hu has not really praised North Korea; he just favors “the stability” of the present situation. But younger Chinese Communists no longer want China to be known for propping up Asia’s most repressive and unsuccessful regime.
It is China, after all, not the United States, that has just two modest rivers between it and Korea; China that would feel the consequences of nuclear explosions on the Korean Peninsula. “It was a stupid policy for China to view North Korea’s nuclear weapons as potential leverage against the United States,” said Professor Zhang. “Instead the nuclear weapons will be mainly aimed at China.” Quite possibly.
Reunification would be seen as a process offering open‑ended paths to One Korea. North Korea would cherish an initial hope of major input into reunification that would be dashed by the huge gap in muscle and prosperity between South and North. Seoul’s failed “sunshine policy” would suddenly come into its own as the totalitarian edifice in Pyongyang cracked and compromises, deals, defections, realignments of all kinds became possible. Reunification would end up being regime change cast in a new dress. The system entrenched in Pyongyang could never act thus, but an impulsive 28-year-old offered a role in a new One Korea government just might.
Japan would help finance post‑reunification Korea—along with the U.N., World Bank, and perhaps the IMF—in return for the alleviation of a major security concern. A Korea deal could well be the key to preventing a downward spiral in Japan‑China relations and the disaster of Japan making its own nuclear weapons. Japan’s worry about China is tomorrow’s issue for Beijing; North Korea’s fate should be yesterday’s.
Let a unified non‑Communist Korea lean where it chooses. It is likely to be friendly to China, but not Beijing’s ally. Koreans would probably be warm to Washington and continue the present close economic and cultural relationship with U.S. society. Civil with Japan, the new Korea would also keep the door open to Russia as insurance against China.
Beijing did not want Kim Jong Eun to succeed his father, seeing another father-to-son succession as unsocialist and stifling. Now is a good time for the Chinese to roll the dice for reunification as they have zero investment in Kim Jong Eun. “One Korea” is no less of an imperative than “One China,” after all. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said last month: “China and North Korea have always maintained high-level visits, and we welcome North Korea’s leaders to visit China when convenient for both parties.” It is significant that he did not say “leader,” but “leaders.” Likewise, impersonal wording marked most of the Chinese statements after Kim Jong Il’s death and his son’s elevation to post after post: “The Chinese people have always stood by the Korean people.”
Some feel the democracies should just muddle along on North Korea since crumbling dictatorships are dangerous. Indeed, there is risk. The best argument against reunification is the danger of desperate acts in the North as the outcome of the process becomes clear. North Korea has a one-million-plus army whose loyalties could waver or fracture. There are probably chemical and biological weapons close to the DMZ that could fall into crazy hands. However, the international structure surrounding a step-by-step reunification process, orchestrated from the wings by Washington and Beijing, would modify the danger. Above all, a boss of North Korea in his twenties presents a huge opportunity for Obama to “transform” the Korea issue.
Overlooked by believers in everlasting “talks” is the immorality of sustaining North Korea. Condoleezza Rice once said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the biggest victory for human rights in the 20th century. How then to justify propping up North Korea? Each billion in aid—most is from China—prolongs Pyongyang’s repression and military braggadocio. The gap between South and North grows every year, making reunification more costly for Seoul. Surely the end of the Pyongyang regime would be a spectacular victory for human rights in Asia.
The writing is on the wall for the miserable Pyongyang regime, and the fence‑sitting should be over for China. No longer poor and a victim, China can put deeds behind its words about “peace and development” and “international community.” Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, setting off for Beijing last week, lamely declared: “It is very timely to exchange views with the host of the six-party talks and the country with the most influence on North Korea.” Not only did Noda overlook the futility of the talks but also that China’s “influence” sustains the existence of the wretched Pyongyang regime.
Four policies on Korea are possible for Beijing: Protect North Korea, with slight restraint upon it, resulting in no change. Actively promote an indefinite life for Stalinist Pyongyang (“Our East Germany,” Korea scholars in Beijing whisper; “if it falls Communist rule in China may also fall”). Gradually draw the North into Northeast China as a dependent “autonomous region,” benefiting Beijing’s strategic situation but infuriating Seoul. Finally and best, China could pull off its first diplomatic triumph as a risen power by orchestrating, with Washington, the reunification of One Korea, bringing a new vista to Northeast Asia.
The charade of treating North Korea as a troubled child requiring kid‑glove handling by five patient adults has been fruitless. Steps toward Korean reunification can crack the nuclear threat from Pyongyang, lend hope to people in the North, and eventually ease a wracking pain at the heart of Northeast Asia. One Korea, for all its unknowns, is the solution. A grand bargain between Washington and Beijing can trigger the process. Japan spurred Korean nationalism through its colonial rule. Washington and Moscow were responsible for dividing Korea. These two plus Beijing bore heavy responsibility for the outbreak of the Korean War.
Korea is owed its reunification, the spiritual battle with the North for Korea’s future has been won by Seoul, and the heartbreaking cost of a third Kim dictatorship would outweigh the risk and price of a managed unification.
Ross Terrill, associate in research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, is the author of Mao, The New Chinese Empire, and Madam Mao.