Economic stagnation and increased awareness of the better life beyond their borders has led to growing dissent inside North Korea, while dynastic transition and the ascension of a new generation of leaders may have opened a window of opportunity for political acquiescence. Peaceful Korean reunification would solve a growing nuclear threat, ease regional and geopolitical tensions, and result in significant economic growth and cooperation in resource-rich Northeast Asia, with free market access to Korean minerals and seaports, and Russian rails and energy.
As the slow motion progress of North Korean nuclear capability gets closer to its ultimate goal it is having a greater impact on regional security. A recent poll reveals that two-thirds of South Koreans support Seoul’s possession of an independent nuclear deterrent, while Japanese officials have discussed reversing its non-proliferation policy. With the spectre of a more capable Chinese military, Japan is increasingly uncomfortable entrusting its security to the United States. Eventually, Japan and South Korea are likely to turn more resolute in securing their own nuclear deterrent. Paradoxically, Beijing’s more than billion-dollar per year strategic decision to prop-up the Kim regime may end up resulting in regional nuclear proliferation, as China is currently trapped in a lose-lose geopolitical gambit for which it has yet to find a solution.
It has been presumed China prefers a divided peninsula in order to have a fraternally allied communist-authoritarian state as a buffer between itself and the U.S. garrisoned Republic of Korea. However, this support is more fragile than conventional wisdom suggests. The Chinese foreign policy establishment increasingly regards North Korea as a strategic burden and provocative threat to regional stability because its nuclear ambitions have invited greater U.S. military presence in the region, and the perception of escalating danger may one day provoke a preemptive military strike.
Criticism reached new levels after Pyongyang successfully launched a three-stage missile in December 2012 and two months later conducted its third underground nuclear test in seven years. China’s willing support for United Nations sanctions in March 2013 was accompanied by a harsh array of uncensored public comments from Chinese foreign policy experts. In Foreign Policy, Shen Dingli tersely wrote, “China has reached a point where it needs to cut its losses and cut North Korea loose.” In Financial Times, Xie Tao commented: “Having an unpredictable, ungrateful, and totalitarian regime armed with nuclear weapons is the last thing China wants on its border.” In Financial Times Deng Yuwen asserted, “China should consider abandoning North Korea and take the initiative to facilitate North Korea’s unification with South Korea.”
Indeed, reunification would solve China’s problem in Pyongyang and turn a unified Korea into a political and economic asset. In One Korea I propose the institution of an internationally financed Korean Peace Fund, commissioned to collect and disburse $300 billion to North Koreans if they reunify under South Korean political leadership. In addition to an incentive to reunify, this money will fund future economic integration and immediate critical humanitarian assistance, since almost 90% is given to impoverished families and malnourished children. According to the payment schedule, the top 1,000 generals and power elites would become double-digit millionaires, 1,200 officers will receive half a million dollars each, and 30,000 junior officers are well compensated. Average citizens will receive more than twice their annual income per year for five years. This will put enormous pressure on the Kim regime to reunify.
By agreeing to reunify, Kim Jong-un would free his people from their impoverishment and misery, be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (as was Gorbachev in 1990 and Kim Dae-jung in 2000), and be hailed as the heroic young leader who brought, peace, prosperity and unification to his people. As a recent college graduate thrust into a difficult situation, young Kim has little reputational baggage. Most experts assume his Confucian elders have been making state decisions, and that he has had minimal involvement in the threatening brinkmanship that has transpired since his dynastic crowning. His father will be the scapegoat for decades of malfeasance and brutal human rights abuse.
It may seem preposterous to think governments, corporations, and private interests would hand over hundreds of billions of dollars to individual North Koreans, but upon closer analysis this makes the most sense in this dangerous situation. The elimination of nuclear weapons controlled by a failing totalitarian state in the epicentre of East Asian prosperity is worth $300 billion; as is reducing the potential for conflict between great powers that would capsize the global economy and threaten the lives of millions.
Considering the vast sums of money printed, earned, taxed, tariffed, stockpiled and flowing around the world today, $60 billion per year for five years is not an unreasonable amount to collect from private and corporate donations, and the combined resources of the international community. Indeed, export-driven capital accumulation has created the largest concentration of currency reserves the world has ever known, with China (66%), Japan (17%), Russia (11%) and South Korea (6%) together holding over $7 trillion in promissory notes and sovereign wealth fund assets. Less than 5% of this money would completely underwrite the Korean Peace Fund, and is not only an investment in the sustained growth of foreign reserves, but would amount to the greatest humanitarian gesture and security reversal in the history of humankind.
Although policy conservatives within the seven-member Chinese Politburo Standing Committee have prevailed thus far, their patience with Pyongyang is not unlimited. Since the Mao era, Chinese leadership has displayed an admirable faculty for pragmatic policy reform in response to changing costs and benefits. Beijing’s contribution to Korean unification would send a clear message of cooperation to Washington that would likely result in the retreat or elimination of U.S. forces in Korea and a more limited balancing presence in the Pacific, since a unified peninsula and friendlier exchanges between Taipei and Beijing greatly reduce points of contention and leave little left to fight over. And if China considers access to the Pacific vital to its interests, it is conceivable South Korea could deed or lease a kilometre wide corridor of land connecting Jilin Provence with the sea in return for Chinese support.
The Korean Peace Fund offers a safe, honourable, and profitable way out of a difficult situation. This proposal may provide the compelling win-win face-saving solution, institutional platform, and necessary impetus for a new consensus in Pyongyang, Beijing, Washington, and the region. Not only does everyone walk away without injury, everyone also gets something they want.Shepherd Iverson is a foreign professor at Inha University in Incheon, Korea. His new book “One Korea: A Proposal for Peace” was published this month Click here to review and order “One Korea: A Proposal For Peace” by Shepherd Iverson
- North Korea tells China it will take ‘positive steps’ for peace (chinadailymail.com)
- China lists items banned from export to NKorea (thenewstribune.com)
- China bans weapons exports to N Korea (bigpondnews.com)
- China lists items banned from export to NKorea (dailystar.com.lb)
- North Korea ‘has technology to build uranium-based nuclear bombs’ (theguardian.com)
- China Lists Items Banned From Export to NKorea – ABC News (abcnews.go.com)
- NKorea postpones reunions of war-divided families (news.yahoo.com)
- A very, very thin wedge (asiahacks.com)
- How Kaesong could offer the key to Korean reunification (nknews.org)
- China lists items banned from export to NKorea (fresnobee.com)
- NKorea postpones reunions of war divided families (news.yahoo.com)