North Korea is a threat that keeps on threatening. Satellite imagery recently revealed increased activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear site. The government in Pyongyang appears to have completed preliminary steps for a fourth nuclear test. Its ballistic missile program continues to advance. And the man with his finger on the button is the 31-year-old Kim Jong-un, who seems even more erratic than his notorious predecessors.
So far, the United States, South Korea, Japan and China — the main countries with a stake in stability on the Korean Peninsula — have responded by adopting a policy of soft containment. Even as they have tried to curb Pyongyang’s excesses, they have allowed the regime to stay in place: They fear that its demise would be too destabilizing and that the peninsula’s reunification would mean crippling economic and social costs for South Korea.
But this is a blinkered view, because the long-term benefits of North Korea’s collapse, both strategic and economic, far outweigh the short-term costs.
The fall of the Kim government would generate significant problems at first, most immediately how to secure North Korea’s nuclear weapons, demobilize its vast army, provide basic public services to its people and manage refugee flows. But the advantages would emerge very soon, especially in terms of security.
Some 25 million North Koreans, including 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners in slave-labor camps, would be released from the grip of one of the world’s most repressive regimes. The states that Pyongyang threatens would also be relieved: South Korea, which today is at risk of commando or conventional military operations from the North; Japan, which is within range of missile strikes; the United States, which worries that it will get dragged into a conventional war on the peninsula, or that Pyongyang may sell off nuclear material.
Even China, a putative ally of the Kim regime, would benefit from its fall: Beijing would no longer have to supply the North with fuel, food and other goods, and pay the diplomatic cost of supporting a pariah state.
Even more significant would be the economic opportunities for South Korea. The total bill for rebuilding North Korea and integrating it with the South could reach $2 trillion — more even than the cost of Germany’s reunification after the Cold War, estimated at $1.9 trillion. But some of that expense would be offset by immediate savings on South Korea’s defense budget, some $32 billion this year alone.
Reunification would bring a demographic jolt. South Korea’s population is aging fast, thanks to an average life expectancy of 81 years and a birth rate of only 1.2 children per woman. If current trends continue, the number of South Koreans aged between 15 and 64 will start to decline in 2017, and by 2030, so will the population overall.
The population of North Korea is younger and more fertile. The median age in the North is 33.4 years, compared with 40.2 years in the South. With unification, North Korea would bring more than 17 million potential workers to the 36 million in the South.
There would be other economic gains, too. South Korea currently imports nearly all of its energy and mineral needs. North Korea has vast deposits of coal, uranium, magnesite and rare-earth metals — together reportedly valued at $6 trillion — which it cannot currently exploit. Technology from the South could unlock these resources, boosting the economy of the entire peninsula.
Over time, a unified Korea could emerge as a regional consumer and industrial powerhouse — much like Germany, which today is the strongest economy in Europe despite having had to manage the costs and upheaval of merging West and East a quarter century ago. Goldman Sachs predicted in 2009 that if the Korean Peninsula were reunified, within 30 to 40 years it could overtake France, Germany and even Japan in terms of G.D.P., and become “the Germany of Asia.”
Considering all these benefits, the United States and its allies must revise their approach to North Korea. Rather than continue to prop up a government they worry might topple over on its own, they should pursue a tougher version of containment, knowing that that may accelerate the collapse of the Kim regime.
This harder policy would entail trying to cut off all the regime’s illicit sources of revenues, including drug smuggling, currency counterfeiting and exports of military equipment, while expanding sanctions to freeze all of Pyongyang’s overseas bank accounts. The House Foreign Affairs Committee approved legislation along these lines on May 29; that proposal deserves to become law. The United States government should also do more to undermine Pyongyang’s hold on its population by increasing broadcasting by Radio Free Asia and Voice of America.
All this may seem like a hard sell with the other states that are strategically invested in the region, especially China. But Washington could give assurances to Beijing that following unification, no American troops would be stationed north of the current demilitarized zone — or anywhere on the peninsula, if that’s what it takes to win China’s support. Nationalistic South Koreans, once relieved of the threat from the North, might insist on this anyway.
The fall of the Kim government may be an unnerving prospect, but it is a necessary step toward the reunification of the Korean Peninsula, a very worthy goal. Thus the United States, South Korea, Japan and China must abandon their soft-containment policy, which has artificially prolonged the regime’s existence. They should not be careful what they wish for.
Sue Mi Terry, a former C.I.A. analyst, is a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asia Institute. This op-ed is adapted from an essay in the July/August 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs.