Last week, German president Horst Kohler warned South Korea to prepare to reunify with North Korea sooner than is commonly expected. The German president’s ad- -vice is a warning, drawn from the experience of integrating East Germany with West Germany at the end of the Cold War. The situation with North Korea is much worse, because the poverty is at levels East Germany never knew, and the population has been so cut off from the world that their view of reality is sharply at odds with ours.
The United States also needs to be prepared for the collapse of North Korea. The chief thing we need to prepare is our understanding with China about the “rules of the road.”
North Korea has long existed under the protection of China, though not quite as a client state. North Korea’s weakness is threatening to China as well as to South Korea because a collapse would lead to a refugee crisis and a failed state on its border. China has a number of critical interests in the resolution of the North Korean situation and therefore will have no alternative but to engage if the North Korean state collapses. Our South Korean allies also will have no alternative but to engage. There is significant potential for friction and even conflict, given ethnic Korean sensibilities combined with implacable national interests. Now, while there is still time to negotiate carefully, is the time to handle this. Now is the time to be figuring out where the worst of these conflicts lie and to be crafting agreements about how to handle them.
There are advantages to all of us in doing so. The United States will not be able to play the role in North Korea that it has played in other failed states. For one thing, ongoing efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq remain considerable drains on our available resources. For another, the North Korean people have been propagandized for generations to believe that the United States has been plotting their overthrow and destruction. We will encounter much greater resistance from the population than either China or South Korea.
China probably cannot afford to take on the reconstruction itself, so it would need help from the United States and its allies in terms of providing money. This would be good for everyone: the Chinese because it gives them the means to solve a dangerous problem on their border and everyone else because the aid would tie China more tightly to the rest of us. Because the Chinese could not refuse the aid without endangering their economy and social stability, we all would have a stronger voice in how China operates. In return, this would mean we could trust China more as a neighbor and partner. It would drive China’s full and final integration into the world and allow China to assume that role as a stakeholder and power that it has so long desired.
South Korea’s interests are avoiding the economic devastation that the German president is right to warn can come from rapid reunification with North Korea. The South Koreans also have a reason to think of North Koreans as members of a larger Korean community. In crafting solutions, we must ensure that their interests are respected.
Crafting these agreements is in everyone’s interest – especially the poor people of North Korea, who will be served best by a clear plan to help them. This is all the more true if the alternatives are squabbling at best and a war in their homeland at worst.
Brad Patty, who has deployed multiple times as an information operations specialist and is a fellow of the Warrior Legacy Institute.