The Asia Institute and the Arirang Institute teamed up for a seminar on the larger security implications of a possible reunion of the Korean Peninsula with a group of military experts on April 9, 2014. The discussion involved two active duty military officers and three experts international relations. In his opening remarks, Emanuel Pastreich, director of the Asia Institute, tried to set the tone and identify underlying security issues behind the current standoff on the Peninsula as a means of moving forward towards reunification.
“Security Implications of Korean Reunification”
Hosted by the Asia Institute and the Arirang Institute
April 9, 2014
University of North Korean Studies (북한대학원)
April 9, 2014
The introduction to the Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms (“Samgukji” in Korean) starts with this simple summary of history: “every country which is divided for a long time will inevitably be reunited. Every country which is united for a long time will inevitably be divided.” There is certain inevitability to reunification that stems from geopolitics, although the time scale cannot be easily predicted. This state reminds us of tectonic shifts: we know that the geomorphic changes underground take millennia, but that the earthquakes which take place at the end take only a few seconds and are unpredictable.
The divided peninsula is now the reality for all of us and few of us have any memory of any other state in Korea. That means that although we do not particularly like this artificial division, we are accustomed to it and we are nervous about possible unintended consequences from a sudden reunification or a failed reunification. And it is quite understandable that we might like to put off such unification, with its unpredictable consequences, for a few more years, or maybe for a generation.
That uncertainty is particularly true in military affairs. We have been frozen in a rather uncomfortable arrangement with China, the United States, Japan and Russia for a long time, but it is at least knowable and predictable. But although the DMZ is still there, East Asia is a completely different landscape than it was in 1951.
In a sense, the militaries of the region have developed around North Korea. It serves as the bad boy and the explicit threat. Pyongyang is the keystone in the imbricated security architecture that is Northeast Asia. To start hacking away at the foundations of such an architecture, even if the intentions are good, is a risky business. You risk first and foremost that the nations of the region will start identifying each other as threats if that keystone disappears.
And yet, the world does not stop changing. The recent discovery of drones in South Korea is part of a revolution in the very nature of conflict that may very well change just about everything, just as the sword, or the tank changed everything. And drones are ronin who know no masters.
And there are more and more experts speaking about climate change itself as an existential crisis that could destroy humanity itself. These were not issues in 1953.
At such a moment, it is critical to have an honest discussion about what a unified Korea could be and how we would get there and how we would maintain this new security architecture. We have a group of distinguished experts with us who have thought this problem through from a military standpoint and will offer their insights. We could say that if you cannot imagine reunification, then it will be hard to get there. Or, that if you get there by stumbling blindly, it may not be the reunification you might have wanted.
Commander, Special Warfare Command
Deputy Project Director
North East Asia
International Crisis Group
Command Senior Advisor
United States Forces Korea
Head of North Korean Research
Korea Institute for Defense Analyses
Director, Asia Institute (associate professor, Kyung Hee University)