What Now For The Two Koreas? – Analysis


All that resolution of the dispute on the Korean peninsula required was courage. The road to reunification will be rocky. There may be plenty of people who try to wreck it. The United States and China will have to hold firm upon their agreed course. But in all likelihood this is a deal that will stick. It is a rare foreign policy success in a dangerous modern world. Korea is a dispute that belongs only in the annals of the Cold War, and that is surely now to where it will be relegated.

By Matthew Parish*

On 12 June 2018, US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un signed a memorandum of understanding on the future of the Korean peninsula. The document was short and expressed in ambiguous diplomatic language. It conveyed a framework for working over a period of time to denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula in exchange for normalisation of North Korea’s standing within the international community. It was palpable that the memorandum the leaders signed had been prepared in advance of their meeting in Singapore, that in most part was a photo opportunity.

It is also almost certain that more detailed documentation had been prepared and agreed upon, that was not being released to the public. This is obvious because the public document that was signed was far too cursory to merit and international summit ant inordinate expense. Moreover the actual length of the Trump-Kim meeting – about four hours including photography and walkabouts, and a signing ceremony – was obviously too short for anything substantial to be discussed. So it was all decided beforehand. That was why the US Secretary of State had meetings with Pyongyang in the prior weeks.

Notwithstanding the scant content of the public document, we can take an educated guess at the terms of the actual deal struck. The fact that the real terms have not been made public tells us a great deal about what they are: a series of commitments that would cause all the various parties substantial domestic damage were they disclosed. There are short-term undertakings, as confidence-building measures, on both sides. On the US side, there is an undertaking to suspend joint military training manoeuvres between the US and South Korean militaries. On the North Korean side, there are undertakings to return the bodies of the fallen; release political prisoners; and cease nuclear proliferation activities (uranium enrichment, testing nuclear weapons and testing ballistic missiles).

The next stage is progressive demonstration of steps in the direction of denuclearisation. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN agency responsible for monitoring commitments to dismantle the apparatus of nuclear proliferation, has not been engaged. The IAEA’s activities may be public. It is inconceivable that the United States has not secured clear commitments to denuclearisation from North Korea, given that President Trump called off the Singapore summit just before it was scheduled to take place because Pyongyang’s commitment to denuclearisation was insufficient. Presumably the denuclearisation exercise, for Kim’s benefit, needs to be done in private lest a public series of actions involving foreign weapons inspectors quietly verify denuclearisation.

In exchange, China will gradually release the sanctions she has imposed upon North Korea. This is the most effective way of alleviating the economic pressure on Pyongyang, whose coal export to China – now sanctioned in part by Beijing – are North Korea’s principal source of foreign currency income. Relief from international sanctions, permitting Starbucks and McDonalds to open in Pyongyang, are less urgent for North Korea and come later. There are plenty of steps available in a process of de-ratcheting sanctions over the next couple of years or so, just as there are plenty of steps involved in a private process of verifying denuclearisation (placing uranium enrichment facilitates beyond use; putting underground nuclear test sites beyond use).

As a series of denuclearisation steps are privately verified over an extended period of time, and Chinese and then international sanctions are gradually relaxed and foreign investment starts to flow into North Korea, an element of trust is established in what is essentially a tripartite agreement between the USA, China and North Korea. A number of other components are likely to be part of the agreement reached in due course. Presumably the USA and China agree to have an open discussion about trade tariffs and dumping as a collateral benefit of cooperating over North Korea. At some point, the USA and North Korea will open diplomatic relations culminating in an exchange of Ambassadors. The United States will recognise the territorial integrity of North Korea, and will compel South Korea to sign a peace treaty with the North. In time, the United States will not just cease joint military exercises with South Korea, but will draw down its troops, both in the Demilitarised Zone and substantial American assets located in the South China Sea.

The United States may read a side deal with China over Taiwan. North Korea’s economy may progress upon a Chinese model: communism remains in name, but a free market develops with adventurous US investment and offering itself as an export market (as it is for South Korea). It is conceivable that there may already have been tentative discussions about reunification of the Korean Peninsula, although steps in that direction would surely be several years away. For Korea to be reunited in any meaningful way, there would need to be substantial economic equivalence between north and south, and this would require economic development of the north over an extended period.

Otherwise reunification would destroy both North and South Korea, as every able person in North Korea would move to the South to benefit from its developed economy. There is no way South Korea could absorb all the migrants, many of whom would not have the skills necessary to join the labour force in South Korea if reunification were declared tomorrow. South Korea has a heavily IT-dependent economy, whereas the internet, computers and Mobile telephones are extremely rare in North Korea. Aside from the economic considerations relevant to union, there would be a question of how to fuse the political systems of the two countries that are very different in a number of ways. South Korea is a democracy; North Korea is not. North Korea has been the subject of much human rights criticism, and its judiciary is harshly condemned. North Korea does not have a vocal parliamentary opposition movement. North Korea is a closed society; its citizens are not generally free to travel or to read news sources of their choosing. North Koreans are shielded from foreigners, only a few thousand of whom are authorised to visit the country each year. Both North and South Korea are armed to the teeth, albeit with very different military structures; their armed forces are each pointed at the other.

An initial stage on the way towards reunification would surely be some sort of con federalism in the style of Bosnia and Herzegovina: two state-like entities within a single international boundary, that slowly but surely agree to pool authorities into central structures. Typically the central structures begin in name only – for example, border guards wear the same uniforms but report in practice into different structures. Subsequently, one some years and with more or less gentle persuasion by the international community and the dominating Great Powers (in this case the United States and China), more authorities are vested in central structures; a co-Presidency is formed; and re-unification may take place in fits and starts and with plenty of setbacks.

This is the predicted aspiration for the future of North Korea. The principal party this agreement will affect, aside from the tripartite group of the United States, North Korea and China, is South Korea. Seoul expressed some disquiet soon after the Singapore talks. President Trump promptly declared, in a press conference, that the “war games” (by which he meant joint Us-South Korean military training manoeuvres) were “provocative” and would stop. The next such manoeuvres were scheduled for August. South Korea was alarmed, because it sees these joint military exercises as a deterrent against the risk of North Korean military aggression. Suddenly the umbrella of military protection for South Korea appeared just to have been partially lifted.

Moreover South Korean problems are now liable to multiply. The United States promptly declared that the North Korean nuclear threat was over, an observation that also worried the South Koreans because as far as they are concerned, nothing has changed. The South Koreans do not appear to have been privy to the innermost negotiations between the United States and North Korea, and their concern is naturally that the United States abandons them.

If the United States is determined to let North Korea flourish, and potentially even to encourage a programme of re-unification, then South Korea’s political certainties – operating under US suzerainty and with US military protection – may vanish. South Korea may be concerned that North Korean aggression towards the South may reneging, in a reprise of the 1950’s. Moreover if North Korea does reform, then it is virtually inevitable that South Korea will be expected to pick up a large part of the bill. South Korea will need to spend more on its own defence, as the United States has intimated. Seoul may be asked to subsidise whatever development projects are necessary to catalyse North Korea’s economic development.

If political alignment between North and South is to occur, that will likely be at South Korea’s cost. Rapprochement with the North, forced upon Seoul by both the United States and China, may have unpredictable domestic political effects in South Korea. Moderates in Seoul may be outflanked by political extremists in national elections. In the long run, South Korea likely realises that US influence on the Korean Peninsula will fade to be replaced with Chinese influence. In other words, the US-North Korea agreement goes too far for South Korea’s comfort, and potentially too quickly.

It is apparent from the nature of the statements emerging from Washington, DC that the United States considers the dispute over the Korean peninsula to below to a different age and that it should be resolved promptly and decisively. In this, the White House is surely right. If the Trump-Kim deal unravels, the consequences might well involve a return to a scenario akin to 1950 in which Korea, Chinese and US armed forces find themselves in direct confrontation. For precisely this reason, a return to such a scenario is inconceivable and a recipe military withdrawal by the United States from the Korean peninsula, to be replaced by US commercial interests in North Korea, is now plausible.

China and the United States cannot afford to go to war over Korea, as they could in the early 1950’s. Their commercial interests are too intertwined. That is why a dramatic change in direction of American political engagement upon the Korea peninsula is now apposite. The ideological dispute between superpowers that triggered the Korean civil war is long over. All that remains is a small peninsula of land, a political division waiting to be healed, and economic opportunities.

All that resolution of the dispute on the Korean peninsula required was courage. The road to reunification will be rocky. There may be plenty of people who try to wreck it. The United States and China will have to hold firm upon their agreed course. But in all likelihood this is a deal that will stick. It is a rare foreign policy success in a dangerous modern world. Korea is a dispute that belongs only in the annals of the Cold War, and that is surely now to where it will be relegated.

*Matthew Parish is an international lawyer based in Geneva, Switzerland and a former UN peacekeeper. He has published two books and over 250 on the subject. In 2013 he was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and he has was listed as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. He is currently a preferred candidate of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for appointment to a position of Under Secretary General of the United Nations with an agenda for institutional reform.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.


TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

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