During President Moon Jae-in’s recent visit to China, the Korean media focused intensely on the details of protocol and were quick to suggest that the president had not been accorded sufficient respect. This sensitivity reflects a natural sensitivity to powerful nations.
A look at history shows that China exerted the most influence on Korea from early history until the late 19th century, when Japan became dominant. Japanese dominance turned into harsh colonial rule that ended with the Japanese surrender in 1945.
The US and the Soviet Union rushed in and divided Korea, setting off events that led to the creation of the two Koreas. The US has influenced South Korea since then, whereas North Korea has tried to reject foreign influence while remaining economically dependent on the Soviet Union and more recently China.
The list of countries that have influenced Korea is short: China, Japan, the US and the Soviet Union. Among these, Chinese influence has been far longer than any of the others. Chinese influence waned when China became weak, which opened the door for other powers to compete.
In recent years, China has overcome its weakness to become the largest economy in the world. It is on the verge of becoming a superpower. The US emerged from the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s as the sole superpower and has maintained that position, despite military and economic setbacks in the 2000s.
The Soviet Union is now Russia, a major nation, but not a superpower. Japan, meanwhile, is weakening as its population declines.
Two superpowers thus wield the most influence over the Korean Peninsula: China and the US. Russia and, particularly, Japan have interest in Korea, but limited influence. The current division works well for China and the US because it prevents either side from dominating the entire peninsula. This, of course, is at odds with the goal of reunification.
At a deeper level, China and the US would welcome reunification under a regime favorable to its interests, but they both understand that it would be destabilizing. This is why US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said recently that any US forces used in military action against North Korea would retreat back to South Korea after hostilities end. It is also why China wants to avoid pushing North Korea toward economic collapse even though it does not like North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
The most effective way to meet the competing needs of the US and China is to push toward a united, but neutral democratic Korean state without nuclear weapons and a foreign military presence. This would also fulfil the historic need of the Korean people for reunification. China would feel more secure with US forces removed from the Asian mainland, and the US would feel secure with a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Both nations could maintain close economic and cultural relations with a neutral Korea.
The problem is that only South Korea has the potential to become a united neutral and democratic Korea. To achieve this goal, North Korea would have to collapse or be destroyed, either of which carries great risk. Leaving nuclear weapons in the hands of North Korea also carries great risk.
A less risky option would be for both Koreas to accept the division and recognize each other. From there, negotiations could focus on dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs in exchange for the withdrawal of US forces from South Korea. Both Koreas could agree to remove artillery further away from the DMZ. South Korea and the US could maintain their mutual defense treaty, and North Korea would be free to sign a similar treaty with China if it so wished.
North Korea has justified its nuclear program as self-defense against perceived US aggression. A nuclear-free two-state solution with the withdrawal of US forces from South Korea should give North Korea the security assurance it needs. This solution would open the door to arms reductions that help North Korea shift toward economic development, something Kim Jong-un appears to be interested in.
If, however, North Korea rejects denuclearization and continues to push for the withdrawal of US forces from South Korea, then it is clear that Kim is more interested in destroying South Korea. If so, then the only option is for South Korea, China, and the US to work together to undermine North Korea to prepare the ground for reunification under South Korea.
By Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.