East Asia Nuclear Policy Project
Morton H. Halperin, The Nuclear Dimension of the U.S.-Japan Alliance

Section 6, "Options for the Korean Peninsula"


Options for the Korean Peninsula

The turmoil in the South Korean economic system and the election of Kim Dae Jung, and North Korea's missile tests and mysterious tunnels-all amid efforts to improve bilateral relations-have produced an extraordinarily fluid and uncertain situation. South Korea is no longer a confident economic giant facing a North in a state of economic collapse. Furthermore, the South now has a leader who is much more open to direct talks with the North in an effort to implement the far-reaching North-South accord negotiated in 1991 and has explicitly disavowed any effort to destabilize the North Koran regime.

The four power talks provide a framework in which China and the United States can consider their overall security interests in the region.

There remain a number of different scenarios for the Korean peninsula. Three are laid out here to help to illuminate key security issues, including the question of the continuing role of nuclear weapons in the region: 1) "muddling through," 2) a Chinese-ROK agreement, and 3) a cooperative security agreement.

1. Muddling Through

The debate in the United States and South Korea about whether a quick collapse in the North is possible and desirable is largely over, although there remain those who hope for a "managed" collapse in a brief period.32 The economic crisis has heightened concern about the impact of unification on South Korea. Moreover, the dangers of a sudden collapse are now better understood.

It now appears that the most likely scenario for Korea is one of "muddling through." Under this formula, no effort would be made to destabilize the North and the two Koreas would slowly implement the agreement between them, leading to increased exchanges and recognition. In parallel, the United States would remove its restrictions on trade and gradually normalize relations with the North.

In this scenario, despite this approach, the North could still quickly collapse. If it did not, North and South would gradually adopt the slogan of "one country-two systems" and move very slowly toward unification.

2. China-ROK Alliance

Because South Korean leaders fear that China might feel compelled to go beyond the aid it is now providing to the North and to militarily intervene to prevent a collapse that would lead to a unified government allied with the United States and hostile to China, they have begun to consider another option in which unification would come about as a result of a bilateral understanding between the ROK and the PRC.

With this approach, the ROK and the PRC would improve their relations in order to forestall a clash between the two countries. South Koreans wish to avoid Chinese intervention, which would again divide Korea, and the Chinese goal of preventing a unified Korea from being part of an anti-Chinese alliance could lead to an agreement between the two countries. In this scenario, China would agree not to intervene to prevent unification of the entire peninsula and Korea would agree to end the alliance with the United States and to expel U.S. troops once Korea was unified.

3. Cooperative Security Arrangement

Under the cooperative security scenario, the United States would discuss with all major powers that have interests focused on the Korea peninsula what their security concerns are and seek to define a process and an outcome that were consistent with the interests of each state. It would then initiate the agreed process in a transparent manner to bring about the agreed outcome, which would be consistent with the interests of each state, including the desire of South Korea to see a process of gradual unification unfold.

The first step in that process would be for the United States to define its own interests in Northeast Asia both now and after the unification of Korea. Obviously, one key objective would be to prevent further nuclear proliferation and to ensure that if there were any nuclear weapons or weapons-grade fissionable material in North Korea, they were destroyed.

I believe this approach is the one that the United States should follow, not only to address the problem of security on the Korean peninsula, but to minimize the danger that Japan will seek to develop nuclear weapons.

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32 For an enumeration of possible scenarios for the precipitation of Korean unification, see "Search for a Framework for ROK-US Relations," Report of a Conference sponsored by The Seoul Forum for International Affairs and the Council on Foreign Relations, Seoul (1997) 16-7. Back


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