North Korea’s second nuclear weapons test this year -- the rogue regime’s fifth and most powerful to date as well as Kim Jong-un’s third since his 2011 assumption of power -- has caused pervasive worldwide alarm, principally due to the growing plausibility that Pyongyang may soon be capable of mounting a nuclear warhead upon an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach, among other targets, the United States mainland.
Stanford nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker estimates North Korea has enough highly enriched uranium to produce 20 nuclear warheads by the end of 2016, and sufficient fissile material for seven added warheads each subsequent year. Hecker wrote on Sept. 12 that North Korea’s most recent nuclear test may have an “explosion yield of approximately 15 to 20 kilotons, possibly twice the magnitude of the largest previous test,” indicating the Pyongyang regime’s nuclear wherewithal proceeds to precipitately and unabatedly gain ground.
He emphasized in his essay for 38 North, a program of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, his assessment the nuclear test “demonstrates conclusively” sanctions and “waiting for China to exert leverage over Pyongyang” are not operable as substantive answers to the nuclear question, which presently poses an existential threat to both South Korea and Japan. Georgetown professor Victor Cha, who served as director for Asian affairs at the White House in 2004-2007, stated similarly in an interview on Sept. 9th, “Unless China is willing to cut off everything, which they don’t appear willing to do, the sanctions may be politically the right thing to do and a requisite response, but they are not the answer to the problem.”
Only six months have passed since China lent its nominal support for what were touted as the most stringent economic sanctions ever imposed on North Korea by the United Nations Security Council. However, an August 2016 MIT Security Studies Program report, cited by the New York Times editorial board on Sept. 9th, found that sanctions thus far not only “have not worked,” but “have had the net effect of actually improving DPRK procurement capability,” using the official acronym for North Korea.
Casualty figures for the Korean War vary widely, but according to Encyclopedia Britannica, China lost some 600,000 of its citizens during the 1950-53 Korean War. Beijing undoubtedly is concerned about the foreseeable geopolitical repercussions of a unified Korea linked to a US defense arrangement on its border. This is the vital reason China continues to provide extensive assistance and diplomatic cover to Pyongyang, despite overt indicators the current Chinese administration actually disdains Kim Jong-un’s prison state -- the world’s worst human rights violating country and an enormous economic, political and security liability for China. The second reason, correlative to the first, being to prevent mass refugee outflows into Chinese territory, which could accelerate North Korea’s collapse.
South Korea, in sheer contrast, surpassed Japan to become China’s second largest trade partner in 2016, according to the Korea International Trade Association, with South Korea trading $75.6 billion in goods with China in the final quarter of 2015 and South Korea’s investment in China at approximately $3.7 billion in the initial 11 months of the preceding year. In other words, they have become indispensable partners, at least on the economic front.
Even if the South Korea-China relationship may become strained and seem tenuous at times -- for example, the current contentious disagreement over South Korea’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system -- it can be convincingly argued that today South Korea is in fact on better terms with China than North Korea. Korean President Park Geun-hye and Chinese President Xi Jinping have had eight summit meetings since both entered office in 2013, while the 32-year-old Kim who was appointed leader of North Korea in 2011 has not been invited to China nor been permitted a single meeting with President Xi.
China and Russia believe the X-band radars from the THAAD battery will be used to transfer their classified missile data to the US. On Sept. 5, President Park and President Xi met on the sidelines of the G20 conference in Hangzhou, China, during which President Park stated, “Once the nuclear and missile issues are resolved, it (THAAD) will no longer be needed,” seemingly offering the rescinding of THAAD as a bargaining chip in exchange for China’s forthright help in effectively stopping North Korea. President Park delivered an equivalent message to a Russian state-run news agency ahead of her summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 3 which, incidentally, appears for all practical purposes to have gone surprisingly well.
Coordination between South Korea, the United States, China and Russia is plainly necessary to resolve the North Korean threat. To surmount the prevailing deadlock, South Korea and the United States should prioritize establishing a formal agreement with China and Russia that guarantees an independent, genuinely democratic and neutral reunified Korea, including the withdrawal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula in the event of unification. Both countries fear the consequences of their intractable neighbor’s atomic weapons development, nuclear and missile tests and proliferation of diverse weapons of mass destruction. If the proposal for Korean unification, independence and neutrality is made transparently, unflaggingly and in earnest, both China and Russia would become far more likely to cooperate. The Republic of Korea has proven itself to be an agreeable neighbor and an exceedingly superior economic partner, and is thus vastly preferable for all parties to the penurious, intemperate, hazardous “Hell on Earth” the Pyongyang regime represents and is accountable for.
In a 1973 essay entitled “Korea: The Preposterous Division,” the late professor Gregory Henderson of Tufts University, who served in Seoul as vice consul at the outbreak of the Korean War, recommended “a four-power (including Japan) guarantee of the neutrality and independence of the Korean Peninsula,” asserting Korea’s “unity and independence ... guaranteed by the great powers, would be the solution to be sought for this most dangerous of the world’s peninsulas.” Henderson cautioned that the unification and independence of Korea was essential for “stability in Northeast Asia” and the “broader cause of world peace.” Criticizing the 1945 division of Korea effectuated by the United States and the Soviet Union, Henderson wrote, “There was no justification whatsoever for the ideological-political division that occurred at the 38th parallel.”
Most crucially, a democratic and reunified Korea would be empowered to open the door for the estimated hundreds of thousands of North Korean refugees -- including tens of thousands of stateless and abandoned Korean children in China -- to at last be welcomed home without fear of persecution. The abolition of torture, slavery, forced starvation, extrajudicial killings and other internationally recognized crimes from the North would make the Korean nation and people better, stronger and safer as a whole. Nations that instituted Korea’s unjust division in 1945, if unpretentious about peace, should contribute meaningfully to the financial cost of reunification. The cruelly imposed partition went against the universal will of the Korean people and resulted in innumerable separated families -- nearly all never reunited -- and both through the Korean War and North Korea’s mass atrocity crimes, an estimated 6-8 million Koreans dead.
The Korean people need not fear unification, but rather welcome, embrace and prepare for unity comprehended through the lens of a new paradigm signifying a veritable peace, mutual uplift and long-delayed justice.
By Robert Park
Robert Park is a founding member of the nonpartisan Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea, minister, musician and former prisoner of conscience. --Ed.