Skip to main content
On the Record

Regional stability in East Asia: Korean unification dynamics and China’s revival

Editor’s Note: On January 25-26, 2016, Richard Bush gave the following remarks at the 4th Korea Research Institute for National Strategy-Brookings Joint Conference on “Policy Directions of the ROK and the U.S. for Regional Stability in East Asia” in Seoul, Korea.

For the fourth time, the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy and Brookings Institution are collaborating to hold a conference on future security issues that the Republic of Korea and United States, as two close allies, will face in East Asia. This is a partnership that The Brookings Institution holds in high regard. We are deeply grateful of General Lee Sanghee for his leadership and his staff for their outstanding and essential support.

Our first three conferences focused on the future of the Korean Peninsula. This focus was highly appropriate because there are many variables at play and unknowns to be considered. Bringing together a group of very smart people to talk about the Peninsula made a lot of sense. The first conference examined ROK-U.S. relations at the point that President Park was about to take office and President Obama began his second term. The second conference looked at how our two governments should cooperate in the diplomatic and security spheres for the unification of Korea. The third conference assessed the prospects for regional cooperation to preserve regional stability in the context of Korean unification, with the United States as the anchor. The results of these three conferences were very fruitful.

For our fourth conference, General Lee and I decided that it was appropriate to widen our lens, while keeping Korea and the United States in the center of the picture. Hence the title of this conference: “Policy Directions of the ROK and the U.S. for Regional Stability in East Asia.” In considering what to say in these brief introductory remarks, two overlapping perspectives came to mind.

Unification dynamics

The first perspective is the process by which unification of the Korean Peninsula might occur. Here, unfortunately, we don’t seem to have many relevant past cases on which to draw. In fact, the only case that I think is remotely relevant is German reunification at the end of the Cold War. The Germany experience may turn out to be totally irrelevant to Korea, and none of us can know in advance how Korean unification will take place. But the German case is worth examining for clues.

The focus here is on the implications for regional stability, the theme of our conference. In my opinion it is fair to say that once its unification occurred, Germany contributed to European stability for at least a decade and did not, in fact, undermine it. That was because it had its own interest in forging a good relationship with the Russian Federation and revive its eastern region. It is true that Europe was not completely stable in the two decades after the end of the Cold War. The most serious situation was the conflict and war that followed the dissolution of the formerly united Yugoslavia. But that tragic train of events occurred for internal reasons, and not because of anything that a unified Germany did or didn’t do.

Now we all understand that German unification was a unique case and Korean unification will be a unique case. There are many obvious ways in which the German case was very different from what we have here on the Korean Peninsula.

First of all, Imperial and Nazi Germany victimized other countries and people whereas Korea was the victim of manipulation and aggression by others, particularly Japan.

Second, the division of Germany was the result of allied consultation during World War II and a formal agreement among the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, and France thereafter. That created four zones in what was left of Germany and in Berlin, and regulated the interaction among the four powers (the U.S., British, and French zones subsequently became the Federal Republic of Germany). Ending the division would require another formal agreement among them. But in Korea, there was only an armistice, signed by a North Korean general representing the DPRK and China, and the American head of the UN Command, who represented the allies.

Third, one part of divided Germany did not go to war with the other in order to bring about unification. Germany was the central arena of the Cold War and sometimes tensions were very high. But this political conflict never escalated to military conflict with neither East nor West Germany as the cause. Again, the situation in Korea is different. North Korea went to war to achieve unification by force. Tensions remain fairly high, and even this year we saw another episode of North-South conflict. Similarly, East Germany did not seek to create its own nuclear deterrent, as North Korea has.

Fourth, although East Germany had a Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist system, it did not also have the theocratic monarchy that exists in North Korea.

So then, what are some of the similarities in the process of German unification for regional stability that might be relevant for Korea?

First of all, the two Germanys and the two Koreas were allies of their super-power patrons and depended on their security commitments. At least in the case of the ROK, it depends on the U.S. pledge of nuclear extended deterrence, as West Germany did and a unified Germany does today.

Second, German unification occurred in the first place because of the political crisis in the late 1980s in East Germany (the GDR). Although the regime maintained a strong repressive capacity, it faced growing public demands for change and a refugee problem. The regime was seriously divided on how to deal with these changes, and the will to impose repression eventually declined. Of course, we do not know how Korean unification will occur, but the mainstream view appears to be that it will require the divisions within the Pyongyang regime or the breakdown of its authority, or both.


Third, as the internal instability grew in East Germany, there ensued an external process of negotiation in which the GDR and its Soviet patron sought to stabilize some version of the status quo with as little change as possible. This effort ultimately failed, but the negotiation process, between both East and West Germany and among the U.S., USSR, Britain, and France (the so-called four-plus-two framework), was crucial for the ultimate outcome on the West’s terms. How any negotiations occur in the Korean case will be crucial in defining the end result.

Fourth, there were tensions among the United States, Britain, and France, and between Moscow and East Berlin on how to handle the German problem (and divisions within each government). The United States was more comfortable with movement toward unification than its two NATO allies. Margaret Thatcher’s stated reason for going slowly was her desire to ensure that Gorbachev was not politically weakened at home. Over the course of the negotiations, the Soviet Union—or Gorbachev—changed the assessment of how important it was to preserve a divided Germany. But memories of past German aggression no doubt lingered. Ultimately, however, without allied unity, the outcome might have been much different. We can expect that Japan, the analogue to Britain and Germany, might have similar concerns about Korean unification.

Fifth, managing the expectations and concerns of the Soviet Union, East Germany’s ally, were very important. Future security arrangements were a significant issue in these negotiations. The Soviet Union held out for a unification arrangement in which other NATO countries’ troops would not be deployed to the former East Germany and the NATO Article 5 commitment would not apply to the GDR territory. Within the Korean unification context, we know that China worries about security arrangements on the Korean Peninsula after unification. Would it, for example, insist that the territorial scope of the U.S.-ROK mutual defense treaty be limited to the area south of the 38th parallel?

Sixth, the relationship among leaders was extremely important in bringing about German unification. The fact that President Bush, Prime Minister Thatcher, and President Mitterrand felt comfortable engaging with each other; that each had a personal relationship with West German Chancellor Kohl; and that all four were able to talk with Gorbachev, eased the negotiating process considerably. This was very much a top-down process. Hence, the relations among leaders of the U.S., China, South Korea, and Japan will be very important for Korean unification. Relations with China’s leader are important because its decisions will be critical to the outcome; this gives a strategic importance to President Park’s effort to forge a good relationship with Xi Jinping. But the relationship between the presidents of the United States and the ROK and the prime minister of Japan is also important.

Finally, the key relationship driving an outcome on good terms for West Germany and its allies was the relationship between President Bush and Chancellor Kohl. They did not always see eye to eye on tactics and details, but their common purpose to achieve a successful unification and their willingness to communicate at just about every step was vital. Similarly, close relations and good communication between the U.S. and ROK presidents will be crucial.

As I suggested above, German unification did not undermine regional stability in the first decades after it occurred. The real question concerns Germany’s role not in the medium-term but the long term. As of today, Germany is the dominant power in Europe, economically and diplomatically, but not militarily. As much as the Mediterranean countries dislike Chancellor Merkel’s tough position on economic issues, my own judgment is that Germany so far has played a highly constructive and stabilizing role in Europe. The threat to regional stability comes not from a resurgent Germany but from a resurgent Russia, on which Chancellor Merkel’s firm position has been critical.

China’s revival

Those are my thoughts on my first perspective: the dynamics of unification. My final observation about a resurgent Russia provides a transition to my second perspective: the revival of China as a great power. This creates the regional context in which Korean unification will take place. It is worth noting that when German unification took place, the Soviet Union was in decline, which likely explains why Gorbachev was willing to make so many concessions to the West. Today, China is rising. Would it have the same willingness to accommodate the United States and the Republic of Korea on the terms and conditions of Korean unification? My comments here are relatively brief, because you understand this situation very well.

It is generally true that a rising or reviving state first tries to achieve dominance in its home region. That’s certainly what the United States did in the Western Hemisphere in the nineteenth century. The history of Western Europe in the last 500 years can also be interpreted in this light. The story of East Asia from the late 1800s to 1945 was all about Japan’s economic and military regional hegemony. I am prepared to argue that the key variable that will govern regional stability in this century is China’s revival and how other countries, including the United States as a resident Asian power, react.

There are several specific features about China’s regional rise. The first is historical. That is, Imperial China’s last two dynasties, the Ming and the Qing, did engage in territorial expansion, but only to the north and the west. With the countries to the east and the south, they sought not territory but political deference. One see hints of that approach today, even under different circumstances.

The second feature is geographical. At least East Asian countries are maritime nations (Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines), and so, have naturally endowed strategic depth. Even for countries that are part of the Asian landmass, physical geography can somewhat limit Beijing’s ability to project power at their expense. This configuration is very different from the one that prevailed on the other side of the Eurasian landmass regarding a rising Soviet Union and Western Europe.

The third feature is economic. Because the top priority of the Chinese Communist Party is to grow the economy through global interdependence, it needs positive interactions with the Asia-Pacific economies. This objective has limited any temptation towards external adventurism and hopefully will continue to do so.

The fourth feature concerns security. As I mentioned, a rising or reviving power usually starts by gaining dominance of its home region, but China faces a problem in carrying out this task: the United States has been the dominant East Asian power for more than six decades, the result of its a forward deployment strategy. This allows the other Asian countries to pursue a dual-track strategy: rely on China for economic growth and rely on the United States for security. The question for the future is whether this approach can continue—either because China’s growth slows significantly or because China pushes East Asian nations to make a choice.

Therefore, any unification of the Korean peninsula will occur as part of a complex chess game between a reviving China and a status quo America, particularly as their contest for preeminence plays out in the East Asian region. Again, the relations among the presidents of China, the U.S., and the ROK become extremely important.

Get daily updates from Brookings