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The role of the U.S.-ROK alliance in the process of unification: A U.S. view

To discuss the unification of the Korean peninsula is to accept that we are entertaining hypotheticals and that ideas and plans for any unification process lack an essential partner, the DPRK. We have no control over the timing and “breakout” of unification, and we can only hope that it is peaceful from start to finish.

We also need to emphasize that unification is a process that will take decades to fulfill from the moment that the two Koreas embark upon formal unification. The binding of the two sides by treaty and common institutions will not be the end point of unification, but a mere beginning. How two peoples, separated for seventy years or possibly longer (about three generations at the least), might learn to live together as one political, social, economic, and cultural community remains a haunting question and daunting prospect. It is difficult to foresee what that process would entail, and the best we can do now is to envision as inclusively and realistically as possible the different routes pre-unification might take.

We also cannot rule out the possibility that unification, however defined, might not endure—that the long history and practice of living with different worldviews and in socio-psychological environments—no matter how sincere the hopes might be on both sides of the 38th parallel and by supportive countries. So, thinking about unification is an exercise in uncertainty and rigorous imagination to assess realistically the types of uncertainty that might emerge and how responsible actors might shape and respond as constructively as possible.

Unification could take varied forms, ranging from the very violent and chaotic to the peaceful, gradual, and incremental. Scenarios of violence and social tumult will invite a larger role for the U.S.-ROK alliance, both military and diplomatic, whereas smoother “soft landing” scenarios will invite a smaller and less direct role. The more abrupt unification is, even if peaceful, in contrast to a more gradual and planned unification led by the ROK, the larger the role of the United States will be.

Over time, the most important and prolonged role of both allies will be in the diplomatic realm, both with respect to each other and to regional communities and international institutions. For the alliance to work relatively smoothly in any process of unification, intra-alliance competition and conflict will need to be avoided as much as possible and compromises on divergent goals will need to be made. 

The alliance partners also will need to focus their efforts on checking Korean nationalism and boosting the institutions and processes of democracy on and around the peninsula. Unification at any cost is neither desirable nor sustainable. Rather, a unified peninsula that maintains a democratic system of government, integrates different demographic groups into a renewed form of democratic governance and civil society participation, and engages in international cooperation will have the best chance of survival, stability, and prosperity.

Military contingencies

The logic of heavy U.S. involvement in a unification process that involves violence and armed conflict is a given. The primary rationale for the continuous presence of American troops, armaments, and facilities is to deter North Korean adventurism and invasion and to defend the South against the North if deterrence fails. Operational Plan (OPLAN) 5015, the joint strategic plan for war-fighting that was signed in November, 2015 by the military establishments of both countries, envisions limited warfare with an emphasis on preemptive strikes on strategic targets in North Korea and “decapitation raids” to exterminate North Korean leaders. It is considered to be a more offensive-oriented plan, making escalation more readily possible than its predecessor, OPLAN 5027, which emphasizes forward-defense postures.

In tandem with these plans exists Concept Plan (CONPLAN) 5029, which focuses on “sudden change” crisis scenarios in the DPRK that range from the possibility of revolt within its borders, mass internal displacement of people and out-migration from the DPRK, the need for tracking and securing the North’s nuclear weapons and materials, and social or environmental chaos that require immediate humanitarian and technical assistance. The U.S. 2nd Infantry Division (2ID) and a brigade-level unit of the ROK Army (ROKA) have been reorganized to work as a combined division to destroy the DPRK’s weapons of mass destruction in the case of regime collapse or other major crisis emanating from North Korea.

However, there is no agreement by the two allies on the need for a concrete operational plan and who would take the lead. The ROK has resisted transforming the abstract concept into a detailed operational formula (discussed in the next section).

How the two plans, 5029 and 5015, would interface in real-life situations requires serious analysis by Americans, Koreans, and the contributing members of the UN Command. From what we know through open source, 5029 focuses on collapse or disaster scenarios that originate from within the DPRK, whereas 5015 includes the possibility of external military stimuli. Additionally, 5029 is not solely focused on military conflict-based scenarios. 5015 is focused on war-fighting, but not on the management of collateral and inevitable events, like human displacement and the cut-off of water, electricity, gas, health and food provision.

It is reasonable to assume that North Koreans’ response to and cooperation with troops and aid workers from South Korea, the United States and allied countries might be more constructive if causes of a crisis were indigenous and more resistant if the causes were externally related. The UN Command will certainly play a role in stabilization and peacekeeping activities, but how they would be integrated into the 5029 is unclear to most of us. 

Another major uncertainty is whether the U.S. would have sufficient troop strength in a major contingency. The most demanding scenario is an all-out war. According to a 2015 RAND study of U.S. troop size requirements for the near-future, the Army as of the end of 2015 is to draw down troops to 490,000 in its active force and to decrease reserve components by a further 20,000 soldiers.[1]

In addition to the current deployment of 28,500 U.S. troops, 690,000 augmentation forces from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps are expected to be mobilized in the case of all-out war where flexible deterrence has failed and where phased increments of troops are found insufficient to deal with the changing military situation. Additionally, approximately 160 vessels and approximately 2,000 aircraft are expected to be moved to the Korean theater. 

The RAND report estimates that a “North Korean collapse would require an additional 150,000 U.S. troops over and above the forces already stationed and presumed to be available in the Asia Pacific region.” [2] The primary objective for this reinforcement would be to locate, seize, secure, and remove WMD in a timely way to prevent stealing, hiding, and smuggling of the weapons and related infrastructure and materials with “enough fissionable plutonium and uranium to build up to 75 weapons by 2020.”[3]

We know that the DPRK is intent on building more WMDs in numbers and potency, as the alleged hydrogen bomb test of January 6, 2016 shows, but we are not certain about when the opportunity or need for tracking and recovering of the WMDs would arise. The longer the enmity between Pyongyang and Seoul-Washington continues unabated, the manpower and equipment needs will grow since presumably there will be more weapons, infrastructure, and materials to locate and secure in the future. If the process of unification were to begin ten or twenty years from now, we could face a more formidable WMD arsenal in the North, and the 150,000 troops envisioned today might be inadequate.

In a post-collapse scenario, U.S. and UN troops will likely be needed to help impose and enforce law and order in what likely will be a chaotic situation in the North and possibly in the South. Having assessed post-conflict troop requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan, the authors of Solving Long Division: The Geopolitical Implications of Korean Unification, a recent report by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) point to the likely need for 1,000-10,000 U.S. troops to remain on the peninsula after a crisis leading to unification.[4] The immediate post-crisis period would require higher numbers, which would be decreased over time as stability becomes more certain. In 1999, Professor Kim Sung Han had estimated a “minimum number of U.S. ground troops, perhaps around 3,000 to 5,000, along with naval and air forces, in a unified Korea” in the framework of regional U.S.-Korea alliance with two goals in mind: to keep China’s and Japan’s hegemonic ambitions at bay and to prevent unified Korea from developing nuclear weapons.[5]

Another challenge is the fact that conflicts increasingly cross national boundaries and that strategies focused on fixed territories may be inadequate or obsolete. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr. stated that “any conflict in the future will be transregional, multidomain and multifunctional.”[6] In contrast to military planners of the past, who assumed that a conflict involving North Korea would be contained within the peninsula’s borders, Dunford views any conflict on the peninsula as inevitably “trans” and “multi,” considering cyberspace and counter-space capabilities, ballistic missile technology, and the growth of non-state actors that are evident in current conflicts around the world. He also cautions that “current planning, organizational constructs and command and control set-ups ‘is not optimized for that fight’.”[7] Addressing in detail the trans and multi aspects of various collapse/disaster/unification/warfighting scenarios must be a priority.

Official planners and civilian analysts in the U.S. and South Korea also need to clarify if and how scenarios for military coordination by the alliance partners accord with the Unification Formula outlined by the ROK Ministry of Unification. The current Ministry of Unification concept includes three stages of unification: One, reconciliation and cooperation, followed by Two, the creation of a Korean Commonwealth (one nation, two transitional governments or two states, two governments), followed by Three, formal unification (one nation, one government) with a new constitution and democratically elected legislature. Current military plans are suited for a pre-Stage One period, which describes today’s reality. Even under substantive Stage One conditions, U.S.-ROK contingency plans most likely will stand.

But a move toward Stage Two would require the reformulation of joint military plans since the ROK envisions formal institutions representing the interests of both the North and the South to engage in deliberation and decision-making (e.g., North-South ministerial meetings as an ‘Executive body’ and a North-South Council consisting of equal numbers of representatives from each side). Hypothetically, the Commonwealth stage is for forming a social and economic union, but the explicit omission of military matters is unrealistic. If these institutions are to serve as a de facto joint government or government-in-the-making for social and economic issues, the assumption that they would avoid influencing military issues or contingencies is untenable.

Many analysts question whether the alliance will or should continue post-unification and what form and purpose it should play vis à vis the unified peninsula and the region, but there is no public discussion of what the alliance would be or do with a Korean Commonwealth or other South Korean formulation of different phases of unification process. I doubt that a Commonwealth will come to fruition, but the important thing is to assess the military assumptions, strategies, and resource allocations in tandem with the evolution of unification processes that Koreans adopt (international trusteeship is another stage in the range of possibilities). The MoU concepts have changed numerous times over many ROK administrations, but the political vision and the military strategy have remained disconnected from each other over the decades.

As robust as U.S. actions must be in crisis situations, self-restraint by the U.S. military will also be essential. The U.S. Forces, Korea Command knows well that American forces must play a supportive and bridging role and enable the ROK forces to work at their optimal level. U.S. intelligence, communications technology, transport and related technical contributions, as well as medical and disaster response teams will be key components to helping stabilize North Korean society. Positioning U.S. forces and civilian personnel away from the Chinese border and minimizing U.S. footprints in North Korea are prerequisites to effectiveness.

Need for intra-alliance and international diplomacy

The U.S. would be intimately involved in the planning, organizing, and implementation of these activities while continuing to secure South Korea’s borders and protect against threats by air and sea from the DPRK or from China. The more volatile and urgent the situation in the North, the greater the U.S.’s role will be in military and diplomatic arenas.

In order for a streamlined, coordinated response to contingency scenarios associated with unification, it is imperative for the two countries to improve intra-alliance diplomacy during times of peace. Despite the strong alliance, political disagreements still pervade this bilateral relationship, and it would be imprudent to assume that a crisis or war would ease the tensions in the working relationship. 

For example, the sensitivity of Koreans regarding national sovereignty and pride continues to drive a wedge between the two allies, as political voices in South Korea have raised this with respect to the transfer of wartime operational control (OPCON), with some demanding an immediate transfer. Both U.S. and ROK may share military goals when it comes to North Korean aggression, but politically, South Koreans’ emphasis on ROK sovereignty and increased autonomy in numerous areas that require seamless coordination and cooperation can serve as obstacles to achieving common goals.

Similarly, South Korean leaders resisted any codification and institutionalization of CONPLAN 5029 into a workable and binding OPLAN, even if they have expressed their intention to abide by the general ideas contained in the concept plan. Fear of compromising ROK sovereignty is at issue, namely, the concern that the Combined Forces Command and not the South Korean government would lead in situations involving “sudden change” in North Korea. Officials in the Roh Moo-Hyun administration articulated this in 2005, and to this date, no official resolution has been announced.

The fact is that a sudden change scenario is more realistic to expect than a scenario of large-scale military conflict or war. In this light, it makes clear sense to debate and enumerate the sequence of actions and the prerequisite organization of personnel and matériel and agree on the specific responsibilities that each alliance partner will take up individually and jointly.

The two allies also have argued over bureaucratic issues, specifically pertaining to the cost-sharing commitments for USFK relocation. Although the big structural changes had been agreed upon by both partners, the ROK has complained about its financial difficulties in paying its share of the cost, especially since it has now increased from its original commitment of US$4 billion. This issue significantly has contributed to the delay in the relocation, which was originally scheduled for completion in 2008.

Disagreements in any alliance relationship is to be expected, but it is also true that tensions can lead to wear-and- tear in any relationship and set a path dependency that negatively affects decision-making and activities in times of crisis. Among USFK officials, it is a known fact that the day-to-day management of the alliance runs less smoothly than that of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Commitment to the alliance is not in question and does not affect the relationship in any negative way.

The problem stems partly from differences in organizational cultures, standard operating procedures, interpersonal styles, and the nationalistic excesses among South Koreans who tend to politicize aspects of alliance management. Controlling North Korea is difficult, if not impossible. But controlling tensions between alliance partners is both possible and necessary.

On the international front, the ROK and the U.S. need to develop good friendships with other countries now to bank on for future cooperation and assistance in times of crisis and resource shortage in any context and stage of unification. Whether gradual and peaceful or violent and chaotic, unification will require the international community to claim it as an international priority, not just as a regional challenge or a burden for the U.S. and the ROK to carry. 

Crisis contingencies will require much international human resources, technology, equipment, and specialized knowledge. In general, South Korea should develop a long-term strategy to diversify foreign relations so that it can benefit from the political and moral support of many friends in its efforts at deterring and restraining North Korea from hostile acts and in its efforts at unification now and in the future. The administration of President Park Geun-hye has been engaged in this process, focusing in regional diplomacy not only on China, but also on the VIP (Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines) or Southeast Asian countries since she took office in 2013. She also has strengthened economic, military and people-to-people relations with India and visited Central Asia.

Additionally, Park has been actively nurturing closer ties with EU countries. Korean government officials have been reaching out quietly to European political elites and scholars and encouraging (and funding) them to develop programs to help educate and acculturate North Koreans on a variety of issues areas, including regional health management and contagion prevention; economic and business training, etc. The first ROK-EU Forum on Peaceful Unification, organized by the National Unification Advisory Council (NUAC) and Hanns Seidel Foundation on October 27, 2015, explored the EU’s trust-building measures with the DPRK and discussed its critical engagement roles in the field of human rights.

U.S. diplomacy will also play a vital role as gatekeeper into international organizations for either a ‘reformed’ North Korea in a reconciliation or “commonwealth” scenario. This is no small task and some distance away in time. Currently, there is no political will to integrate the DPRK into the international economic and legal system, even if Pyongyang were to revise its rhetoric and actions considerably and ingratiate itself before the international community (which is not likely). But the prospect of these institutions providing funds, technical know-how, and norm inculcation in order for the DPRK to get on its feet economically and socially is inevitable. It’s just a matter of time and negotiated conditions. The U.S. has served as escort and gatekeeper for many countries and ultimately not only will have to give its blessing for the integration of the North into the community of nations, but also fight on its behalf against skeptics.

American experience with Vietnam, another former enemy in war, might offer some lessons, but the case of North Korea certainly will be a harder climb. Even before the U.S. normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995, it allowed the latter’s access to loans from the World Bank, the IMF, and the Asian Development Bank in 1993 and eliminated the U.S. trade embargo in 1994.

From the time Vietnam and the U.S. implemented the Bilateral Trade Agreement in 2001, it took five years for the U.S. to agree to Vietnam’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) by first establishing bilateral permanent normal trade relations (PNTR), which paved the way for Vietnam’s accession to the WTO in 2007.

More recent trade and integration agreements for the Asia-Pacific have also welcomed Vietnam, and the country is slated to be one of the big economic winners in the important Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Unlike the DPRK, Vietnam initiated moves toward economic reform and away from political repression in 1986 and never developed nuclear weapons.

 As much as Vietnam had been an enemy in the past, its desire to join the regional and international communities of nations meant that new advocates were willing to help. Unlike the DPRK, Vietnam had friends in the U.S. Congress, especially key leaders who were veterans of the war, such as Senator John McCain (R-Ariz), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). Together, they built the bipartisan support for congressional approval that was needed to facilitate the PNTR, since Title IV of the Trade Act of 1974 prohibits the President from granting communist countries normal trade relation status.

American business leaders lobbied both for the normalization of relations with Vietnam and for its accession into the WTO. And the support of the business community was catalyzed in part by the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council and the U.S.-Vietnam Trade Council.

North Korea, on the other hand, has no friends in the United States, and no institutional support, not even lukewarm, in ASEAN, APEC or other regional networks of countries. APEC has no working group or committee regarding North Korea’s membership or how to reform its economy. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) has discussed North Korea’s denuclearization and included it in its 2015 joint statement, but it has no regular committee or discussion related to the DPRK. Similarly, the East Asian Summit has no DPRK-specific agenda, but has served as a stage to condemn Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

By contrast, Vietnam established diplomatic and economic relations with (ASEAN) member states in 1991 and with most Western European and East Asian countries around the same period. Vietnam’s Asian friends were instrumental in making it more attractive to American businesses and other advocates who sought normalization of relations.

Unification WITH democracy

Defectors and refugees from the North currently residing in the ROK have a very difficult time adjusting to their new environment. Some are new arrivals, and others have been in the South for over twenty years. They are not a monolithic group, but those who arrived since the Great Famine in the DPRK, in particular, form a de facto segregated and impoverished underclass in South Korean society. About 30,000 North Koreans live in the South. As of March, 2015, 86 percent of them had been laborers or unemployed back in the DPRK. Most had limited or inconsistent formal education, and according to 2014 statistics, the unemployment rate among the refugees was 20 percent, six times higher than the average for South Koreans (in 2004, 38 percent).

Young North Koreans, aged 20-39 compose about 60 percent of the total refugee population, and their need for education, job training, employment, and marriage prospects are urgent. Additionally, child escapees have high failure and drop-out rates, between 4.2 – 7.5 % in middle and high schools, compared with 1.2 – 3% for South Korean students during the period 2011-2013.[8]

Expecting and planning to address mass migration under peaceful or conflict situations must be priorities in any preparation for dealing with changes in North Korea. According to Sandra Fahy, migration out of the DPRK, “whether sudden, gradual, or driven by a coup d’etat,” will likely range “from 300,000 in a few months, to several million in the first year.”[9] The ROK government has plans to take in 200,000 in the initial period following a governmental disruption in North Korea and to increase the inflow gradually to one million in the seventh to tenth years, post-crisis.

Even if the government were able to control the migration of people, taking in hundreds of thousands would create not only economic and social challenges, but political disruptions within South Korea. As much as officials now claim that mass migration will be prevented through physical barriers and guard posts, my prediction is that human migration on and around the peninsula will be much less manageable than people assume.

 Scholarship on migration demonstrates the resourceful ways migrants get around physical and bureaucratic obstacles, the resilience of migrants in living without official papers and in enduring underground existence. South Korean and international NGOS and advocacy networks will also undoubtedly demand “more generous” in-migration policies and practices.

Acculturating the migrants to democratic processes, norms, and institutions primarily will be a South Korean and peninsular Korean challenge. The United States should be ready to assist in educational and training programs to help the newcomers adapt to new political institutions and expectations of citizenship. Americans already fund, support, and work with South Koreans and refugees from the DPRK on a variety of projects aimed at political empowerment and participation, education and self-advocacy. Such programs will need to expand and diversify to meet the demographically, regionally, and socio-economically diverse types of migrants who come to the South.

It is also imperative to remember that South Korea now is a multi-racial/ethnic and officially self-declared “multicultural” society (다문화 사회). By 2030, an estimated 10 percent of the total population will be foreign-born or of mixed ethnicity, comparable to European countries today facing nationalist and xenophobic backlash from the majority population and demands for more rights and political participation by the ethnic and religious minorities. In this context, the premise of unification needs to change from restoring the ethnic nation and the Korean “bloodline” to establishing a cosmopolitan civic nation firmly grounded in democratic principles. Norms of tolerance, mutual respect, and compromise must become new national mottos if people on the Korean peninsula are to build a new democratic community.

New nationalism in a unified peninsula could become a formidable foe of democracy by inciting sectarianism that creates geopolitical tensions. The CNAS report warned that “excessive Korean nationalism could drive a united Korea to claim responsibility for the Korean-speaking Chinese population beyond the boundary of the peninsula,” namely, China’s northeast provinces, and provoke a “spillover nationalism.”[10] Hypothetically, this could involve China’s Korean minority developing new awareness of their ethnic identity, which in turn could inspire separatist movements in other parts of China.[11] There is also the possibility that ethnic Koreans in Japan will become inspired by unification to challenge their second class status in Japan and/or migrate to a unified peninsula.

Helping Korea uphold and strengthen democracy will be a big task for the Americans. Any setback for democracy in South Korea and a unified peninsula will be a major setback for U.S. interests. China is the big non-democracy in East Asia whose influence is far-reaching—e.g., across Asia to Africa. South Korea and Japan are the two U.S. allies that boast political liberalization along with top-tier economics. The alliance with both countries includes common values, not just common strategic interests. Any threat to those common values, which are anchored in democracy, will make for a shaky bilateral relationship.


[1] Timothy M. Bonds, Michael Johnson, Paul S. Steinberg, Limiting Regret Building the Army We Will Need, Rand Corporation, 2015, p. 11. http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1320.html (accessed January 2, 2016).

[2] Ibid., pg.11.

[3] Siegfried S. Hecker, “The real threat from North Korea is the nuclear arsenal built over the last decade,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 7, 2015. http://thebulletin.org/real-threat-north-korea-nuclear-arsenal-built-over-last-decade7883.

[4] Patrick M. Cronin, Van Jackson, Elbridge Colby, et.al, Solving Long Division: The Geopolitical Implications of Korean Unification, Center for New American Security (Washington, DC, December 16, 2015), p. 18. http://www.cnas.org/solving-long-division#.VpLRgPkrIdU (accessed December 20, 2015).

[5] Sunghan Kim, “Stability and Security on the Korean Peninsula: Developing a Research Agenda,” unpublished conference paper, The University of California at San Diego (May 26-27, 1999), p. 11. Cited with permission of the author via email, January 11, 2016.

[6] Jim Garamone, “Dunford Discusses Implications of Current Security Environment,” Department of Defense News, December 14, 2016. http://www.defense.gov/News-Article-View/Article/634139/dunford-discusses-implications-of-current-security-environment (accessed December 15, 2015); “N.Korea Conflict ‘Would Spread Beyond the Region’,” Chosun Ilbo, December 16, 2015. http://english.chosun.com/site/data/html_dir/2015/12/16/2015121601594.html (accessed December 16, 2015).

[7] Garamone.

[8] Myong-Hyun Go, “Resettling in South Korea: Challenges for Young North Korean Refugees,” Asan Institute Issue Brief, August 8, 2014. http://en.asaninst.org/contents/resettling-in-south-korea-challenges-for-young-north-korean-refugees/ (accessed December 20, 2015).

[9] Sandra Fahy, “Internal Migration in North Korea: Preparation for Governmental Disruption,” Asia Policy 20 (July, 2015), p. 120.

[10] Cronin, Jackson, Colby, p. 11.

[11] Ibid.

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