The Godfather Offer for Korean Reunification

On February 12, North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in six years. Although the Korean previously yawned at North Korea's nuclear tests, there are reasons to think that this time is different from the last two, and we should start to worry. This is not to say that you should cancel your vacation plan of visiting Korea: the Korean can confidently say that today's Seoul, or any other part of South Korea, is exactly as safe as it was on February 11, and will remain so until something far more threatening than a nuclear test happens. Here, the Korean is talking about geopolitical concern--as in, how the situation will develop in the years ahead.

The most worrisome part is this round of nuclear testing is that, this time, North Korea seems to be successful in developing a real nuclear weapon, or at least very close to it. One of the reasons why the previous two tests were not as worrisome was because there was no real confirmation that those tests were successful. The first test did not even produce a kiloton of explosive power, and was derided as a "fizzle". The second test created a bigger bang, but the tremor it caused was still barely detectable

Not so this time: the test from yesterday registered 4.9 on the Richter scale, indicating that this is a real deal, or at least pretty close to it. It is estimated that the nuke from yesterday was approximately one-third of the power of the Hiroshima bomb, and four times greater than North Korea's second test. There is also a possibility that this bomb is a uranium-based bomb rather than a plutonium-based one, which means North Korea would be able to mass produce nuclear weapons. Further, it must be remembered that, only six weeks ago, North Korea successfully launched a rocket (which can easily be turned into an ICBM) that is able to strike the West Coast of the United States. The cash-hungry North Korea can attempt to sell some or all of its technology to just about anyone in the world.

I am not trying to be alarmist. I certainly do not think there is any danger of Seoul in a mushroom cloud, or a nuclear missile flying to Seattle, any time soon. (Really, I don't.) But I do worry about what will happen in 10 years or so. While there is no confirmation that North Korea has developed a miniaturized nuclear warhead that may be equipped onto an ICBM, the trend of development is unmistakable at this point: North Korea is forging its way to that point, and it will get there sooner rather than later.

Equally predictable is the likely reaction from South Korea and to a lesser degree, Japan. At this point, these two American allies are bereft of any more meaningful options to assure themselves that a nuclear weapon is not headed their way. Sooner or later, South Korea and/or Japan will want to arm themselves with nuclear weapons as well, or, at least equip themselves with the missile capacity to intercept any incoming nuclear weapon. Already, in response to the test, South Korean policymakers are starting to discuss the need to develop the capacity for "mutually assured destruction." (In fact, South Korea attempted to develop its own nuclear weapons in the 1970s, until the Americans put a stop to it.) A possibility that could be achieved even more easily is for the U.S. to re-deploy tactical nukes in South Korea--recall that, from 1958 to 1991, U.S. stored tactical nuclear weapon in South Korea until the first Bush Administration withdrew them.

This is not an appealing picture for the world's number 2 superpower, China. If there were nuclear weaponry available in South Korea and Japan, China would--not unjustifiably--consider the situation be a severe threat. It is not difficult to imagine that even a small spark, just one itchy trigger finger over, say, the dispute between China and Japan with respect to the Diaoyou/Senkaku Islands, could cause a nuclear war.

In sum, we could be headed toward a kind of four-way prisoner's dilemma: a situation in which the decision to pursue the short term interest, without knowing other parties' intentions, leading to the detriment of the long term interest for every player involved. (Here, infuriatingly, North Korea is the warden that holds the key.) Nobody--not U.S., not South Korea, not Japan, and not even China--wants to live in a nuclear tinderbox, yet we could be moving that way.

Is there a way out? If the Korean can propose a cockamamie scheme to fix America's immigration problem and put away the historical issue between Korea and Japan once and for all, why wouldn't he be able to come up with a cockamamie scheme to get out of this mess? Sure, the plan would require a level of boldness on the part of every party, such that it will almost certainly never happen. Which is why it belongs on a blog.

(More after the jump.)

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Here is the central consideration that drives this plan: what North Korea wants to achieve through a nuclear weapon is regime survival. Truly, this is the only thing North Korea wants. And North Korea will hang onto its nuclear weapon only as long as its regime--that is, Kim Jong-un and his cronies--continues to survive. This has been obvious from the very beginning of North Korea's nuclear development.

Ignoring this obvious motivation leads to disastrous results. The prime example of this was South Korean president Lee Myeong-bak's North Korean policy, which was particularly foolish. As he took the office, President Lee proposed a bargain with North Korea: if North Korea gave up its nukes and opened up its economy, South Korea would provide enough aid and investment to push North Korean per capita GDP to $3,000. How did North Korea react to that proposal? Two nuclear tests, bombing of a South Korean naval vessel and shelling of a South Korean island near the maritime border during Lee's tenure. Why? Simple: the North Korean regime doesn't give a shit about its country's per capita GDP.

This central consideration comes with a depressing corollary: it is likely that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapon, because there is practically no way to truly guarantee North Korea's regime survival. For now, let us set aside the moral repugnance of bribing the North Korean totalitarianism that let 330,000 of its people starve to death and runs death camps that are properly comparable to Auschwitz. Practically speaking, North Korea is so decrepit, and its people so benighted, that there is no real way to achieve true stability with North Korea that guarantees the regime survival. Forget liberal democracy; North Korea would not even survive if South Korea surrendered today and agreed to reunify under North Korea's terms. If that were to happen, South Korea's wealth and quality of living--incomparably greater than those of North Korea--would destroy North Korea from inside out. The result is the same if North Korea were to develop economically. If North Koreans achieved a quality of living comparable to, say, Vietnam, the Kim Jong-Un regime would not survive.

Fundamentally, North Korean regime survives like the way any other totalitarian regime has survived in history--by constantly manufacturing a series of external, existential threats, which are used to justify the oppression of its own people. In short, North Korea needs crises to survive. And North Korea needs the nukes to continue manufacturing the crises. So why would North Korea ever give up its nukes?

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So we are back to the four-way prisoners' dilemma: the U.S. will have its West Coast targeted with nuclear ICBMs, and will not be able to stop nuclear proliferation out of North Korea, while Northeast Asia rushes to another nuclear arms race. Nobody wants this to happen, but we are headed down that road anyway. But is there a way out?

Here is one way out: induce a rapid collapse of North Korean society, depose the Kim Jong-Un regime, and reunify the Korean peninsula. I know that this sounds implausible, radical and dangerous. But as long as the North Korean regime links the possession of nuclear weapon with its life, the only way to dispossess the nuclear weapon is to end that life. The timing has to be now, before North Korea does manage to actually put a nuclear warhead on an ICBM. Further, there are good reasons to think that this plan could work, and the risks of this plan is not as high as one might think.

This is how the plan could look like. The most important key word in this plan is "rapid." The collapse must be rapid--as in, within less than a month--in order to minimize the risk involved by taking away the time for the Kim regime to react. Because North Korea is so decrepit, this can be easily achieved as long as there is concentrated effort. The most efficient way is, obviously, through China. For example, North Korea imports nearly all of its petroleum from China. All of the petroleum passed through a single point in the China-North Korea border--through the city of Dandong. Shut down the spigot, and the North Korean economy (such as it is) grinds to halt within weeks. (In fact, China did shut down the spigot for three days after North Korea's second nuclear test, to express its displeasure.)

But there are a number of ways that South Korea alone can induce a collapse without the Chinese help. President Park Geun-hye, for example, could issue a statement reaffirming South Korea's constitutional provision that North Koreans are also the citizens of the Republic of Korea, and announce that any North Korean outside of North Korea will receive South Korea's diplomatic protection. South Korea could also establish a safe passage through the DMZ, and invite any North Korean to defect. These measures are designed to cause a massive stream of defection to the point that the regime could no longer control its people's movement. The U.S. can join in the party as well. Joshua Stanton's suggestion to hit the pocketbooks of North Korean regime's "palace economy" is a good one, and could also seriously destabilize the North Korean regime.

Next is the hard part: at some point along the way, China must join this plan. Ideally, China would join the plan from the very beginning and participate in the North Korean embargo. This possibility is admittedly remote, but not as outlandish as one might think. There is simply no love left for North Korea among China's populace, and there are signs that even the Chinese leadership is exasperated with North Korea. Although China taking an active role in North Korea's demise is unlikely, it is not unthinkable.

The more likely path is for South Korea and U.S. to force China into a choice. U.S. and South Korea can earnestly move toward collapsing the North Korean regime, and make China confront the question: do you really want to go to war against your first- and third-largest trading partners, over Kim Jong-Un? With the right kinds of inducement--the Godfather offer that China cannot refuse--U.S. and South Korea can get China on board.

What would such inducement look like? Given the importance of China in this plan, the inducement must cater to China's policy preferences to a degree that may seem excessive. Ultimately, China is keeping the North Korean regime on life support because of two benefits: (1) stability, and (2) buffer against the potential overland American invasion (however unlikely that may be.) With North Korea openly defying Beijing's orders to stand down on the nuke test, the stability rationale is already on weak grounds. China must be made to understand that, if North Korea can be pushed to the point of teetering, South Korea's absorption of North Korea--i.e. reunification--is the only realistic way for lasting stability, because South Korea is the only country in the world that has the ability and willingness to take on that task. With that in mind, this could be the package that South Korean and the U.S. can offer to China:
  • Right to occupy up to 3 North Korean cities for 100 years:  Like Hong Kong and Macau, China could occupy certain cities--say, Rajin/Seonbong and Shinuiju--and govern them for a century, however they would like.  Alternatively and/or in addition, China could be given special economic rights over North Korean resources, such as mining rights.
  • Shoot-to-kill border control:  This is harsh, but necessary to cater to China's interest. China simply cannot afford to have a million North Korean refugees streaming out of the country and into China. South Korea could also offer compensation for China's cost of arresting and deporting (former) North Koreans back across the border.
  • U.S. withdrawal of ground troops from Korea:  The rationale for this is obvious. If U.S. balks at this, South Korea and U.S. can offer to China that USFK will not be deployed to any other place in the Korean peninsula that it is not currently deployed in.
Under normal circumstances, China would likely say no to these offers. But if China is pushed into a decision in the face of impending North Korean collapse, these terms may be enough. In exchange, China could participate in the plan to collapse North Korea, or at least stand aside as South Korea and U.S. continue to shake the tree. For old time's sake, China could also offer a safe haven for Kim Jong-Un and his cronies to exile, accelerating the process of peaceful transition.

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Unfortunately, this plan suffers from two large risk factors. First, China may not be amenable to the Godfather offer after all. Instead--perhaps because of clumsiness on the part of South Korean and American diplomatic corps, which is certainly not beyond their ken--China may perceive a South Korean/American attempt to collapse North Korea as a threat to itself. The result may be that North Korea survives, and remains even more hostile. But with skillful negotiation, which would include a firm reminder to China that shielding North Korea is not compatible with China's interest in the long run, this risk factor can be managed.

More significant is the second risk factor: the uncertainty as to exactly what would happen as North Korea collapses. Ideally, collapse will lead to a brief period of total anarchy, at which point the South Korean military could swoop in to take control. But many things can go wrong in this process. The collapse, for example, can take the form of a rival group (that is not much better than the current regime) taking over the country. Once the rival group takes control, it may aim North Korea's nuclear weapon to anyone who dares to take over.

This risk is real, and I do not intend to minimize it. But I also believe that this risk is less than one might think. North Korea's conventional war-making capabilities are practically nonexistent at this point. Its weapons are antiquated and rusty, and North Korea lacks the petroleum to operate them for any meaningful stretch of time. What North Korea can do is to attack Seoul with artillery and short-range missiles exactly once, before American and South Korean air force reduce the artillery and missile bases to rubble. Indeed, this capability, along with China's backing, is the only measure of deterrence that North Korea possesses. But a proper emphasis should be placed on the word "deterrence." Once the deterrent force is used, it is no longer a deterrent force. Again, North Korea has little capability to wage a conventional warfare. If the South Korean military begins to push across the DMZ, what would be the point of shelling Seoul? Sure, hundreds of thousands of Seoul citizens could die. But that would not stop the South Korean advance.

Which leaves us with North Korea's nuke. We know that it is real. We also know that it is not yet at the point that can be effectively weaponized and delivered to the target. (This is, again, a big reason why North Korea should be disarmed sooner rather than later.) Also, even if North Korea has weaponized nuclear bombs, we know that it cannot possibly have more than a handful of them. In that case, North Korea's nuclear weapons are ultimately just another form of deterrence writ large. Once used, they no longer deter.

The gamble--indeed, probably the most central gamble in this entire plan--is that the North Korean regime (whether headed by Kim Jong-Un or some other dictator) would not have the capacity, or willingness, use its nuclear weapon as it stares down its inevitable demise. There is a good chance that they do not have the capacity. Even if they do, it would not be rational for them to use the nuclear weapon. And regardless of the external image to the contrary, the North Korean leadership has always been a rational actor--ruthless, murderous and terrible, but still rational.

But desperation is known to cause irrationality. Does anyone in the world have the stomach to gamble with a potential nuclear weapon hitting your soil? Likely not, so there goes this crazy idea.

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