The views of prominent Japanese thinkers on current policy issues, which are not normally accessible to an international audience because of the language barrier, have been translated and made available through JCIE’s Global Thinknet Insights. This piece by Professor Masao Okonogi, Professor at Keio University, was originally written for the Korean journal Sasang (autumn 1997).
The System Crisis Scenario
For over four decades following the end of World War II, the Korean peninsula was the site of a bitter confrontation between two systems. But at the end of the 1980s, around the time the Berlin Wall fell, this confrontation, like the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, reached a conclusion of sorts. The final episodes of this prolonged struggle involved the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and the establishment of a democratic government in South Korea. It was around this time that President Kim Il-sung rejected the German model of reunification and called for the creation of a North-South federation in which neither side would “swallow or be swallowed by” the other; during this same period the North Koreans were treated to a desperate new slogan: “Maintaining Socialism Will Be Victory, Abandoning Socialism Will Be Death.”
Since then, however, conditions in the North have followed a steady downward path. Such developments as the collapse of the Soviet Union and China’s establishment of diplomatic relations with South Korea dealt blows to Pyongyang’s foreign policy, and the disappearance of the systems of barter and “friendship prices” that had prevailed in trade with other socialist nations was a major setback for external economic relations. On the domestic front, meanwhile, the North Koreans lost the only leader most of them had ever known with the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994, and then they suffered two years of disastrous flooding and increasingly severe food shortages. The succession of misfortunes has led some outside observers to judge that the current regime is close to collapse. Both after Kim Il-sung’s death and after the defection of Secretary Hwang Jang-yop in February this year, we even heard predictions in some quarters that the collapse would come within two or three months. But the overall outlook remains unclear. As John Deutch, director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, noted in his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on December 11 last year, we cannot yet tell which of three possible roads North Korea will follow: (1) invade the South on some pretext, (2) collapse internally because of its economic problems, or (3) move over time toward peaceful reunification. I believe Deutch was accurate in suggesting that the question would be resolved in the next two or three years. And the answer will greatly depend on both the decisions reached within the leadership in Pyongyang and on the approaches taken by South Korea and other surrounding countries.In considering these possible scenarios, however, it is important for us to allow for a certain amount of time. The parting of the ways among all the three paths is not going to occur simultaneously at some particular instant. And even if North Korea starts moving in a particular direction, it will not arrive at the end point immediately. The fork in the road that we can expect within the next couple of years is that between two alternatives: (a) a course toward invasion of the South or internal collapse or (b) a course toward opening and reform. And it will probably be five or six years before the outcome becomes apparent.
Unification will probably require at least a decade or two of opening and reform. The other set of alternatives, invasion or collapse, will only come to pass if the food and energy crises in the North reach extreme levels and none of the surrounding countries extends a helping hand. If that should happen and North Korea becomes unsustainable as a state, it seems doubtful that the leaders in Pyongyang will silently accept their fate. We should probably expect them to respond by presenting the surrounding countries with an ultimatum, telling them they must choose between providing aid or going to war. Three years ago, in fact, when economic sanctions were on the verge of being imposed, Pyongyang declared that it would consider them equivalent to a declaration of war. In this light, the internal-collapse scenario may easily be transformed into the war scenario or be accompanied by it. If the leadership maintains its solidarity and no uprising of workers or farmers occurs, the possibility of war will become that much greater.
The leaders of the North are of course not going to casually embark on a suicidal invasion of the South, but we do need to be aware of the danger of driving them into a corner with a needless expansion of power games. While it is clear that the outcome of a military conflict would be the North’s defeat and reunification of the Korean peninsula, the costs of such a Second Korean War would be unbearably high, both for the Koreans themselves and for others.
The Toughness of the Existing Regime
In order for war or collapse to occur in reality, a number of conditions would have to be met. First, the food and energy crises would have to become so serious as to destroy the regime’s ability to control the nation. Second, the surrounding countries would have to refrain from doing anything despite the worsening crisis. And third, the leaders in Pyongyang would have to continue rejecting the path of compromise in foreign relations. To put it another way, if economic collapse alone were enough to cause the North to collapse, it should have collapsed years ago.
Frankly, the biggest element behind the continued survival of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as a state is its political system, which is both highly distinctive and extremely tough. It is tough enough to cover politically for the breakdown of the economic system. If the North had a socialist government of Soviet-East European model, it would surely have gone under by now. It has endured because it is a “sociopolitical organism,” a closed organic country emphasizing the trinitarian union of the leadership, the party, and the people. Kim Jong-il’s political base is firmer than generally imagined. In fact, as the result of decades of fierce exercise of power, extreme control of information, and ideological indoctrination, combined with the personification of the political system, today’s North Korea has no alternative to its present despotism.
As of this writing, Kim Jong-il has yet to assume the official top leadership position, but his position as his father’s successor has been publicly recognized, and in the North Korean context, this makes him the “supreme leader” (suryong). This can be seen, for example, in the way his leadership is described as “lordly guidance” (ryongdo). Skillful use has also been made of alleged external threats and of the traditional Confucian value system as means of firmly implanting the idea among the people that they share a common destiny. That is not to say that this autocratic system has no physical limits on its power. But if the food crisis grows even more serious, we are probably more likely to see “controlled famine” than rioting by workers or farmers. As long as the present system retains its hold, hunger may lead to an increase in the number of individuals fleeing the country, but it will not directly cause the regime to collapse. Since the outside world would probably find it impossible to sit and watch as the North Koreans starved, and would also be concerned about the consequences of collapse of the existing setup, aid would surely be forthcoming. Incoming supplies of food and energy would not help only the suffering residents; they would also prop up the current regime. That does not mean, however, that the leadership can be totally oblivious to the food crisis. In fact, it is this crisis that has probably been the biggest factor behind the delay in Kim Jong-il’s official assumption of leadership. Inasmuch as the North Korean government has spoken of a three-year period of mourning for Kim Il-sung, a period that ended this summer, we should expect to see Kim Jong-il take on the title of general secretary of the Korean Workers’ Party, and possibly even the presidency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). A major consideration will be the desire to complete the official transition in advance of the presidential election scheduled for December in South Korea. If the regime fails to make this transition successfully, the economic crisis may indeed turn into a crisis of the political system.
Formation of a New Leadership Setup
The defection of Secretary Hwang Jang-yop was overplayed in the South Korean and Japanese media, since he was the first high-ranking official ever to flee North Korea. He had held a series of posts, including president of Kim Il-sung University, party secretary in charge of ideology, and chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly, but when he defected he was neither a person with effective authority nor a senior ideologue. His decision to flee resulted not from a power struggle within the leadership but merely from the fact that he had been excluded from Kim Jong-il’s new circle of senior ideological and political aides and feared becoming the target of open criticism.
It is also incorrect to imagine a plot behind the deaths shortly after Hwang’s departure of two senior North Korean military leaders, Choe Kwang and Kim Kwang-jin, minister and first vice-minister, respectively of the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces. If the two had been turncoats, Kim Jong-il would never have given them grand state funerals and enshrined their remains in the mausoleum for patriotic fighters. And as for the possibility that they were murdered by rebel forces, the killing of these two top military men could only have happened as part of a failed coup d’état, something for which we saw no evidence by way of military movements or other unusual occurrences. In other words, Hwang’s defection was nothing more than the flight of an official who had fallen out of favor and feared being purged. As Hwang himself related after leaving the North, Kim Jong-il, who had been named supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army and chairman of the National Defense Commission while Kim Il-sung was still alive, brought the military completely under his own control following his father’s death with an extensive set of promotions among the generals, coupled with close supervision. Hwang also completely denied the idea that there is a split between moderates and hard-liners within the leadership, declaring that the one-man dictatorship left no room for the concept of rival camps and that there were no forces opposed to Kim Jong-il.
To be sure, some observers doubt that the leadership in Pyongyang is really so solid. The diligence with which the government has been promoting loyalty to Kim Jong-il and calling for unity among the party, military, and people, while partly a reflection of the fact that this is a transitional period, can be seen as a sign of the difficulty it faces in maintaining broadly based political solidarity; the same can be said for the fact that power has been concentrated in the hands of Kim Jong-il and a small circle of close confidants. In February this year, when the North celebrated the junior Kim’s fifty-fifth birthday, the authorities proclaimed “Red Banner Philosophy” in absolute support of the new leader and demanded “great harmony among the three”—the party, the military, and the people.
Now, however, over three years after Kim Il-sung’s death, we are finally starting to see the outlines of a new leadership setup taking shape around Kim Jong-il. Kim Kyong-hui, his younger sister, and Jang Song-thaek, her husband (first vice-director, Organization and Guidance Department, KWP Central Committee) are naturally in the inner circle; in addition we find Choe Thae-bok, Kim Kuk-thae, and Kim Ki-nam in the KWP Secretariat and Ri Ul-sol—the only person with whom Kim Jong-il shares the title of marshal—on the military side. The group of insiders is rounded out by Vice-Marshal Jo Myong-rok (director of the General Political Department, Korean People’s Army) and Kim Yong-chun (the army’s chief of general staff). O Kuk-ryol, director of the KWP’s Military Operations Department, acts as the conduit linking Kim Jong-il and the party with the military. Also, the fact that Choe Ryong-hae, first secretary of the Central Committee of the Kim Il-sung Socialist Youth League, was the only person other than the party and military representatives to speak at the central third-anniversary memorial service for the late president is noteworthy as an indication of the emphasis being placed on the youth organization.
What we should probably expect to see in the near future is a replacement of key party and military incumbents with younger people in the power core and elsewhere, followed by Kim Jong-il’s official assumption of the post of KWP general secretary around October 10, the anniversary of the party’s foundation. The regime is now doing its utmost to improve its international environment and secure supplies of food so as to set the stage for the junior Kim to take this post. Actually, however, the conditions for improvement of international relations and securing food supplies should take a turn for the better after the new leader officially takes the party helm. Chinese President Jiang Zemin can be expected to pay a visit to North Korea once this happens, and he will surely promise increased food aid.
Kim Jong-il’s assumption of the North Korean presidency, however, may be postponed until around September 9 next year, when the DPRK will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary as a state. And even his taking of the top party post may be impeded if the feared drought worsens or if some unexpected event comparable to last year’s submarine incident or Hwang’s defection should occur. If this happens, as noted above, it will mean the onset of a political crisis.
Maintenance of Flexibility in Foreign Relations
The flap over the September submarine incident having been settled at the end of last year, as this year started the tensions on the Korean peninsula were easing. In talks between U.S. and North Korean diplomats it was agreed that if the North recommenced the sealing of spent nuclear fuel rods and attended a joint U.S.-South Korean briefing about the proposed four-party talks (bringing together China, the United States, and the two Koreas), the United States would resume food and energy aid and would further relax the economic sanctions against the North. It was further expected that if the North agreed after the briefing to take part in the four-party talks, Japan and South Korea would also recommence their food aid and that both North-South economic exchange and diplomatic negotiations between Tokyo and Pyongyang would move toward realization. These developments were expected to create favorable conditions for Kim Jong-il’s official elevation.
However, the defection of Secretary Hwang on February 12 dealt a major blow to these prospects. The deaths shortly thereafter of senior military officials Choe Kwang and Kim Kwang-jin were also painful developments for the North. And relations with Japan were clouded by the surfacing of suspicions that North Korean operatives abducted Megumi Yokota, a Japanese girl who disappeared in 1977. But it bears noting that immediately after reporting Choe Kwang’s death and announcing the members of his state funeral committee, Pyongyang issued a statement agreeing to the holding of the proposed briefing, which took place in New York on March 5. Despite the series of blows the North had suffered, the leadership was maintaining the consistency, flexibility, and adaptability of its foreign policy.
In mid-April, deputy-minister-level talks were held to follow up on the U.S.-South Korean briefing, but they ended unsuccessfully because the North demanded the lifting of economic sanctions and the provision of large-scale food aid in advance of four-party talks. Even so, the North Koreans did at this time agree in principle to the four-party talks, and they made a new proposal for a “3+1” approach. Under this proposal, at first the United States and the two Koreas would negotiate, and after they achieved a certain amount of progress, China would be included. The South Koreans opposed the idea, and the Chinese were not happy with it, causing the North Koreans to stiffen their stance for a while, but when the deputy-ministerial discussions resumed on June 30, they agreed to the start of four-party preparatory talks including the Chinese on August 5.
It is not certain as of this writing whether these preparatory talks will actually be held, and if so, whether they will achieve any progress. The foundation of North Korea’s security policy following the freezing of its nuclear development program is the construction of a “new peace-making mechanism” based on the conclusion of a peace treaty with the United States; this was part of Kim Il-sung’s “testament.” The North Koreans may consider it important to have the four-party preparatory talks held and ameliorate their international environment, even if only for the time being, so as to secure a certain amount of food and to prepare the conditions for Kim Jong-il’s official elevation. We must not be too optimistic about the future of the four-party talks, however; we may still see temporary heightening of military tensions and demands for the conclusion of an interim U.S.-North Korean peace treaty.
After Kim Il-sung officially assumes the leadership, though, there is a possibility that Pyongyang will call for dialogue with the new administration in Seoul and that this will serve as the basis for a new game of diplomacy. The end of President Kim Young-sam’s term will offer the North Koreans a justification for the resumption of North-South talks. In the South as well, the new administration is likely to take a flexible stance toward the North, at least at the outset. Furthermore, the holding of four-party talks need not exclude the possibility of two-way dialogue between the Koreas. In fact, progress in North-South talks could serve as the basis for agreements subsequently guaranteed under four-party talks; this would represent realization of a “2+2” approach.
Four-Party Talks and the Framework for Peace
Northeast Asia ranked with Europe as a major theater of the cold war for several decades. And even as the cold war wound down in Europe, many elements of the confrontation persisted in this region. From around the start of the 1990s, however, the cracking of the cold war structure became apparent in Northeast Asia as well, with developments like the recognition of South Korea by the Soviet Union and East European countries, simultaneous entry into the United Nations of North and South Korea, and establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Seoul. In 1990, negotiations were also started between Tokyo and Pyongyang on the normalization of relations, though they have since been suspended for a long time.
These developments, however, were all comparable to results achieved in Europe during the period of détente in the early 1970s, when, for example, East and West Germany recognized each other. Northeast Asia thus got off from a starting point behind Europe’s in its moves away from the cold war structure. It also lags in terms of the construction of a post-cold war security structure. In the wake of the tensions produced by North Korea’s threatened withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had talks with Kim Il-sung, which led to the initial diplomatic agreement between Pyongyang and Washington in Geneva in October 1994. But this was merely a bilateral agreement concerning the freezing of the North’s nuclear development program. Now moves are under way to start four-party talks, including South Korea and China, to serve as a new multilateral security forum. This new forum, however, has not been the object of long-term preparations like those that led to the formation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe or the ASEAN Regional Forum recently created by the Association for Southeast Asian Nations, nor does it have the sort of solid foundation that these other forums do. In fact, the proposal for the four-party talks was initially made to counter Pyongyang’s persistent efforts to dismantle the existing armistice arrangements on the Korean peninsula and replace them with a U.S.-North Korean peace treaty. In other words, it was an impromptu idea that Washington and Seoul came up with in order to deal with new crises on the Korean peninsula following the freezing of the North’s nuclear program.
If the four-party talks are inaugurated, however, it will become possible to discuss all sorts of issues. Negotiations are foreseen on a number of important matters that have not been taken up so far, such as a new framework for peace, the pullback of military forces and other mutual confidence-building measures, withdrawal of U.S. forces from the South, dismantlement of the U.N. command, restraints on missiles and biological and chemical weapons, restraints on weapon movements, and economic aid for North Korea. These are all issues of great importance for security on the Korean peninsula; none will be easy to settle. Even if preparatory talks are held, they may break down on the question of setting an agenda. With the Chinese involved too, the handling of the issue of U.S. forces stationed in South Korea will be especially difficult. But if the four-party talks are inaugurated, they will provide a multilateral security forum involving the two Koreas and the two other countries most concerned with Korean security; even Pyongyang will find it difficult to ignore the existence of this framework. And even if the North Koreans propose a two-way dialogue with the South, it is unlikely that the other three parties, including China, will agree to the closing of the four-party talks. We must not forget that the Chinese, anxious about the expansion of U.S. influence, are very interested in seeing the four-way forum set up and maintained. As I noted above, a North-South dialogue and the four-way talks can operate in a complementary fashion.
If these new security talks do get under way, the beneficial side effects are likely to be considerable. The greatest significance of the four-party forum will be to bring together the two Koreas and the two countries that have been directly involved in the security of the Korean peninsula, the United States and China, to discuss the ending of the cold war in Northeast Asia. If the discussions can be sustained, tensions between North and South should relax greatly, and at the same time it should become possible to achieve progress toward normalization of political and economic relations between North Korea and the other surrounding countries, including Japan. The birth of a new framework for peace on the peninsula may even lead to the formation of a more stable “2+2+2” arrangement, in which Japan and Russia would also be involved.
The Nightmare of a Chain-Reaction Collapse
If Kim Jong-il officially assumes the position of top leader as expected this autumn, we are likely to see the regime in Pyongyang moving forward to a certain degree in foreign relations, working to introduce capital and technology from abroad, and undertaking to rebuild the economy, including the agricultural sector. This should cause the threat of a “North Korean crisis” to recede for a while. The biggest problems that the junior Kim now faces are economic ones, and progress in external relations promises to alleviate them. In fact, if relations between Tokyo and Pyongyang had progressed to normalization after the 1990 visit to North Korea by senior politicians Kanemaru Shin and Tanabe Makoto, the North would surely not now be in such dire straits.
In that sense, the 1994 U.S.-North Korean agreement in Geneva and the resultant freezing of the North’s nuclear development program have so far served as a potential opening. In order for the North to survive, it is essential for it to achieve progress in external ties through the four-party talks, stabilizing its relationship with the South and normalizing relations with Japan. If Kim Jong-il’s elevation once again fails to be accomplished or if it otherwise proves impossible to take advantage of the current opportunity for such progress, the food crisis will persist into next year and beyond, and prospects for reconstruction of the broken-down economy will recede indefinitely into the future. And if this happens, with the “arduous march” continuing after the end of the three-year mourning period for the late president, surely even the patient North Koreans will tire of their troubles and lose both their confidence in their new leader and their hope for the future. Needless to say, this would be a very dangerous course of events. If international isolation and economic crisis push the North Koreans to the limit, then the possibilities of war or internal collapse cited by the CIA’s John Deutch could turn into reality. And even if surrounding countries offer a certain amount of aid to keep the situation from deteriorating to such a degree, solving the problems will be far from easy. Maintenance of the status quo will mean a continuing slide into poverty for the North Koreans, and eventually this slide will leave them facing absolute indigence. Before long they will reach the point where war and internal collapse may strike at any moment.
Whatever form the North’s collapse might take, it would inevitably deal a major blow to the economy of the South, and the shock waves would spread to Japan and all across Northeast Asia. North and South Korea have viewed each other as enemies for the past half century, and they have built social systems predicated on each other’s existence. Their fates are tightly intertwined. As noted in Hindu scripture, the sudden fall of one’s enemy can lead to one’s own fall. Also, ever since the reign of Emperor Tenji (661–671), major upheavals on the Korean peninsula have had a serious impact on Japan. In today’s world of interdependence and an increasingly borderless economy, the Japanese could not fail to be affected by the North’s collapse and its aftermath in the South.
Let us consider a highly simplified scenario for a chain-reaction collapse: First, the sudden crumbling of the North will hit the rapidly internationalizing economy of the South, dealing a particularly severe blow to the financial sector, whose fragility has recently become evident. This sector is faced with the challenges of membership in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and financial liberalization; in addition, the string of failures of medium-sized chaebol has left financial institutions in a critically overlent position. So we should expect first to see stock prices to crash and the value of the won to tumble, causing foreign investors to pull out their money and domestic capital to flee. If a number of major banks and securities companies, which, like their Japanese counterparts, have piles of nonperforming assets left over from the speculative bubble years, should then fail, the financial panic will quickly spread. Japanese financial institutions that have lent money to Korean banks and businesses will be unable to get their principal back. In other words, a financial panic in South Korea will also sap confidence in Japan’s financial sector.
Second, the South Korean economy will have to handle the major issue of how to pay for unification, the cost of which has been estimated at several hundred billion or even a trillion dollars. The burden on the South Koreans will be heavier than that borne by the West Germans when their country was unified. The population of West Germany was four times that of the East, but in Korea, the South has only twice as many inhabitants as the North. Furthermore, the gap in living standards between the two Koreas is incomparably wider than that between the former two Germanys. And the psychological friction between the two peoples, who have experienced the Korean War and have not had a period of peaceful coexistence, is likely to be serious.
Third, Japan will find it hard to stand aloof. Even without taking moral considerations into account, our country will, like it or not, have to play an important role from the standpoint of protecting the East Asian economic system. An international consortium may be put together to support the South Korean economy, but Japan will surely be expected to play the biggest part. The domestic fiscal crisis may leave little margin for providing such help, but the consequences of failing to do so will be even more serious. The Japanese treasury will probably have to bear a burden even heavier than that at the time of the Gulf War.
Fourth, if the North’s sudden collapse is accompanied by the outbreak of war, the situation will become even more serious. On top of the problems noted above, Seoul will be engulfed in a sea of flames, and the United States’ defense pacts with South Korea and Japan will face their first practical test. If the Japanese government fails to respond promptly in line with the new guidelines for defense cooperation, the Japan-U.S. alliance may face a crisis. The emergency situation would also highlight the issues in Japan’s present constitutional order, including the government’s position that the country is not allowed to exercise the right of collective self-defense. We must not forget that German reunification was accomplished after the two German peoples had been coexisting peacefully for a generation, against the background of integration in the European Community.
It should be apparent from the above that Kim Jong-il’s official elevation to the status of top leader and subsequent efforts toward progress in external relations are of crucial importance. This may turn out to be the North’s last chance to achieve survival. If so, it is also our last chance to avoid a chain-reaction collapse. Some observers distinguish between the regime, the system, and the state, asserting that the collapse of Kim Jong-il’s administration would not necessarily mean the collapse of the socialist system or of the DPRK as a state. But under the present political system, where a supreme leader holds sway and authority has been personified, the three elements are virtually one, and if any of them collapses, it is bound to bring the others down.
In order to avoid a chain-reaction collapse, therefore, the first step is to get the North Koreans to select the path of opening and reform, bringing them into the network of the international community. Needless to say, our main priority must be to avoid violent conflict and to spread out the cost of Korean unification by encouraging a gradual shift of systems in the North. If North-South economic exchange and normalization of Tokyo-Pyongyang relations can be achieved, followed by the establishment of a certain level of infrastructure and the replacement of basic industrial plant and equipment, it should not be impossible to develop labor-intensive export industries taking advantage of low-cost, high-quality labor in the North. This would provide a real solution to the food crisis.
Economic rehabilitation in itself would of course not guarantee the long-term stability of the Kim Jong-il administration. In fact, economic opening would bring another contradiction to the surface, that between the old political system that the junior Kim is trying to carry on and the new liberalization of the economic system. In this respect North Korea would face the same dilemma as the former Soviet Union and China. Holding fast to the old system and restricting the flows of people, products, capital, and information will make economic reconstruction impossible. And if the restrictions are lifted, the contradictions in the old system will come to the surface, and the political setup will become destabilized. Economic opening will bring contacts with the outside world and higher living standards at home, eventually forcing adoption and expansion of market-economy arrangements; this will inevitably have an impact on ideology and the political system. It is when this comes to pass that we can expect a conflict to develop between the conservative and reform camps within the leadership. If the conflict becomes intense, the situation could deteriorate. Even if the policy debate turns into a power struggle and one side or the other comes out on top, the contradictions that have already surfaced will not go away.
However, even supposing that matters reach an extreme and the internal-collapse scenario eventually comes to pass, the effects will be quite different from those of a sudden collapse before opening and reform. The liberalization process will work to soften the blow. Five to ten years of opening and reform would greatly lower the possibility of war and spread out the costs of unification. There would not be the urgency of having to rescue 22 million North Koreans from starvation, creating infrastructure for them, and exposing them for the first time to market systems. Of course, there is also the possibility that the North’s peculiar system will allow the present leadership to maintain control and successfully introduce reforms by stages as the Chinese have done. Also, the South Koreans, fearing the cost of unification, may welcome the prospect of long-term coexistence with a reformed socialist North and do all it can to help the regime survive. If the North thus succeeds in making a gradual transformation of its system, the two Koreas may have a generation of peaceful coexistence before unification, as the two Germanys did. This is the third scenario, peaceful unification.
Which of the three scenarios described at the beginning of this article—war, internal collapse, and peaceful unification—will actually come to pass depends to a large extent on the North Koreans’ own performance. But the approaches taken by others, not only South Korea but Japan and other surrounding countries, will also be important. If these countries can transcend the bounds of narrow nationalism and establish a common strategy toward the North, they may not be able to guarantee that a tragedy does not occur, but at least they will be able to minimize the adverse consequences.
In Conclusion: The Importance of Japan-South Korea Cooperation
The chances that North Korea will collapse in the next two or three years are not high. But there is a strong possibility that during the course of these years North Korea will reach a point of no return in determining its own future, and that this will decide the fate of the entire Korean peninsula. The economic crisis is already of serious proportions, and unless it is treated promptly, it is likely to develop into a political crisis. This would mean such prospects as war, a coup d’état, civil strife, and assassination, leading to the sudden death of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Even if the military takes over and manages to maintain the socialist system and institutions of the state for a while, it is hardly likely to be more durable than the despotism it replaces.
So far, despite the potential dangers that are present, it has been virtually impossible to undertake any sort of defense cooperation between Japan and South Korea. People in both countries have been critical even of the idea that Japan might provide indirect cooperation through its defense pact with the United States, whose alliance with South Korea has deterred the North from invading. The current review of the Japan-U.S. defense cooperation guidelines has been greeted with a mixture of expectation and worry in the South. In order to avoid needless friction and implement Japan-U.S. cooperation smoothly, it will be necessary for the diplomatic and defense authorities of Japan and South Korea to maintain close dialogue, while winning support of their respective public opinions, and to reflect the fruits of this dialogue in the review process. In this connection the agreement reached at the foreign ministers’ meeting this April to hold regular sessions for dialogue on security should be seen as a significant positive development.
If Pyongyang responds affirmatively to the construction of a new framework for peace through the holding of four-party talks and North-South dialogue, the situation will change greatly. This will make it possible to stabilize the North-South relationship and establish diplomatic ties between Tokyo and Pyongyang, thereby saving the North from the danger of an early collapse. The economic assistance from Japan that would probably follow diplomatic recognition and the capital and technology introduced from the South would work synergistically to promote the North’s economic opening, serving as the first step toward a gradual transformation of its system. This is the way in which Japan and South Korea can avert a chain-reaction collapse. There is no guarantee, of course, that this process will lead smoothly to a successful conclusion. Unless the North opens its economy and transforms its system, however, there will be no possibility of averting a violent conflict and spreading out the cost of unification.
In this sphere, unlike in the security sphere, where the United States and China have the major roles to play, it is Japan and South Korea that can accomplish effective results by working toward common objectives. These two countries, both located in Northeast Asia and sharing a common foundation of democracy and market economies, must work together not just to prevent the outbreak of a Second Korean War but also to make possible the long-term transformation of the North’s system. Their bilateral cooperation must serve as the basis for construction of a multilateral cooperative framework involving the United States, China, Russia, and others.
The conclusion of the above reasoning is obvious. Our only choice is to do our utmost to secure a favorable outcome, even as we prepare ourselves against the worst. What is needed now is to boldly draw a road map for the North’s transformation of its system, to set policy objectives and priorities for each stage along this road, and to achieve strategic coordination among all the countries involved. The stabilization of North-South relations and establishment of Tokyo-Pyongyang diplomatic ties are important first steps in the desired direction; in order to accomplish these initial goals, the governments of Japan and South Korea must work together closely, and their respective heads must develop a common will and exert powerful leadership. The initiative, however, can only be taken by South Korea’s next president and his new administration.