Looked at from the perspective of strategic diplomacy, the German case highlights three interconnected entry points – two long term and one short term – that are relevant for the Korean peninsula. First, the fundamental importance of functioning bilateral relations between the divided countries. Inter-Korean relations have been a – and sometimes are the – critical issue in the Northeast Asian regional order. Hence, unification diplomacy itself is an important entry point to the complex Northeast Asian security system. South Korea’s Sunshine Policy toward North Korea from 1998 to 2007 in many respects resembled the core tenets of West Germany’s late 1960s Ostpolitik. South Korea’s Nordpolitik constituted a long-term entry point based on the idea of peaceful coexistence and normalization of inter-Korean relations. The Sunshine Policy aimed at shaping the system to facilitate Korean unification diplomacy. The three principles underlying the Sunshine Policy – a) no armed provocation by North Korea will be tolerated; b) South Korea will not attempt to absorb the North in any way; and, c) South Korea will actively engage in cooperation – effectively accept the status quo in order to achieve long-term change. In sum, Trustpolitik is the sine qua non of the strategic diplomacy of Korean unification. A long-term solid engagement approach needs to complement any short-term coercive policies such as sanctions, military confrontations or suspending joint high-profile projects such as the Kaesong industrial complex.
The second long-term entry point is the effective management by the great powers – the United States and China – of issues related to the Korean peninsula. Historically, the United States has been supportive of unification. Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton backed peaceful unification based upon “terms acceptable to the Korean people.” In 2009, President Lee Myung-bak and President Barack Obama announced the Joint Vision for the Alliance, in which both presidents expressed their commitment to peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. Furthermore, in 2013, President Park Geun-hye and Obama announced that they would foster “peaceful unification based on the principles of denuclearization, democracy and a free market economy.”
Notwithstanding such declarations, it is not certain whether US operational policy would support Korean unification as it did in the German case. According to a Council on Foreign Relations report, US priorities toward the Korean peninsula are: 1) prevent horizontal proliferation; 2) stop vertical proliferation; 3) denuclearize; 4) plan for contingencies; 5) promote engagement; and 6) improve the situation for the North Korean people. That is, American priorities lie in denuclearizing North Korea. If these objectives are met, then there is no clear rationale for the United States to support unification. While German unification increased US influence in Europe, this would be less certain in Northeast Asia, given the rise of China. Also, due to the current solid relationship between South Korea and China, there is a US concern that a unified Korea could be pro-Chinese rather than pro-American. As a consequence, the United States may find the status quo on the Korean peninsula preferable to unification.
China officially supports “peaceful, independent, incremental and denuclearized unification.” It supports “peaceful” unification because it would be favorable to Chinese economic development, “independent” because a unified Korea should not lean to the United States, “incremental” because unification should not hamper regional stability, and “denuclearized” because a unified Korea should abandon North Korea’s nuclear weapons and not depend on the US nuclear umbrella. At the same time, China opposes any unification scenario that would result in expanded US influence on the Korean peninsula. The possible deployment of US troops north of the 38th parallel is of particular concern since China would lose a critical buffer, posing a risk to Chinese national security. Hence, the continuing division of the Korean peninsula may best serve Chinese interests unless assured otherwise. As North Korea’s largest provider of food, energy and consumer goods, China is a key stakeholder in unification diplomacy and needs to be fully engaged. Reassuring China and reducing uncertainties ought to feature prominently in any diplomatic strategy.