Germany's lessons for Korea
April-June 2017
By: Jochen Prantl and Hyun-Wook Kim

The third (short-term) entry point is unification diplomacy as an exercise in crisis management, mainly triggered by North Korean contingencies, for example a coup d’état, revolution, large-scale defections, an outflow of weapons of mass destruction, hostage situations involving South Korean citizens or major natural disasters. The joint US-South Korean military operation plan for dealing with “sudden change” in North Korea (OPLAN 5029) covers these imagined tipping points. It specifies the rapid deployment of US and South Korean forces into North Korean territory to secure military and nuclear installations and provide humanitarian assistance. During the Cold War and early post-Cold War period, South Korea had plans in place to absorb North Korea if necessary. But this is no longer a realistic scenario, because it leaves China out of the equation. In fact, China has argued that maintaining stability and achieving unification should be separate issues.

Furthermore, North Korean contingencies would almost certainly trigger a military response by China. The People’s Liberation Army would attempt to secure weapons of mass destruction and build refugee camps in the border area between China and North Korea. Also, at least on paper, there is still a bilateral treaty between China and North Korea that guarantees China’s automatic intervention if North Korea is involved in a military conflict. Even though North Korea may not call for Chinese assistance, China could use the bilateral treaty to justify its intervention. There is also the possibility of China installing a pro-Chinese regime in post-contingency North Korea.

The tipping points of unification diplomacy

Tipping points are a series of small changes or events that are significant enough to cause larger changes in the system. Successful strategic diplomacy depends on the capability to nudge, nurture or delay – if not prevent – tipping points in order to achieve long-term policy ends. While German unification does not provide a template that can easily be applied to the Korean peninsula, the case is nevertheless instructive as a reference point. This section highlights key tipping points in German unification diplomacy and concludes with potential lessons for the strategic diplomacy of Korean unification.

The change in the domestic and foreign policy of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev constituted the single most important tipping point for German unification diplomacy, and ultimately resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful change of the European security order. Yet, this process was far from being predetermined and inevitable. Soviet perestroika and glasnost at home and abroad in effect accelerated the course of history and created both historic opportunities and challenges. Gorbachev, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, triggered the momentum by proclaiming “freedom of choice” for Central and Eastern European countries. This explicit renunciation of the Brezhnev doctrine effectively ended the monopoly of communist parties in the Eastern bloc. Yet, there were secondary tipping points that had to be either avoided or prevented (such as the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union) or nurtured and nudged (such as the holding of free elections in Central and Eastern Europe). The acceleration of history forced international diplomacy into a prolonged crisis and overdrive mode that could have easily resulted in disaster without the acute awareness of key policy makers that there were tipping points and thresholds not to be crossed. While there was broad agreement that peaceful change would be the desired outcome, a European security order with a unified Germany constituted only one among other possible futures.

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