One Korea?

The Atlantic recently asked a group of foreign-policy authorities about the future of North and South Korea.

What is the likelihood that North and South Korea will continue to reconcile and normalize relations over the next five years?
54% Somewhat likely

“The leadership of North Korea seems to [now believe that] it is in its interest to risk destabilizing pressures from opening up to South Korea in order to gain the economic benefits that ‘normalization’ provides. South Korea seems to believe that [normalizing relations would] lessen the chances of a cataclysmic collapse of the regime in the North. As long as both sides accept this cost/benefit exchange, some form of normalization will continue—barring a sudden internally driven political upheaval in the North.”

“Each side has strong, albeit different, incentives to try to move the process along.”

“There is now a consensus in South Korea that closer economic and political relations is in their interest. While the conservatives and progressives might dispute how quickly to move, the direction is now beyond question.”

“It depends mostly on whether we keep to the deal and are prepared to live with difficulties and ambiguities. We've got to buy time for this non-war track to work.”


“Whatever the government in South Korea, there will be continued efforts to reconcile the Koreas. It will be the pace and structures of incentives and disincentives that will change depending on government not the fact of trying to make progress.”

“Neither has better options given that little Korea is surrounded by three big guns.”

“Highly likely—and the U.S. should stay out of the way!”

“But progress will be slow. Depends on North Korea’s willingness to get rid of its nuclear capability.”

“South Korea has been in high appeasement mode for the past decade, and North Korea enjoys being appeased. What savage dictator doesn't?”

“There is an increasing incentive on the part of the North to improve relations with the South. As its economic dependence on the South grows, the need to continue to interact with it will grow as well.”

“Reconciliation and normalization will not occur overnight, but three conditions make the peninsula ripe for a gradual improvement in relations over the next five years: the nuclear deal and better relations with the U.S., the increase in economic linkages with South Korea, and the more determined engagement of China.”

“Yes, but that is based on the phrase 'will continue to.' If it is to fully reconcile and normalize, then it is unlikely.”

“I see no evidence in South Korea of serious controversy over the goal of reconciliation. The momentum is likely to come from the South.”

“It is highly likely that there will be further progress on tension reduction and regular exchanges over the next five years. Even if the conservatives win the upcoming election, it is unlikely that the current strategy of engagement will be reversed. It is likely, however, that a conservative president will be somewhat more demanding of reciprocal action by the North.”

What is the likelihood of unification over the next 10 years?

“It is fairly clear that for different reasons unifications is not favored by the North nor the South, any of their immediate neighbors, or the U.S. While an uncontrollable event could lead to unification—remember East Germany—it does not seem to be the objective or preferred of any of the parties.”

“The main hurdle to unification, beyond North Korea's refusal to give up their nuclear system is the South Korean fear of what unification would mean for the living standards of South Koreans.”

“It is impossible to predict when reunification might occur. Some form of confederation could be the outcome of continued engagement over the next few years, but a real reunification will only occur when the current regime in the North is gone.”

“Despite what they say about the goal of reunification in Seoul, they began to realize after German reunification that absorbing the North Korea would destroy the South's economy.”

“Kim Jung Il is not another Gorbachev, Sadat, or De Klerk. Rather, he's another Kim Il Sung.”

“Despite probable continued efforts by the two Koreas at reconciliation and expanding bilateral in ties, the interest of the North Korean regime in not eradicating itself will be the major obstacle to outright unification.”

“Kim Jong Il is in excellent health; South rejects sacrifice for North. They are not Germans.”

“The chances of unification, even in ten years, are very slight. Look for reconciliation, peaceful coexistence and at most, some type of confederation.”


“Unification is certainly in the offing, but it may take more than a decade to move from reconciliation, to normalization, to full unification.”

“This will require some fundamental decisions on the part of Kim Jong Il that so far he's been unwilling to make. South Korean officials will also have to decide that the tremendous cost of reunification is worth the increased security. Some in the region will see reunification as a threat.”

“The pace will have to quicken to achieve this in 10 years.”

“The North Korean regime finds open trade to be highly threatening and is unlikely to engage deeply with an advanced economy such as South Korea.”

“Ten years is a short span in Korean time, but during that period there will be considerable growth in economic traffic and a modest reduction in arms.”


“The North’s political and economic condition is unsustainable; collapse followed by rapid integration with the South is virtually inevitable.”

Would stronger political and economic ties between the two countries advance US interests?
89% YES

“Economic ties will be the key to bringing North Korea into the modern world and that would be in US interests. Again, progress will be slow in my view.”

“We should give them an increasing stake in good behavior, and react negatively only when their act is a clear and big violation.”

“While there may be occasional differences between South Korea and the U.S., pulling the North closer into the South’s orbit is in the overwhelming interest of Washington.”

“Stronger ties will have the same effect that stronger East-West ties had in places like East Germany. The regime in the North will begin to lose its coherence.”

“It would help remove one flashpoint, easing the burden on an America that is over-committed abroad.”

“Unless we want to have to deal with the mother of all refugee crises; besides far better that the South Koreans take the lead regarding this poisoned chalice than we do.”

“Any return to greater tension between the North and South, particularly if it were to increase the prospects of military conflict, would pose serious issues for the US re both China and Japan. Stronger ties between the two countries allow the US to claim that its policies has increased stability in North Asia.”

“Anything that would reduce tension on the Korean peninsula and increase the chance of eventual peaceful reunification would be in the interests of the United States.”

11% NO

“Absent the North Korean threat, the South Koreans will lose remaining inhibitions about the US. As it is, monstrous ingratitude is the societally approved stance towards the U.S.—understandable given the prevalence of grandmothers who serviced G.I.s , but still...”

“If North Korea is playing around on the nuclear issue, then South Korea’s cozying up is real bad news. If, against all odds, North Korea goes non-nuclear and quasi-decent, then South Korea’s cooperative attitude is fine. But let's not count on that.”

PARTICIPANTS (39): Ken Adelman, Graham Allison, Ronald Asmus, Samuel Berger, Daniel Blumenthal, Stephen Bosworth, Daniel Byman, Warren Christopher, Wesley Clark, Richard Clarke, Ivo Daalder, James Dobbins, Lawrence Eagleburger, Jay Garner, Leslie Gelb, Marc Grossman, John Hamre, Gary Hart, Bruce Hoffman, John Hulsman, Robert Hunter, David Kay, Andrew Krepinevich, Charles Kupchan, John Lehman, Edward Luttwak, John McLaughlin, Richard Myers, William Nash, Joseph Nye, Kenneth Pollack, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Joseph Ralston, Wendy Sherman, James Steinberg, Shibley Telhami, Jon Wolfsthal, Anthony Zinni.

Not all participants answered all questions.