Reunifying Korea – Can Trump Toss That Hail Mary Pass?

To end the North Korean nuclear threat, President Trump needs the ultimate grand bargain: reunifying Korea.

This has long been viewed as a diplomatic Hail Mary. But despite his bluster, Trump flounders in his predecessors’ paradigm.

He wants China to fix the problem. He suggests direct negotiations with that “smart cookie” Kim Jong Un. He threatens “painful” sanctions. He brandishes ships heading in the wrong direction. At one moment he disclaims regime change; at another he floats a military strike that would trigger a hailstorm of North Korean artillery on the 25 million residents of Seoul. Trump’s sole success is adding himself to the things South Koreans most fear. Indeed, his erratic behavior has affected South Korea’s presidential election Tuesday, helping elevate the candidate least favorable to the United States.

As Trump oscillates, risks burgeon. Within his term, experts calculate, a North Korean nuclear warhead could reach Seattle. Already Japan and South Korea face nuclear devastation. American efforts at regime change could have unpredictable consequences. And Kim will never forswear an arsenal he considers essential to survival.

All this commends pursuing a solution that, however arduous, would denuclearize the peninsula: reunification under the aegis of South Korea.

A leading expert on Korea, Sue Mi Terry, lists the potential benefits to Japan, the United States, and, critically, China: removing the leading nuclear danger to Northeast Asia and America; ending North Korea’s threat as a nuclear proliferator; delivering 25 million people from political and economic misery, while eliminating a potential humanitarian disaster on China’s borders; creating a vibrant trading partner for China and the West; and relieving China of the economic and political cost of sustaining a noxious regime.

As Terry argues, reunification could transform Korea itself. It would unite Koreans in their historic homeland. Korea could slash defense spending and end universal conscription. Young North Koreans could invigorate the South’s aging workforce. North Korea has vast deposits of coal, uranium, magnesite, and rare earth metals; the South almost none. A safer peninsula would increase tourism and the flow of foreign capital. Quoting an analysis by Goldman Sachs, Terry opines that Korea could become “the Germany of Asia.”

Obviously, North Korea opposes unification except on its totalitarian terms. This demands preemptive diplomacy to compel reunification, in which Chinese participation — that is, the complete reversal of its historic policy — is indispensable.

This unprecedented process, Terry suggests, must start with the United States and South Korea — specifically, “a comprehensive political, diplomatic, economic, and legal strategy for reunification.” Next, the two parties must address Japan’s concerns, economic and political, as a prelude to enlisting it to help reconstruct the North.

The final, daunting task is engaging China in an enterprise that abridges its deepest instincts. China’s priority has been buttressing the North as buffer against a South Korea that hosts American forces, preserving its version of regional stability. And China deeply resents America’s installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, missile defense system in South Korea, which China sees as a direct threat to its security.

China has no love for Kim or his arsenal. Yet Chinese support ensures his survival. The collapse of his regime, China fears, would spur an influx of refugees and South Korean intervention in the North. Never has China been prepared to pressure North Korea to give up nuclear weapons, let alone to cease existing.

So how could the United States and South Korea persuade China to reverse course? First, Terry suggests an arrangement that addresses Chinese security concerns on the peninsula. This would involve reducing or even withdrawing American troops, along with THAAD, post-unification. Beyond this, Seoul should assure China that a prosperous and more neutral Korea would make a better trading partner and neighbor than a nuclear North run by Kim Jong Un.

While this might unsettle policy makers in Washington, it would honor our commitment to a unified and democratic Korea while preserving American bases in Japan and Guam as a hedge against Chinese aggression. And it would erase, at last, North Korea’s nuclear threat.

This would require China to join in a particularly ruthless exercise of realpolitik, cutting off North Korea economically, militarily, and diplomatically, hastening the regime’s collapse while protecting some of its members. Essential to Chinese involvement is comprehensive coordination among America, South Korea, and China in establishing order, preventing a refugee crisis, securing nuclear weapons, integrating North Korea’s military, and reassuring North Koreans of their security and prospects. And reconstructing Korea would cost the parties more than reunifying Germany — up to $2 trillion in assistance over a decade. Reversing history is never cheap or easy.

But compared to nuclear calamity, it’s a bargain.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Boston Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.” Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.