The Korean Peninsula has been the point where competing national interests have intersected for centuries. Regardless of whatever yearnings the Korean people may have for resolving the unification issue on their own terms, it is unlikely that the four big powers in East Asia will encourage unification unless it suits their own interests. The likelihood of Korean unification is directly related to what these powers see as the advantages to their own national interests.
As recently as 1987, China saw its major security threat as coming from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. At that time, the USSR was building up it military installations in the area as a way to challenge the role of the United States. The USSR had positioned about forty-five percent of its inter-ballistic missiles and thirty percent of its strategic bombers in the area. This upset the balance of power in east Asia, which China saw as threatening its security and increasing the likelihood that Japan would rearm.
In addition, China looked with alarm at improvement of relations between the DPRK and the USSR and the growing military and economic power of the ROK. These factors were considered as leading to smaller, but still undesirable hostilities on the Korean Peninsula. It could see three outcomes to the death of Kim Il Sung: first, a peaceful transition of power and no change in Kim's policies; second, establishment of a coalition government with modifications on both sides, creating a political and economic system similar to China's; or third, a power struggle possibly decided by either the USSR or the PRC, in which a new government would try an adventurist policy toward the south. China was equally concerned about instability in the ROK. (Hao, Yufan, 1987)
By 1990, China has continued to set its highest priority on stability in East Asia, stability needed to give its domestic experiments in economic development an opportunity to flourish. Economic prosperity was considered a necessity for developing military defenses in the future. It also is unmovable on the desirability of keeping Japan unarmed.
Although relations between the DPRK and the PRC have grown closer as the socialist world has grown smaller, China continues to desire stability on the Korean peninsula and to be slightly suspicious of the motives and methods of Kim Il Sung. For instance, although China officially supports the withdrawal of US forces from the peninsula, it allows the US Seventh Fleet to dock at Tsiangto, a major supply center to the DPRK because it favors a balance of military interests in the area. (Lee Ki-Taik, 1990)
China encourages Kim Il Sung to open his country to Chinese-style modernization, a mix of socialism and capitalism. Kim is reported to have been whisked off to inspect Chinese special economic zones at his last state visit to China in 1992. (Whiting, 1992) China sees reunification of the Koreas linked to its own desires for unification with Taiwan and Hong Kong.
In the 1970's, Russian policy in east Asia was to challenge the US in East Asia; to contain and to keep the PRC weak; and to keep Japan from becoming a strong military power. The DPRK was important to the USSR as an antidote to the US-Japan-ROK alliance. The USSR became a major source of aid to the DPRK and the DPRK hoped that Russia would support it against the ROK in the event of military action.
After the KAL bombing in Rangoon, Russia supported the DPRK's denials of wrong-doing and the DPRK supported Russia's explanation for shooting down the KAL flight in 1983. (Hao, Yufan, 1987) By 1984, the USSR had been granted the use of Najin and Chonjin Naval Bases, permission to use DPRK air bases for emergency landings, and use of DPRK airspace in exchange for military aid. It also received permission to conduct military maneuvers in North Korea to test China's preparedness. The USSR exchanged military personnel for high level briefings, and it transferred nuclear technology to the DPRK. (Lee, Ki-Taik, 1990)
In the late 1980s, China's economic experiments continued to worry the DPRK and the USSR was concerned about the emerging economic cooperation between the US, Japan, and China. The Soviets were also concerned about being excluded from diplomatic negotiations regarding the Korean peninsula. In 1986, Gorbachev seemed to give support to the DPRK by endorsing the DPRK's proposal for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula and a Helsinki-like peace conference in his Vladivostok Declaration. (Lee, Ki-Taik, 1990)
By 1990, the USSR's security concerns in East Asia were overshadowed by the play of domestic events. Emphasis was on the economy and openness in government. First, the USSR wanted to control its military spending by reducing security threats posed by the US, China, and Japan. This would allow the reduction of troop strength in Central and East Asia. It continued to put priority on a nuclear-free peninsula. It excluded force as an option for unifying the Koreas. Second, it tried to integrate its Russian Far East with the booming economies of the western Pacific and it fostered economic ties with Japan, ROK, Taiwan, and Southeast Asian countries. It also joined several economic coordination groups, including the Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. Its immediate goal was to gain support for its Siberian development plans. (Lee, Ki-Taik, 1990; Ahn, Byung-joon, 1990)
One hundred years ago, Russia eyed the Korean peninsula as a source of raw materials, for ice-free ports, and for markets for trade. Now, Russia needs the capital, technology, and management and marketing skills available from Japan and the ROK. It still desperately needs access to ice free ports on the Pacific for export of its raw materials. Another need is access to secure pipeline corridors for export of petroleum products through the DPRK to the ROK and to Japan.
Because it was one of the first countries to recognize both Koreas, Russia is able to play them off against each other. It is also able to play off the ROK and Japan because of their competition for Asian markets. Russia has accepted aid from both Japan and the ROK, and this aid could be diverted to the DPRK if it were more willing to open its borders and especially if it were to unify with the south. (Blank, 1991)
Only military hard-liners in Russia still admire the DPRK. It is now denounced for its lack of freedoms, ridiculed for the personality cult of the Kim father and son, and criticized for its unyielding position on foreign affairs. The foreign policy goals have diverged. Russia wants closer ties to capitalist states and an easing of tensions on the peninsula. The DPRK is still ambivalent, if not hostile, to integration into the world economy and tension on the peninsula serves its purposes well in domestic programs. (Bazhanov and Bazhanov, 1991)
It is possible that Russia is trying to pressure the DPRK into reforming the worst of its anachronistic, Stalinist policies. It may also be trying to retain some influence in the country to counter post-Kim Il Sung instability. Perhaps Russia believes that it will be able to assume a mediator's role between the two countries. (Ahn, Byung-joon, 1990)
Bending to American pressure, Japan has agreed to accept more of the burden for its strategic defense. Its primary security concern continues to be fear of Soviet attack based from the Northern Territories. Japan also fears American withdrawal from the Korean peninsula because of the deterrence effect on the somewhat unpredictable neighbors. (Lee, Ki-Taik, 1990)
Beginning in the late 1980's, Japan began to pursue a comprehensive security policy with emphasis more on economic and diplomatic means than on military might as ways of protecting the nation's security. This strategy has been successful, and Japan has expanded this course in East Asia. Japan's influence on events on the Korean peninsula has been limited by residual antagonism over its past history. Furthermore, its trade surplus with the ROK has been the cause of bitter feelings. (Akaha, 1991) By insisting that the DPRK sign the agreement to allow inspections under the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) as a precondition to continuing talks on normalizing their relations, Japan was able to use its diplomacy to benefit and support the ROK as well.
Japan's major concern is to maintain stability in the region. Second is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons in the area. Third is to secure a psychologically important victory over Russia (as well as the economic returns) from the return of its Northern Territories (Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri, and Etorofu Islands in the Kuriles) and the rich sea beds surrounding them.
Japan has several advantages from continuing the separate states on the Korean peninsula. It has already played the Koreas off against each other by stating that it would consider reparations for the issue of the Korean "comfort girls" pressed into service as prostitutes for Japanese troops, but only under the same terms for each state.
Its closest competitor among the "Little Tigers" would gain a great advantage in markets and access to cheap labor if hostilities were to end.
If Japan can make use of the expertise of the members of Chochongnyon in development of the DPRK, so will the South Koreans under any agreement to end hostilities and to develop the north. In addition, Japan's domestic policies have benefited from the division of Korean sympathies in the resident organizations of Chochongnyon (allied with the DPRK) and Mindan (allied with the ROK). unification of the two Koreas would likely mean merger of these two organizations, resulting in greater demands on the Japanese government.
In 1989, American reasons for keeping armed forces in the ROK were that an armed Korean conflict could jeopardize its relations with either or both China and Russia. It also needed to prove its trustworthiness to its allies after the debacle of withdrawal from Vietnam. It was also concerned that the DPRK would misinterpret abandonment for a declaration of non-interest in the Korean peninsula, thereby encouraging an attempt at military unification. Finally, the United States believed that its presence on the peninsula would deter both Japan and the ROK from developing their own nuclear weapon system, a factor which (like the DPRK's development of nuclear arms) would seriously disrupt the balance of power. (Hanai, 1988)
The Americans have been trying to reduce tensions on the Korean peninsula for domestic reasons as well as strategic ones. US Congressmen are becoming increasingly testy about the failure to spread the cost of US troops to the countries that benefit from their presence. In addition, it becomes increasingly difficult to support large numbers of troops stationed overseas when the collapse of Ronald Reagan's "evil empire" seems to be history.
Attempts at confidence-building on the Korean peninsula include suggestions to take troops and heavy equipment out of the DMZ and to have inspections by neutral countries to assure good faith efforts. The US has also suggested that China and the DPRK send observers to the annual Team Spirit exercises, suggestions that were declined by the DPRK. In recent years, symbolic changes were made in the Team Spirit exercises by changing the war game to play out between east and west forces rather than between north and south as in previous practices. (Kang, Sung Hack, 1990) The entire exercise was suspended in 1992.
The United States has in fact relaxed its policies toward the DPRK in the last few years. Non-governmental travel has been allowed between the two countries since 1988. It allows goods needed for "basic human needs" to be exported to the DPRK. And it has begun to open diplomatic channels, primarily through the agencies of Pacific economic cooperation organizations, according to Ronald A. Morse, the founder of the US committee for the Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference (PECC) (1990)
The United States wants to retain its position as the primary world military power won with the victory over Iraq in 1991 and the breakup of the socialist sphere. Its first priority is to ensure that no country becomes strong enough to challenge it. The country that currently has the best economic potential to do so is Japan. Therefore a corollary to this goal is to ensure stability in East Asia so that Japan has no need to develop its own strategic weapons.
The balance of power in East Asia concerns the United States because power is more diffuse there than in Europe. Bi-lateral pacts are the rule in Asia compared to a number of multi-lateral agreements and organizations in Europe. There is more uncertainty as to what the Asian countries' long term interests may be and how they will achieve them. The very speed of the dramatic and seemingly irreversible changes in the socialist world gives pause for concern as to their permanency and to who and what ideology may fill the vacuum. (Marshall, 1992)
Korea gives the United States its last foothold for justifying being involved in East Asian economic affairs. Already, Malaysia has proposed an economic union of Asian states to omit Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. (Marshall, 1992) But the economic affairs of East Asia are too important for the US to ignore. The United States may maintain its presence in Korea long enough to assure a role for itself in whatever form of East Asian cooperative organizations develop.
The US has protested the ROK's decision to exempt trade with the DPRK from tariffs. The US government claims that doing so violates the most-favored-nation clause of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. The ROK claims that trade between the two Koreas should be regarded as internal trade. According to the Americans, tariff-free trade between the Germanies was allowed because a clause in the Potsdam Declaration described the two countries as a single economic entity in 1945. Similar trade between Taiwan and the PRC is allowed because China is not yet a member of the GATT. However, the US considers both the ROK and the DPRK independent countries in terms of economic and political status. (Korea Newsreview:2/8/92)