A Perspective Regarding the Unification of Korea and it’s Implications

A Perspective Regarding the Unification of Korea and it’s Implications

By Haeyeon Kim

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Republic of Korea (ROK) are still at war, in an armistice, with last incidence of casualties occurring in 2015, because the Korean war never ended, international humanitarian law and Geneva conventions still apply to both Koreas.[i]

Historically, DPRK increases military tension in the region to gain a better control of situations in the region. This was demonstrated in 2010 when DPRK sunk South Korean  naval ship, killing several sailors, and again in 2015 when DPRK deployed over 70% of their submarines to increase military tension in the region, which lead to summits.[ii] Once some sort of an agreement was reached, DPRK eased their military presence, showcasing DPRK’s use of their ability to destabilize the region by using military presence as a bargaining chip. DPRK’s ability to increase tension relies on the fact that they have nuclear capacities and its geographical location. DPRK cannot denuclearize without losing the ability to pose a serious threat within the region. It’s their military, in addition to the potential nuclear escalation that is allowing these repetitive tantrums to have an impact. Despite DPRK’s violations of United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) and a variety of other international laws, such as International Covenant on Civil and Political rights (ICCPR) and Convention Against Torture, Korean unification is continuing progress, with warming unilateral relations between ROK and DPRK.[iii]

Although previous peace talks with DPRK have failed, the current ROK President Moon approaches this issue with peace.[iv] Ever since President Moon took the office, the tensions have decreased significantly, removing all propaganda from both sides, and fully restoring their military communications on the western part of the peninsula.[v] Both leaders also declared and signed that they will work towards an ambitious goal of unification of Koreas, promoting peace while ceasing all military hostilities.[vi]

At the moment, the ambitious goal in on track, but the implications of the reunification process are alarming. First, North Korea stated that they would only denuclearize if U.S would return the gesture.[vii] This is problematic because there is a precedent where the former North Korea leader signed the NPT (Nuclear Proliferation Treaty) after receiving international aids to their country.[viii] Second, as the relations between US and DPRK improve, US intelligence indicates that during the peace talks, DPRK is escalating their efforts to conceal their nuclear activity. DPRK builds approximately six nuclear warheads annually, and has not stopped in 2018 during the peace talks.[ix]

DPRK is unlikely to abandon their nuclear capabilities unless the leadership of DPRK is forgiven for their crimes. DPRK will need denuclearization to bargain. If President Trump were to reciprocate DPRK’s denuclearization, and the long-waited unifications were to occur, will the international community forgive DPRK leadership for their violations of international law and norm? The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sent a report condemning DPRK for human rights violations and how they should be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC).[x] DPRK, ROK as well as U.S do not recognize ICC authority.[xi]

If the unification were to occur, DPRK will have to mitigate their atrocities and violations with peace promoting activities, gradually preparing their population for the world. DPRK’s current situation regarding unification process can mirror USSR’s dissolution scenario, which would implicate unification of Korea and perhaps DPRK’s leader going unpunished.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s “glasnost” and “perestroika” programs restructured and made USSR more transparent, and slowly readied the soviet people for the dissolution of their state.[xii] USSR committed themselves to treaties which lowered the numbers of nuclear weapons such as anti-ballistic missile treaty (ABM) and ceased many hostile acts, globally lowering military tensions.

Similar to USSR in late 80s to early 90s, DPRK is easing military tensions and is taking actions which promote peace within the region, such as taking out the landmines between DPRK and ROK.[xiii] Further, both Koreas agreed to participate as one team in Asian games to symbolize their cooperation.[xiv] However, similar to USSR, in order for DPRK to truly demonstrate their commitment to peace, they would need to begin denuclearization or agree to lower the numbers of their nuclear weapons. Making nuclear weapons, just to denuclearize seems wasteful in terms of resources, but it is the most promising gesture for them to the international community that they are serious about promoting peace and stabilizing the region through unification. Although unlikely scenario, if DPRK were to follow Gorbachev’s footsteps, perhaps they can avoid having to answer for their crimes.

Similar to USSR, after peace promoting, internal restructuring and some denuclearization, perhaps DPRK is willing dissolve, leading to unification which will lead to one Korea. DPRK regime, similar to USSR regime may be allowed to use this as leverage to avoid prosecution/tribunals, earning favors from many within the global community for bringing peace and stabilizing the region.

Unlike the dissolution of USSR, when DPRK dissolves, the only court besides a specialized tribunal that has authority to prosecute the leaders of DPRK is the International Criminal Court (ICC). Some speculate that Gorbachev was never prosecuted because USSR dissolved before ICC came into existence.[xv] ICC was formed in 2002, while USSR dissolution occurred in 1990-1991. DPRK does not recognize ICC’s authority, and will assert national sovereignty. Although DPRK will no longer exist after their dissolution, ROK does not recognize ICC either. Furthermore, depending on the circumstances of DPRK’s dissolution, because it would stabilize the region in such a significant manner, if a specialized tribunal were to be created for DPRK, the tribunal may get vetoed before being established by a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) member state.

Certainly, Russia supports Korea unification in order to directly sell natural gas, and gain direct access to the Korean market, while lowering their security concerns on their boarders. China and Japan are most likely to support the unification since it lowers their security concerns while increasing their opportunities to gain financially. None of these countries have much to gain with DPRK’s existence. U.S may not be too fond of the unification depending on how the unification may impact their influence within the region, considering ROK has been a loyal and old ally to the U.S. Internationally, unification of Korea would also curb DPRK’s illicit arms sales and weapons technology.[xvi] These approvals from neighboring countries have weight because, historically, it led the former USSR Chairman Gorbachev to avoid prosecution. Having nuclear weapons to bargain with will also increase the likelihood of the global community’s acceptance and silent pardon of the DPRK regime because having a unified Korea would be much better than having unstable DPRK with nuclear weapons. Pros simply outweigh the cons, when considering global peace.

Leaders of DPRK might be attempting to avoid their responsibilities by making the region impossible to stabilize without their consent. Countries surrounding DPRK, would all benefit from unification of Korea and it may allow Kim Jong Un to avoid punishment for violations of law during his leadership. In addition, according to Goldman Sachs, a united Korea is expected to surpass Japan and Germany in GDP with flourishing foreign investment programs for North Korean redevelopment, which may allow DPRK leadership some positive light within the region for bringing prosperity as well as peace.[xvii]

The unification of the Koreas would mean the region will become more stable. China, Japan, South Korea, Asia and U.S will be able to enjoy a lower burden in the region, but is that enough to forgive DPRK leadership of their crimes? If so, the implications are alarming.

If DPRK leadership promote peace and stabilize the global community by dissolving themselves, similar to USSR, and avoid answering for their crimes; it could indicate that in the name of peace and stability, dangerous law violating leaders can avoid punishment if their actions are counterbalanced by the positive impact of stabilization and peace that they are responsible for destabilizing in the first place.

DPRK leadership’s violations could be pardoned by unified Korea’s new leader, and assuming that the new Korea would not recognize ICC authority, it is likely that former DPRK leadership can get away with their crimes in the name of national sovereignty. Furthermore, if a UN tribunal were to be established, UNSC members would need a consensus for its creation. If international laws are not enforced in this scenario, simply because a country does not recognize ICC authority, international laws’ legitimacy will decrease significantly.

In contrast to Mikhail Gorbachev, after the Yugoslavian conflict, the violators were prosecuted at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), a UN specialized tribunal that was held for the conflict.[xviii] According to Chapter 7 of the UN charter, specialized tribunals can take place for criminals to answer for their war crimes.[xix] Reasonably, a military tribunal similar to ICTY seems inevitable, but considering how ICTY rulings were criticized for being bias and lack of understanding, a similar but different approach may be necessary.[xx] If DPRK leaders were to be prosecuted at a new tribunal, DPRK leadership would not have incentive to promote the unification or to denuclearize. Therefore, in order for unification to occur, it is likely that a tribunal may have to be avoided.

At which point is it correct to forgive atrocities in order to bring peace? Currently, unification will not occur without mutual consent. If DPRK leaders were to be prosecuted, they will simply walk away from negotiations and summits. If a war is to occur, considering DPRK’s nuclear arsenal, casualties can be in millions. As an observer, one awaits to see whether DPRK leaders will be held accountable for their crimes or if legitimacy and enforcement of international law will be dismissed in the name of peace.


[i] ‘Loyalty race’ leads to landmine attack, DailyNK (2015) https://www.dailynk.com/english/loyalty-race-leads-to-land-mine-at/

[ii] Staff and Agencies, North Korean Submarine Missing and Presumed Sunk, The Guardian (2016) https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/13/north-korean-submarine-missing-and-presumed-sunk-say-reports and North Korean Artillary hits South Korean Island, BBC (2010) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-11818005

[iii] Rival Koreas Agree to Military, Red Cross talks for Peace, CNBC (2018) https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/01/rival-koreas-agree-to-military-red-cross-talks-for-peace.html

[iv] id

[v] Sshluck@yna.co.kr, Two Koreas Fully Restore Western Military Communication Line, Yonhapnews (2018) http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/news/2018/07/17/0200000000AEN20180717003451315.html

[vi] Kyodo, Full Text of Panmunjom Declaration, Japantimes (2018) https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/04/27/national/politics-diplomacy/full-text-panmunjom-declaration/#.W9o4U2hKhPa

[vii] AP/Reuters, North Korea Agrees to dismantle nuclear complex if United States takes reciprocal action, South Korea says, ABC (2018) https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-19/north-korea-agrees-to-dismanlte-nuclear-test-site/10282040

[viii] Frederic L. Kirgis, North Korea’s Withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, American Society of International Law Volume 8 Issue 2 (2003) https://www.asil.org/insights/volume/8/issue/2/north-koreas-withdrawal-nuclear-nonproliferation-treaty

[ix] Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee, North Korea is still making nukes and the Trump admin is taking a harderline, NBCnews (2018) https://www.nbcnews.com/news/north-korea/north-korea-still-making-nukes-trump-admin-now-taking-much-n907651

[x] REPORT OF THE COMMISSION OF INQUIRY ON HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF KOREA, UNHRC (2014) https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIDPRK/Pages/ReportoftheCommissionofInquiryDPRK.aspx ;Stephanie Nebehay, U.N’s Pillay says may be crimes against humanity in North Korea, Reuters (2013) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-korea-north-rights/u-n-s-pillay-says-may-be-crimes-against-humanity-in-north-korea-idUSBRE90D0DB20130114

[xi] Jane Onyanga-Omara, What’s the International Criminal Court and Why are Countries bailing?, USA Today (2016) https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/11/17/whats-international-criminal-court-and-why-countries-bailing/94017990/

[xii] Neil MacFarquhar, Reviled by Many Russians, Mikhail Gorbachev Still has lots to say, New York Times (2016) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/02/world/europe/mikhail-gorbachev-interview-vladimir-putin.html

[xiii] North and South Korea begin removing mines along DMZ, CBS News (2018) https://www.cbsnews.com/news/north-korea-south-korea-removing-land-mines-dmz-panmunjom-arrow-head-hill/

[xiv] North and South Korea Agree to some combined teams at Asian Games, BBC (2018) https://www.bbc.com/sport/44517819

[xv] International Criminal Court, ICC (2018) https://www.icc-cpi.int/

[xvi] James Pearson, Front companies, embassies mask North Korean Weapons Trade-U.N., Reuters (2014) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-korea-korea-un/front-companies-embassies-mask-north-korean-weapons-trade-u-n-idUSBREA2A08020140311

[xvii] Jonathan Thatcher, United Korea economy could pass Japan: Goldman Sachs, Reuters (2009) https://www.reuters.com/article/us-korea-north-united/united-korea-economy-could-pass-japan-goldman-sachs-idUSTRE58K0OA20090921

[xviii] International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY (1993-2017) http://www.icty.org/


[xx] Kelly Askin, Imperfect Justice: The Impact of Yugoslav Tribunal, Open Society Foundations (2010) https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/imperfect-justice-impact-yugoslav-tribunal