GPF Senior Fellow David Maxwell OP-ED on Korean Reunification in The Korea Times

Global Peace Foundation
June 22, 2023

David Maxwell

David Maxwell is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel and has spent more than 30 years in Asia as a practitioner and specializes in Northeast Asian Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional and political warfare. He is a senior fellow at the Global Peace Foundation and the vice president of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy.

Yoon-Biden summit – onward toward unification


On April 26, 2023, President Joe Biden will host President Yoon Suk Yeol of the Republic of Korea for a state visit and summit. This is only the second state visit of his administration. The allies will honor the 70th anniversary of the Korean War Armistice Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty that cemented the alliance with a vision beyond the Korean War. The two Presidents have the opportunity to chart a new path forward for the alliance. It is imperative that it be a path leading to a free and unified Korea. This should be a major point in the joint statement that will emerge from the summit.

Unification is not a new concept to past ROK and U.S. presidents. In joint statements from 2009 until 2017, Korean and U.S. presidents stated the mutual desire to achieve peaceful unification. However, the two joint statements of the Biden administration, with President Moon Jae-in in May 2021 and with President Yoon in May 2022, made no reference to unification. This seems odd since President Biden included unification in his October 2020 Yonhap opinion piece and he has mentioned it in a past speech as vice president.

There are important reasons for considering making a free and unified Korea the major direction of the ROK-U.S. alliance. This strategic guidance from the two presidents will drive changes to planning for all instruments of national power in both countries and provide renewed energy for the alliance.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has stated on multiple occasions and in party and strategic documents that he has no intention of giving up his nuclear weapons. Therefore, it is time to flip the conventional wisdom on its head and pursue peaceful unification as the path to denuclearization and not vice versa, while recognizing that Kim Jong-un, the regime elite or second-tier military leadership in North Korea will be the deciding factor as to whether it is peaceful or not. Focusing on denuclearization as the priority and main effort will not result in solving the security problem for the Korean peninsula. Only a free and unified Korea will create the necessary conditions for peace and security in the region.

As the lead agency, the South Korean Ministry of Unification must focus on the deep and detailed planning for unification and coordinate the efforts of the Korean instruments of national power, as well as seek international support for unification. The ROK-U.S. military alliance will have to plan for military support to the unification process regardless of the path to unification ― which could be war, regime collapse or internal regime change but in the best case, a peaceful one. Since the ministry has no counterpart agency in any other government, the U.S. should consider establishing a unification support directorate to work with the ministry and coordinate U.S. government actions to support unification.

While planning and preparation are critically important for achieving this most important strategic goal, there are other important reasons, one of the most important being to give hope to the Korean people in the North who are suffering on an unimaginable scale because Kim prioritizes the pursuit of nuclear weapons over the welfare of the people. As part of the preparation for unification, the alliance should implement a human rights upfront approach and use a sophisticated information and influence activities campaign to get information into the North. Information will help to drive change inside and prepare the Korean people for unification. Recently a working group developed a threefold strategy for a human rights upfront approach, an influence campaign, and the pursuit of a free and unified Korea. The ROK-U.S. alliance should consider this to assist in policy and planning efforts.

In addition, if the two governments establish unification as the strategic goal, civil society on the peninsula, throughout the region and international community will be motivated to support unification. Civil society will play an important role in the process and outcome and a strong statement will empower them to act.

In a recent interview, Dr. Hyunjin Preston Moon said that a “unified Korea would be a model nation on the global stage.” One month before the ROK-U.S. summit, President Yoon, among others, co-hosts the Democracy Summit of 2023 with President Biden. There will be no better example of a democratic nation than a free and unified Korea. The two presidents should adopt this strategic goal as not only the exemplar in support of the Democracy Summit but as the only acceptable durable political arrangement that will secure, sustain and advance ROK and U.S. interests on the Korean Peninsula.

The military leaders who drafted and signed the 1953 Armistice Agreement were very prescient. They recognized in paragraph 60 that the political leaders must solve the “Korea question” and that question is the unnatural division of the peninsula. It is time for political leaders to take up the challenge to reach a solution.

The ROK, the U.S. and the international community must come to the realization that Kim will not negotiate as a responsible member of the international community and will never give up his treasured sword of nuclear weapons. The only way there will be an end to the military threats, human rights abuses and crimes against humanity is through the establishment of a free and unified Korea. President Yoon, with President Biden’s support, can lead the way to a nation that is secure and stable, non-nuclear and has a liberal constitutional form of government based on freedom and individual liberty, a free market economy, the rule of law and human rights for all. It might be called the United Republic of Korea (UROK).


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