NASA night image of the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea has been an international headache and human rights disaster for two decades. Deals negotiated in 1994 and 2005 to contain the nuclear problem ultimately collapsed.  Recent leadership transitions in both North and South Korea have only worsened relations between the two states.

The main approach for attempting to deal with North Korea has been a combination of negotiations, normalization and reform: first, negotiations over the North’s nuclear program aimed at freezing or eliminating it; second, normalization of relations with the South, as epitomized by the “sunshine” policy of Kim Dae-jung; third, a hope that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) will gradually pursue economic and political reform. The goal is to entice North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal, make peace with the South and integrate into the international community.

The fundamental problem with the negotiations, normalization and reform approach is that the DPRK is not able to exist as a normal state and therefore cannot give up its weapons programs, normalize relations with the South or reform its society. Unlike China, Vietnam and the other post-Cold War communist non-collapsers, North Korea has no potential legitimating ideology other than opposition to the South. But the South has unambiguously surpassed the North in every way.  This precludes normalization of relations, which would entail greater freedom for North Koreans and a consequent collapse of the veil of illusions that wraps the North.  North Korea must remain a closed society to survive.  A corollary is that the North cannot give up its nuclear programs.  For the North, a steady diet of confrontation with the outside world is a prerequisite for regime survival, and the nuclear weapons program provides the best means to both antagonize and deter others.

With the existing approach played out, it’s time to consider alternatives.  The obvious candidate is unification. Practically speaking, unification will have to happen by a process of extending the South’s institutions to cover the bankrupt North.   The United States has long sought unification on these terms, while China has opposed it. One reason is that the Chinese do not want a U.S. ally hosting U.S. troops sitting on the Chinese border; indeed they fought the Korean war to prevent this. Given that China can apparently support North Korea indefinitely, unification will not happen without Chinese assent, and that assent will not be forthcoming while the U.S. role in Korea remains as it is.

Could China and the United States find a deal involving unification that both would prefer to the status quo?  Currently, the United States has troops stationed in South Korea, and the Republic of Korea (ROK) is a military ally.  As part of a unification deal, the United States could pledge to withdraw its troops, or even end the alliance.  A unified Korea could then become a neutral state as far as relations with China are concerned, like Austria during the cold war.

Why might China prefer unification with a lesser role for the United States in Korea over the status quo?  China’s interests are threefold.  First, it would like to have U.S. troops off the continent of Asia.  Viewed from Beijing, U.S. troops in Korea pose an offensive threat to Chinese territory.  Second, China wants Japan to remain non-nuclear.  Every year that passes in which a nuclear North Korea continues to test nuclear weapons provides another argument for conservatives in Japan that their commitment to non-nuclear status should be reconsidered. Third, China has a general interest in peace and stability on its frontiers, and in economic growth.  A unified Korea would provide that stability along with increased trade and other economic benefits.  Korea would be an economic dynamo for northern China, contributing to investment and cross-border prosperity. It would also permanently end the refugee problem posed by the DPRK.

Why might the United States prefer unification with a lesser role for itself in Korea to the status quo?  One major incentive is the nuclear issue.  One thing that Republicans and Democrats agree on is that a major security concern facing the United States today is terrorism with nuclear weapons.  Stopping the proliferation of fissile material production capabilities to states that might use them irresponsibly is key to addressing that threat.  North Korea, in its quest to survive, might sell related technologies abroad, or even fissile material itself.  This would be a grave threat, as once fissile material is in the hands of terrorists, they have overcome the main hurdle in building atomic bombs and destroying American cities.

What about the North Korean leadership?  They obviously draw the short straw in any move toward unification.  China could make their choice easier by offering them asylum, so that they do not have to personally fear the consequences of losing power.  Accompany it by a withdrawal of Chinese support for the Korean economy, and it should be an offer they cannot refuse, at least not for very long.

Whether there is a unification deal that both the United States and China would prefer to the status quo is an open question.  Both countries are reluctant to publically discuss such issues, for fear it would call into question their commitment to their allies.  I am in the early stages of conducting a survey to measure public preferences over various unification options. Early results suggest that U.S. respondents support unification with a lesser U.S. role.  Meanwhile, a public, unofficial conversation about how unification could be brought about may help sketch the rough outlines of a mutually acceptable deal.

Andrew Kydd is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin’s department of political science. He regularly blogs at Political Violence at a Glance.

This is the fourth in a series of posts from the conference “Beyond the Pivot: Managing Asian Security Crises,” which was held in the Senate Hart Building on April 30, 2014, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.   For more information, visit