• Nawal Ali

Unification vs. Containment: What is the Best Korea Strategy?

A major aspect of US foreign policy for the past four presidential administrations has been dealing with the rogue state of North Korea. The US strategy for managing the threat of North Korea has become much more complicated in recent years due to nuclear tests that were conducted by the North Korean regime showcasing that the country’s nuclear weapons program has expanded in technical capability and size. This has led to a renewed debate over the best strategy for the US to address the security threat of a rogue state like North Korea with a technologically competent nuclear program. Scholars and experts that are discussing and writing about this topic are falling into two broad categories: those that are pushing for containment of North Korea and those that support unifying the peninsula under the South Korea government.

Recently, The Alexander Hamilton Society at American University hosted an event for a discussion exploring these two fundamentally different US strategies for North Korea. One of the speakers, Colonel David Maxwell, a former colonel in the U.S. military and currently a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, advocated that the United States should support efforts to unify the Korean peninsula under a government like the existing Republic of Korea. The other speaker, Dr. David Banks, who is a Professorial Lecturer at American University, argued for a strategy of containment that seeks to isolate the North Korean regime while increasing the costs of regime nuclear tests through sanctions. Both speakers have articulated the broad outlines of the debate currently taking place about North Korean policy within academic, think tank, and government policy-making circles.

The case for a unification strategy as Colonel Maxwell argued is that unification is the only long-term solution to the “Korea Question” that address the North-South conflict in a way favorable to regional security and American interests. The focus on unification stems from recognizing that the security threat from North Korea is not just focused on the Regime’s nuclear program but also the conventional military that still threatens South Korea. Right now, North Korea has 70% of its 1.2 million soldiers within its military to be stationed near the DMZ as well as the continued presence of artillery pointed at South Korea and the Capital of Seoul that could cause hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties if active fighting occurs. Another advantage that the unification offers according to supporters like Maxwell, is that supporting South Korea’s attempts at unifying the peninsula could stop the human rights violations perpetrated by the North Korea Regime. Addressing these crimes was called a “moral imperative” by Colonel Maxwell.

The case for a strategy of containment that Dr. Banks argued for is based on recognizing that a direct military option such as attacking North Korea’s nuclear program would yield uncertain results and would invite retaliation from North Korea’s conventional forces to attack South Korea causing major loss of life. At the same supporters of containment also argue that withdrawal of US troops from the peninsula would undermine broader security in the region and hurt long-term American interests in the region. Supporters like Dr. Banks or Jeffery Bader at Brookings argue that containment is the best solution that does not go into either policy extreme. Another aspect of the containment strategy that supporters argue for is that the containment strategy would be increase goodwill for US in the region and would provide the opportunity to secure an agreement with China on addressing the threat of North Korea. Fundamentally, the containment strategy offers the US the political space for more options should other developments to occur such as regime collapse.

Both sides in the national debate on North Korean policy have showcased the strengths and merits of their overall proposed strategy in dealing with North Korea. Both strategies have weaknesses associated with it that opponents have articulated against. Overall, as North Korea continues to progress with their nuclear weapons program, the US government needs to settle on a long-term strategy for dealing with the threat North Korea poses to the Asia-pacific region and to US national interests: Unification or Containment?

Photo credit Cheongwadae / Blue House, Korean Open Government License Type I: Attribution


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