The succession of nuclear tests and missile launches suggest that sometime during the Trump presidency North Korea will be able to deliver a nuclear-tipped ICBM to the continental United States. Two ICBM test launches in 2017 and a 100-kiloton thermonuclear explosion—seven times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb—indicate this capability may be achieved in months or weeks instead of years. Past US presidents have tried to draw a red line—claiming they would not allow a nuclear North Korea—but none has succeeded in undermining this danger. After many years of strategic patience there is consensus something must be done in a hurry.
However, given the Kim regime’s insecurity over its perceived threat from the US-South Korea military alliance, most analysts acknowledge that even if a peace agreement were signed and a cessation of annual joint military exercises produced the best possible diplomatic results, the maximum concession the United States could expect is the freezing of North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing programs. This is certainly not an ideal long-term solution for the United States. Probably the only peaceful way to completely eliminate its nuclear capability is through political unification. However, conventional policymakers cannot envision a plausible path to unification and therefore presume there are no good options to prevent a nuclear North Korea.
This fatalism is unwarranted because Pyongyang political and military elites—who keep the Kim regime in power—can be persuaded their lives would significantly improve in a unified nuclear-free Korea. Although this may be a provocative thesis, its efficacy is suggested in the logic of Behavioral Economics and by evolving conditions on the ground. In this essay I will introduce a pragmatic albeit unconventional triangular benefit unification model to prevent nuclear proliferation by motivating North Korean elites to peacefully reunify Korea, and propose an institutional platform to channel the cooperative energies of the private sector, the South Korean government, and great powers to achieve this result.
Unfortunately, unlike business, science, and engineering, where creating alternatives often leads to breakthroughs and advancement, there is little incentive for innovation within the US policymaking community since unconventional ideas are uniformly rejected by the political mainstream on Capital Hill. In his book National Insecurity, beltway insider David Rothkopf complains about “dumb-downed smart people” and claims there is an “institutionalized aversion to creativity” in Washington. After living in South Korea for almost a decade I can attest to a similar situation in Seoul, where, regardless of which direction the political winds blow, simple iterations of tired old conservative or liberal policies resurface. For these and other reasons, conventional North Korea policy remains stuck in the muck and mire of Cold War causation, without nuance, imagination, or reasonably substantiated expectations of positive-sum outcomes.
The belief there are no good options arose because, besides acquiescence, analysts presume diplomatic engagement, punitive sanctions, or the threat or reality of military action are the only plausible options. But engagement has proven unproductive and few expect sanctions or threats will change Kim’s behavior, while many fear a surgical US military strike may lead to a nuclear exchange, with South Korea suffering catastrophic loss of life. Yet it also seems unacceptable to allow a fragile belligerent authoritarian regime in a failing state—with the GDP of Swaziland—not only the ability, in perpetuity, to transfer fissile material and nuclear technology and know-how to other rogue regimes, but also the capacity to incinerate a large US city and kill millions of Americans by accident or intent in less than an hour from halfway around the world at the whim of a madman and the push (or malfunction) of a button. Fortunately, there is another option.
In a book Henry Kissinger hopes will persuade policymakers to reassess geoeconomic tools, in War by Other Means Ambassador Robert Blackwell and Jennifer Harris critique conventional US foreign policy and present a prescient prescription for what must change. They contend that the Vietnam War pushed geoeconomics off the policy stage, and then as now, the US too often reaches for the gun instead of the purse. Citing ideas introduced by the influential Johns Hopkins foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum, Blackwell and Harris assert: “Understanding geoeconomics requires appreciating deeply embedded differences in the operating assumptions of geopolitics and economics. The logic of geopolitics is traditionally zero-sum, while the logic of economics is traditionally positive-sum.” They caution against cavalier military threats in foreign affairs and recommend transitioning away from zero-sum conventional power politics toward a positive-sum geoeconomic statecraft, and the deployment of economic instruments—trade, investment, monetary, energy, commodity, cyber, and aid policy—to achieve geopolitical goals. They observe that these economic instruments are already deployed by China. Indeed, considering its business orientation, an economic strategy with more predictable and profitable results than military action might appeal to the Trump administration.
In pursuit of this objective in this newly emerging policy context, I designed an economic incentive model to peacefully denuclearize North Korea. With the force multipliers of powerful digital communication technology and rising material expectations, there are new points of soft power leverage for solving disputes today that were unavailable just a few years ago. A recent increase in high-level defections is symptomatic of growing disaffection among North Koreans and their yearning for a better life. The Kim regime has never been so vulnerable to the push and pull of external cultural and economic forces and their appealing influence especially on its supporting elites. This very recent modern phenomenon suggests the need for a strategic revision of US policy that takes these changes into account.
Instead of initiating another disappointing round of contingent engagement, usually followed by a renewed display of lethal weaponry and more restrictive sanctions, the reward-based model I have designed to resolve conflict does not depend on incremental quid pro quo’s or on building personal or impersonal trust between leaders or states, but instead relies on the motive force of money and culture, as expressed in the incentive-directed personal preferences of individual North Korean elites. This plan offers a pragmatic platform for positive-sum public-private and US-China cooperation that expands the set of options at a time when it is painfully obvious conventional strategies are not working and sentiment is growing for more drastic action.
In this interconnected digital nuclear age, political leaders must transcend more traditional and vindictive eye-for-an-eye approaches, and with humility and foresight, turn the other cheek. In this regard, prudent policymakers would be wise to recognize the application of pain through punishing sanctions and coercion is often less effective in gaining compliance than are positive reinforcements—especially in the long run. Like good parents, leaders must discern when it is wise to punish or more propitious to use incentives, and take disciplinary revenge off the table altogether. As the prominent Princeton political scientist David Baldwin advocated during the Vietnam War almost half-a-century ago, there is need for a more balanced and thoughtful approach to the application of power.
What if North Korea could be disarmed without inciting fear or administering punishment, but instead, by promising personal rewards? Unconventional approaches—such as the one I will introduce—often seem strange and untenable until their logical frameworks are fully understood and appreciated. Paying the enemy will seem counterintuitive and paradoxical until we realize that by doing so we will be making a new friend. Therefore, I ask readers to be open-minded and to suspend judgment until they comprehend the interacting details of this unorthodox cultural and economic approach to conflict resolution and are prepared to think outside the box.
Let’s begin: Imagine you control a multi-billion dollar capital fund and North Korea is an underperforming corporation controlled by an incompetent board of directors—the Kim family and a small number of ultra-elites—who will not negotiate a deal. In this regressive situation it is logical to offer shareholders—political/military elites, government managers/bureaucrats, and the general population—a higher price for their shares to persuade them to overrule their board of directors—a friendly corporate buyout. Individual financial incentives are an affordable option in North Korea due to its small and relatively impoverished power elite.
For this model to succeed, not only must it warrant investment (see next section), but elites in Pyongyang must feel assured they will enjoy a safe and prosperous future in a reunified Korea. To reassure those who have depended on their positions in power for their means of survival that they will continue prosper under new political leadership in a free-market economy, I propose the institution of a privately endowed Reunification Investment Fund that would offer power elites a golden parachute after they bring about political unification. The support of the G-20, the UN, and great powers is also necessary in order to reassure North Koreans that these promises of cash payments will be honored after they fulfill their side of the deal.
As summarized in the fund’s payment table below, at a cost of $29.4 billion—$4.2 billion dispersed per year for 7 years—the top 1,010 North Korean political and military elite families are promised $5 to 30 million; 11,010 upper elites—including all other generals—would become millionaires, and 51,200 lower-level political elites and military officers would receive $100,000 to $500,000.
Elite Reunification Investment Fund Payments
In total, 112,210 military officers and political and military elites would receive on average more than a quarter million dollars and be able to live in the free world as newly affluent citizens of a democratically reunited Korea. Besides an array of noneconomic benefits, this is a considerable amount of money even for “wealthy” North Koreans and should create strong incentives for reunification among the new generation of elites that have assumed power since the succession of Kim Jong-un in December 2011. Although these payments may be expanded or readjusted, surely there is some level of incentive that will motivate power elites to make Kim Jong-un an offer he cannot refuse.
For practical reasons, even Kim may be allowed to keep a portion of his fortune, be granted amnesty from prosecution, and promised freedom to live and travel anywhere in the world. Little is gained by his vilification and punishment, while promising safety and security to the House of Kim may prevent significant bloodshed. Denial of complicity in palace purges and other alleged atrocities may partially preserve his international public image; his father and the relic henchmen Kim has already dispatched from positions of power may be used as scapegoats for decades of malfeasance and unconscionable human rights abuse. Despite all else, if back channel talks lead to agreement, Kim might justifiably be hailed as the leader who brought peace, prosperity, and unification to his people. Indeed, he may acquiesce long before the domestic situation devolves into a state of chaos. Although Kim receives no money from this fund—in its current design—the fact that other power elites might benefit from his demise, and that personal safety is more precious than power, would give him little choice but to accept this offer.
If he does not acquiesce, financial incentives offered to elites may lead to insurrection—an expectation that will encourage young Kim’s preemptive agreement. Indeed, with $20-30 million promised to each of the 210 most prominent families, they might take matters into their own hands. Or a coup d’état may be sponsored by well-compensated political and military elites. In either case the transfer of political power from Pyongyang to Seoul would end 65 years of abject tyranny and human rights abuse, prevent nuclear proliferation in East Asia, and eliminate one flashpoint for conflict between an established and a rising power—the US and China.
This conciliatory scenario might seem unsavory to some South Koreans who have lost family members and suffered during this long and painful ordeal. Indeed, on the surface it may seem counterintuitive, unethical, and even immoral to pay an enemy after decades of human rights abuse. However, upon closer analysis, almost everyone in the North Korean pyramid of power has been replaced in recent years, and therefore this new generation of Pyongyang elites may be viewed less as perpetrators and more as victims of an ignoble history. Most who will benefit are merely innocent inheritors of their fathers’ ill-begotten estate (position and power) and were not complicit in its original acquisition or in the malevolence that followed. We do not punish the descendants of slaveholders or the children of thieves and murderers. Indeed, this payment would amount to a bailout for the sins of their ancestors—without moral hazard.
As in the final days of the Soviet Union, the efficacy of this model is enhanced by a rumor currently spreading across North Korean social networks that the outside world is a better place to live. For over two decades a steady stream of news and information across the semi-permeable Chinese border has changed the cognitive landscape in North Korea, as an underground market motivated word-of-mouth information highway has challenged the state’s meta-narrative and monopoly on information. The weakening of deeply embedded socially binding cultural systems —Juche, Suryong, and Songbun—is acknowledged, as defectors report the declining importance of legacy politics, modern propaganda, and the decay of communist ideology. Global visions of personal freedom and material prosperity have saturated cultural impressions, creating modern aspirations and a new social context for political change that has not existed before.
After decades of silent transformation the mere existence of this fund sitting in escrow ready to pay out vast sums may catalyze overwhelming support for reunification at all levels of North Korean society. In spite of a repressive security state, as tightening sanctions depress elite living standards and internal insecurities mount, these economic incentives and political assurances may tip the balance. The promise of $29.4 billion can win a lot of hearts and minds. With an active Intranet and over three million mobile phones in use, knowledge of this fund should reach almost everyone in a few days. North Koreans are ready for change, and this fund is a plausible platform to unleash it, while safely managing the transition.
But who has the foresight, capital resources, and vested interest to fund this unconventional geoeconomic approach to resolve conflict and prevent nuclear proliferation?
It would be helpful if the United States and China were willing to compromise and cooperate to reassure each other’s security concerns, and South Korea offered material incentives and legal assurances to the business sector, but the actual money must come from private sources. No government can authorize public funds to pay another nations elites, regardless of how justified. Therefore, the success of this proposal depends as much on the captains of capital and industry as on political leaders of state to embrace this potential triangulation of benefits.
Triangular Benefit Unification Model
(((Private Business, South Korean Government, North Korean Elites)))
In this scenario the South Korean government would offer global corporations and businesses trillions of dollars of profitable enterprises and resources in northern Korea, including contracts for building public infrastructure, and portions of markets and industries in telecommunications, transportation, building materials, and automotive products; ownership or licensing agreements for control over mines, seaports, airports, tourist attractions, and exclusive construction contracts for railroads, tar roads, a gas pipeline, energy generation, and a multitude of necessary projects.
In exchange for these resources and assurances, business would endow a fund to pay a $4.2 billion golden parachute per year for seven-years to North Korea political and military elites as compensation for their loss of position and power with the transition to a unified Korea. Since it is impractical for elected officials to agree to transfer public money to North Korean elites, these payments must come from private sources, for whom the prospect of enormous business profits make this a wise investment. The apparent audacity of this proposal is assuaged by the fact this is a no risk investment, since money is not released until after unification and the formal transfer of political and military power.
The compelling logic of public-private cooperation is made possible by an abundance of profitable resources in the Hermit Kingdom that would come under South Korean political control after reunification. North Korea ranks 10th among all nations in mineral reserves, with deposits of magnesite, ore, coal, gold, zinc, copper, silver, rare earths, and other minerals worth an estimated $6-10 trillion. In addition, a multi-billion dollar pipeline must be built from Russia to supply Korea with an estimated $3 billion in natural gas per year. Airports and railroads must be rebuilt; goods shipped over a Eurasian Express train would reach European markets in one-third the time it takes by ship via the Suez Canal. Japan may export to Europe by train through the port at Busan. Reunification would also stimulate trade through several natural seaports, including the northernmost ice-free Pacific port in Rason, a few miles from landlocked China and bordering the resource rich Russian Far East. These seaports will become more valuable as trans-Arctic and Pacific shipping seems likely to advance over the course of the twenty-first century.
Roads must be tarred, cars imported; only 3 percent of the roads are paved and the North has only 50 thousand private cars compared to 18 million in South Korea. Inexpensive labor will be available for at least a generation, as formal sector commodity markets incorporate across the North. Tourism is another multi-billion dollar industry, where control over specific attractions may be turned over to private enterprise in return for contributions to the fund. These safe government-authorized investment vehicles will result in enormously profitable ventures with secure long-term revenue streams.
And as good fortune would have it, after decades of globalization profits and unprecedented quantitative easing, the world is awash in money. In addition to the well-documented glut of corporate savings, according to Forbes latest rankings, Korea has 35 billionaires; China has more than 300 and the US more than 550. Financial elites can afford to pay for peace and invest in a more secure world order; in 2016 alone, the net worth of the top 25 multi-billionaires increased by over $215 billion. Business tycoons, transnational corporations, and institutional investors have surplus capital and are looking for opportunities. East Asian private equity firms hold more than $100 billion in “unspent cash” but are having difficulty finding profitable investments as the global economy has lost momentum. Furthermore, financial elites understand opportunity costs, and to counter entropic global forces should be willing to invest large and long in a more secure world order. If they neglect their fiduciary responsibility in these matters, they do so at their own peril, and ours.
To illustrate how this compact might arise, imagine this hypothetical scenario: Samsung, Hyundai, Gazprom, two private equity firms, Jack Ma, Bill Gates, and Lee Kun-Hee (Korea’s wealthiest citizen) announce on a world stage they will each give $500 million per year for seven years to underwrite a Reunification Investment Fund that will compensate North Korean political and military elites for the losses they will incur during the transition to a new political economy after reunification. This is a manageable sum for these corporations and individuals. With this diverse private financial support for the fund, the Kim regime would not have a specific state target to blame. The Bank of Korea and international banks (IMF, ADB, and AIIB) may silently promise additional infrastructural investments and financial guarantees—as the lender(s) of last resort—since there is little risk a reunified Korean economy will not prosper.
An expanded Reunification Investment Fund Financial Flow Chart is provided below in order to highlight an economic scenario for providing additional more broad based incentives and to offer a reasonable projection of post-unification expectations of infrastructural investment.
Expanded Reunification Investment Fund Financial Flow Chart
* The Bank of Korea may act as the lender of last resort
The bold arrows represent the more essential strategic elements of this Reunification Investment Fund and include additional incentive money for 500,000 Korean Workers Party members and 300,000 impoverished families in Pyongyang to push for reunification. This would likely inspire mass grass-roots activism within a stone’s throw of the guarded compounds of the power elite. As designated by the thin arrows, the masses outside Pyongyang may also be awarded financial benefits. At the very least, this would jump-start the new economy and ensure social stability. Non-taxpayer derived investment capital may come from South Korea’s half-trillion dollar sovereign wealth and foreign reserve assets, QE, helicopter money, or from the presumptive peace dividend. Post-unification investments in infrastructure from Korean government bonds ($300 billion was recommended by the Korea Financial Services Commission), international development banks, and the B-20 (the investment arm of the G-20) may amount to more than a trillion dollars over the next decade, creating millions of productive jobs and securing political and economic stability during the transition to free-market democracy.
In today’s multilayered balance of power, private interests often serve as a unifying force in the competitive nation-state system of world governance. This reunification plan assumes that geopolitics may sometimes be more effectively managed through positive-sum geoeconomic incentives; that unconstrained by the parochialism of public opinion, private enterprise can set in motion a formidable partnership between itself, the South Korean government, international banks, and multilateral organizations that would impart confidence by indemnifying this fund with broad assurances from the world community—as reported in the global media—and fundamentally change the political and economic incentive structures inside North Korea. With this collective cooperative effort it would not be surprising one day to read the international headline, “Friendly Corporate Takeover Prevents Nuclear Proliferation by Reuniting Korea.”
Summary and Discussion
I wrote this paper to introduce a prudent incentive model for unifying Korea before the Kim regime is able to complete the development of a nuclear-tipped conventional or intercontinental ballistic missile capable of endangering its neighbors and America’s homeland, and thereby to avert the possibility of regional nuclear proliferation or a preemptive US surgical military strike on North Korean nuclear missile facilities that might destabilize East Asia, lead to confrontation between the United States and China, and potentially result in catastrophic loss of life in South Korea.
Even as conventional models for walking back nuclear proliferation and creating peace have failed, for those inclined to think this proposal is preposterous, let us look across the continent of Asia to an innovative policy initiative in the Levant, where Middle East expert Daniel Byman observes there is a critical need for policy alternatives in the endless “status quo cycle” of “provocation, response and war.” After nearly a century of bitter dispute between the Israelis and Palestinians, former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff and Defense Minister, Lt. General Shaul Mofaz designed and submitted a $50 billion funding initiative for peace to the Israeli National Security Council. This money would be given to President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority under the condition it is used to fund infrastructure, welfare, healthcare, education, and employment.
This allocation of capital would demilitarize Gaza, offer Hamas pragmatists a face-saving alternative to violence, and empower moderate Palestinian leaders. General Mofaz understands that empowering moderate leaders or any organization that creates more stability would move the peace process forward. We need look no further than the US dismantling of the potentially moderating influence of the Iraqi military for a failed alternative. Power elites who want a better life are the moderating force in North Korea. Although both models remain in their incubation stage, yet untried, the Mofaz Fund and this Reunification Investment Fund represent smart geoeconomic solutions to seemingly intractable geopolitical problems. Let us hope that we may not look back with regret that we did not employ a scientific materialist approach to conflict resolution.
Although in the past the US has offered significant in-kind benefits to North Korea, it seems narrow-minded to not even consider personal economic incentives as an alternative to violence and war in a post-gold standard global economy with an accelerating annual gross world product that has doubled in 20 years to over $75 trillion, and where we discuss helicopter money and electronically print currency (quantitative easing) with almost competitive abandon. Indeed, there is a serious dislocation between foreign policy and economics in the US that Ambassador Blackwell and Jennifer Harris assert the Chinese are more than willing to exploit.
Although the prevention of interstate violence remains an enigma, in a world of massive capital flows, unequal abundance, structural stagnation, and global satellite communication, where expanding trade and creating jobs is as vitally important to political survival as free access to well endowed consumer markets, it is likely that over the course of the twenty-first century a more pragmatic modernization of foreign policy will involve a greater emphasis on geoeconomic statecraft to solve political disputes and promote and defend national interests. After a quarter century of failed conventional punishment or trust-based approaches, a stable economic strategy that injects the persuasive power of personalized money into the diplomatic process may now be necessary in order to overcome institutional inertia and path dependencies that too often terminate in conflict.
Given its perpetual sense of insecurity and perceived level of threat from the US-South Korea military alliance, it is reasonable to assume North Korea will never agree to disarm, and that the only peaceful way to eliminate its nuclear capability is through unification. Therefore, my goal was to design a plan to end the civil war and unite the country before great powers entangle and events spin out of control. My central assumption is in social settings, where almost everything is for sale, there must be some level of security assurance and financial incentive that will persuade the moderating forces of the Pyongyang governing elites to impose insurmountable pressure on Kim Jong-un to acquiesce to South Korean political control.
This economic incentive-based approach is suggested in the theoretical work of prominent Princeton political scientist David Baldwin, in ideas introduced by the influential Johns Hopkins foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum, and in the recent elaboration of their hypotheses by Ambassador Robert Blackwell and Jennifer Harris. Foundational microeconomic behavior models that equally apply to political behavior also substantiate this approach, as University of Chicago Nobel Laureate economist Gary Becker asserted in his Nobel Lecture: “While the economic approach to behavior builds on theory of individual choice, it is not mainly concerned with individuals. It uses theory and the micro level as a powerful tool to derive implications at the group or macro level.”
Therefore, if you can change the behavior of just one person you can conceivably change the behavior of nearly everyone. The aggregate effect of personal incentives may lead to a cascading cultural change resulting in the peaceful transformation to a unified nuclear-free Korea. Paying an old enemy may actually be investing in a new friend. But while behaviorist proofs make good sense in the great halls of higher learning, the smart application of this behavioral checkmate in an impatient and competitive world is far from certain. Indeed, it might even be dangerous unless each pillar of this plan is in place, including the legitimizing efforts of the G-20—with its B-20 financial arm—creating a collective framework for cooperative international funding such that the Kim regime cannot point to any one nation or entity that threatens its political existence.
What is certain is that nothing would reduce imperial rivalry or contribute more to world peace and international security than resolving the Korean nuclear dilemma with empathy, strategic cooperation, and financial reassurance. As conventional policies have failed to prevent North Korea from developing weapons of mass destruction, this unconventional triangular incentive model should be considered, if only because it offers an alternative to old zero-sum geopolitics with a sensible new strategy that at least has some chance of positive-sum success. Following decades of economic decline or stasis, conditions on the ground in North Korea are now more favorable for fundamental political transformation than at any time in the past.
After the collapse of the food distribution system in the 1990s, state institutions of social control began to disintegrate, and for the past two decades glimpses of modernity through the digital diffusion of South Korean news reports and cultural contents has saturated impressions and created a new social context for political change that has not existed before. In a 2015 poll of 100 North Korean labor migrants temporarily living in China, 95 said unification was necessary for economic reasons, 86 said they would prefer a political-economic system other than state socialism, while nearly everyone believed that they would personally benefit from reunification. The Kim regime is losing influence over the inter-Korean meta-narrative and state propaganda has diminishing returns as a counter-current of conversation exists between those at all levels of North Korean society who have absorbed enough truth to feel angry and betrayed.
However, due to the coercive security state, until a reason for hope comes along, people must wait for an angel to appear. This fund is that angel. As an alternative to the fatalism surrounding this nuclear conundrum, the incentive plan I have outlined here provides a sure path to a better life for North Korean citizens, and an inspiring impetus for organizing hopes and dreams, and channeling thoughts and emotions into collective action. If popularized in the global media, business leaders and heads of state may soon view this proposal as a workable strategy to walk back this growing nuclear menace. Indeed, this peace plan might now be the only way to disarm an uncooperative Kim regime at this late stage without resorting to a kinetic solution.
Alternatives to this peaceful resolution are excessively dangerous; hundreds-of-thousands of innocent people could lose their lives. Yet the Trump administration, with some bipartisan support in Congress, has made it clear their patience has run out and that the United States will not allow the Kim regime to terrorize its citizens with nuclear weapons. The climate of public opinion has changed dramatically in the past year. With the horror of 9/11 indelibly etched into the minds of Americans, many believe that a surgical military strike now may have significantly lower risks than a nuclear-ICBM endangered future. As military personnel increasingly populate the public airways and President Trump warns of fire and fury, that the US is locked and loaded, and the US may have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea, it appears all options are on the table. However, until knowledge of the peaceful geoeconomic plan I have introduced in this short essay receives a full hearing, this alternative option will remain hidden and restricted from formal and judicious foreign policy review. Such neglect would not only be limiting, it might have catastrophic consequences.
Indeed, we must move beyond conventional Cold War era policies and the politics of dumb-downed smart people in Washington and Seoul—and their institutionalized aversion to thinking creatively outside the box—to a place where new options and good alternatives do exist. To get from here to there we must transcend zero-sum geopolitics with a strategic plan that at least has some chance of positive-sum success. This Reunification Investment Fund and its triangulation of benefits is such a plan. As Ambassador Blackwell and Jennifer Harris astutely assert: “U.S. foreign policy must be reshaped to address a world in which economic concerns often outweigh traditional military imperatives and where geoeconomic approaches are often the surest means of advancing American national interests.” Checkbook diplomacy must replace old-school gunboat diplomacy as we forge positive-sum relationships based on economic opportunity and nuclear nonproliferation, and partner to unify Korea and extend the Long Peace deep into the twenty-first century.
If popularized in the media, business leaders and heads of state may see this is a workable plan with ubiquitous benefits to everyone with something at stake in the region. The US would get the dissolution of a grave nuclear threat, an end to the possible transfer of nuclear materials and technology to terrorists or rogue states, and a chance to reassess its geopolitical interests in a much less threatening Asia-Pacific; Japan gets safety from missile attack and weapons of mass destruction, along with large new labor, export, and investment markets; Russia gets secure rail and energy profits, and year-round passage to Pacific shipping; China gets a reprieve from the possibility of regional nuclear proliferation, free-market access to Korean minerals and ports, cooperation in developing its northeast provinces, the removal of US troops from mainland Korea and an easing of great power rivalry; and South Korea gets permanent peace, trillions of dollars in mineral resources, energy security and diversification, several valuable Pacific ports, rail connection to China and continental Europe, 50 percent more people, 120 percent more territory, and according to a Goldman Sachs study, development synergies that may propel its GNP past France, Germany, and Japan in just one generation.
Enlightened self-interest may motivate philanthropists, transnational corporations, global equity firms, international banks, and the Bank of Korea to underwrite a fund that could reunify Korea, solve its humanitarian nightmare, prevent nuclear proliferation, liberate trillions of dollars of resources for development, and reduce US-China tensions before they start a new Cold War, or worse, fall into the Thucydides’ Trap. If as realist scholars submit, that vulnerability to threats is the main driver of Chinese foreign policy, then Beijing should seek to avoid the prospects of US military action on its doorstep or a nuclear-armed Japan. The ubiquitous benefits of this incentive fund offers Beijing and Washington a face-saving way to compromise and cooperate to enforce the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, while appreciating mutual security benefits. China would retract support for the Kim regime, while the US would agree to withdraw its troops and missile defenses—THAAD—from the Korean peninsula after reunification. Both nations would defend the promises and promote the legitimacy of this fund, as most other possible results of this nuclear conundrum would certainly be more costly and more dangerous.
Regrettably, this materialist based economic peace plan may need time to circulate and be absorbed by business and political leaders, and to reach the desk of a power broker who can make a difference. As a virtual paradigm policy shift—superseding ideological trust-based approaches and recourse to negative sanctions, and requiring substantial capital—it may be difficult to transcend deeply entrenched policies and to gather a critical mass of support. On the other hand, if the smart power dynamics of this peace plan were popularized in the media and discussed on a world stage, the private sector and heads-of-state might be compelled to support this fund, and unification could occur within months, as leaders in China, Korea, and the United States may share the Nobel stage.
Things could happen quickly. The announcement of a multi-million dollar investment to promote this unification fund might become instant international news, and could lead to a flurry of substantive high-level international discussions and additional investments. After considering its details, many people from around the world may begin to realize that this fund could lead to the denuclearization of Korea. Promises of large contributions might start pouring in; private and corporate elites and government officials might begin to talk, ask questions, and envision new possibilities.
Although a creeping nuclear proliferation and the grim trajectory to geopolitics may seem unstoppable—as what once appeared a choice becomes an inevitability—we need not continue down this road leading into the abyss. Instead we may think outside the box and create novel solutions to unique contemporary geopolitical problems. Just as in business, science, and engineering, we need innovation in politics; leaders who can bring out the best in all of us; those who perceive the big picture and understand that the ideas that move humanity forward are often initially considered crazy, disruptive, or impossible; luminaries who can show us what we should want, while smartly employing geoeconomic incentives to get us there. Indeed, from time immemorial practical reason and creativity has helped us overcome nature, now in a digital nuclear age, we must be smarter and more innovative in order to save us from ourselves.
BIO: Shepherd Iverson taught in the Institute for Korean Studies at Inha University in South Korea from 2009-2017. His essays on disarming North Korea have appeared in international journals, Asian newspapers, and Forbes Magazine. His second volume on this topic is entitled: Stop North Korea! A Radical New Approach to Solving the North Korean Standoff (2017).