On July 7, 2022, Colonel David S. Maxwell (ret.) delivered a lecture on the reunification of the Korean peninsula as part of the Asia Initiative Lecture Series. Col. Maxwell discussed why it is necessary to look beyond the nuclear crisis and think about how to achieve reunification.
Col. Maxwell began by discussing big-picture questions to put the politics of the Korean peninsula into perspective. There were two questions of note. First, we need to decide what we want to achieve in Korea. While denuclearization is important, we shouldn’t think about it as an end goal. End-goal thinking fails because there is never an end to strategic planning.
Second, we need to think about an acceptable durable political arrangement. Col. Maxwell argued that preventing war is the primary interest of the U.S. The international economy’s interconnected nature means a war on the Korean peninsula will negatively impact economies around the globe. Additionally, regime collapse isn’t ideal because decline may push Kim to think his only decision is war. Thus, reunification is the ideal political arrangement.
Later in the lecture, Col. Maxwell explored four paths to reunification. Col. Maxwell argued that two of the four paths, war and regime collapse, are undesirable. As discussed, war would negatively impact global markets, and regime collapse may increase the probability of war.
The first successful path Col. Maxwell discussed is the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula. Col. Maxwell stressed that while Kim Jong-Un will not simply disappear, we should pursue peaceful reunification because it is a just cause. Moreover, it is the most complex outcome. Peaceful reunification entails the integration of two militaries, economies, governments, etc., and would not be a simple task. As a result, we need to develop a cohesive strategy before we are caught unprepared.
The second successful path would be leveraging internal resistance. According to Col. Maxwell, Kim Jong-Un fears the North Korean people because they can weaken the regime and undermine its legitimacy. Famine and the rise of market prices are sources of unrest and internal resistance in North Korea. By leveraging internal resistance, Col. Maxwell concluded that we can reunify the Korean peninsula without waiting for war or regime collapse.
Col. Maxwell concluded by reemphasizing that we can only end North Korea’s nuclear program and human rights abuses by establishing a non-nuclear United Republic of Korea (UROK).
Col. Maxwell is the Editor-in-Chief of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Senior Fellow at the Global Peace Foundation, and a Senior Advisor to the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy. Additionally, he is a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army, retiring as a Special Forces Colonel. After retiring, he served as the Associate Director of the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, School of Foreign Service.
He earned a B.A. in political science from Miami University, an M.A. in Military Arts and Science from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College and from the School of Advanced Military Studies, and an M.S. in National Security Studies from the National War College.