Air University Press

The Potential Unification of Korea and a Unified Korean Armed Forces

  • Published
  • By Col Michael Edmonston, USAF

This paper examines the prospect of Korean Unification and the possibility of a future unified Korean Armed Forces. I make arguments for the likelihood of unification and the possible means by which it might unfold, both from the perspective of regional players and that of the two Koreas. These two perspectives are “independent variables” for the purpose of this analysis. I assess that, while regional actors would likely favor only unification under conditions of denuclearization, peaceful inter-Korean dialogue, and a gradual political process, the current obstacles to such conditions—expressed in this paper in terms of competing Korean identities, values, national security preferences, and unification strategies—suggest that unification is more likely to occur following a resumed Korean War and/or a North Korean collapse. Furthermore, while the status quo is somewhat stable, I assess that time is not on North Korea’s side. From these assertions, I examine how international and domestic factors affect two “dependent variables” in the potential military outcomes of unification: The fate of North Korea’s People’s Army (KPA), and the character of a unified Korean armed forces, which I break down further into four aspects: operational culture, sociology, professionalism, and technology. From analysis of the first dependent variable, I assert that, regardless of the means by which unification occurs, the KPA is unlikely to be integrated on a large scale into a single Korean military. However, there are benefits to post-unification stability in retaining a percentage of the KPA’s junior forces, finding positions of influence for certain members of North Korea’s military elite, and retaining select North Korean military hardware for purposes of intelligence or integration of forces from the North and the South. From analysis of the second dependent variable, I speculate that a unified Korean armed forces will be oriented primarily toward territorial defense; take on roles of national security, domestic assistance, and nation-building; and constitute a smaller percentage of the population than in either Korea today. I recommend that any KPA incorporated into a unified military should serve voluntarily and undergo a thorough assimilation process, and I predict that a high degree of professionalism will continue to mark a unified Korean armed forces if certain conditions for post-unification transition are met. This paper finishes with lessons from historical unification cases that may help ensure Korean unification and its military outcome are peaceful and stable, if not in the short term, then at least in the long term


AuthorCol Michael Edmonston, USAF
AU Press CodeKP-3
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