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We Must Bring About a Free and Unified Korea

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This article is adapted from remarks presented by the author at International Forum on One Korea 2022 in Seoul, Korea on August 13, 2022.

Good morning. I would like to thank all the organizers, sponsors, contributors, and participants in this great event and for the opportunity to be among such distinguished speakers and leaders.

Dr. Hyun-jin Preston Moon: I was moved by your remarks yesterday at the celebration for Parc 1. Congratulations to you for accomplishing the construction of this new landmark for Korea. 

Everything you do is tied to your vision – a vision we all must share – the Korean Dream. It made me think about the one strategic question we should continually ask of ourselves and our organizations: How does this action, whatever it is, contribute to achieving a free and unified Korea or what I like to describe as a United Republic of Korea – UROK? You are going to hear me repeat free and unified Korea, and UROK, over and over again – so please bear with me.

I am going to make four points using the three-step methodology of the U.S. Special Operations community – 1) Appreciate the Context; 2) Understand the Problem; 3) Develop an Approach.

First, let’s appreciate the context: North Korea is the threat to national security and national prosperity, not only for South Korea but also for the region and the world.

Second, we seek to understand the problem: The division of the peninsula is the strategic problem.

Third, we develop an approach: – civil society must support a free and unified Korea.

Fourth: Freedom and unification are the necessary conditions for peace.

North Korea Is the Threat

As we observe Liberation Day in Korea on August 15th, I think it is important to put things in perspective and keep in mind that Korea is not yet truly liberated. We do not yet have a free and unified Korea. We do not need to ask why that is, but I will state the obvious. It is because the Kim family regime, a mafia-like crime family cult, rules the northern half of this great peninsula and enslaves the 25 million Koreans in the north. At the same time, it poses an existential threat to the Republic of Korea and the nearly 52 million Koreans living in the South. 

Most dangerous of all is that the regime seeks to bring the entire peninsula under the rule of the guerrilla dynasty and gulag state officially known by the most ironic name of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea – a country that is neither democratic nor a republic, and certainly does not belong to the people. 

Of course, we face myriad threats from the North, the worst-case scenario being war, with its full range of weapons of mass destruction, and with the threat of internal instability, regime collapse, and all that entails – from refugees to an immense humanitarian disaster, civil war, and chaos. The North is also actively working to subvert the South and its relations with the U.S. and the international community. It is conducting illicit activities around the world, from proliferation of weapons in conflict zones, to counterfeiting and money laundering, to cyber-attacks and drug trafficking. 

But worst of all, it is conducting crimes against humanity on a scale we have not seen since World War II. North Korea is the worst human rights violator in the modern era. The Korean people in the North are suffering because of Kim Jong Un’s deliberate decision to prioritize nuclear weapons, missiles, and support of the elite and the military over the welfare of the people. 

Due to the geostrategic location of this peninsula, what happens in Korea will have global effects in all domains, from economic to diplomatic to security. We all have reason to want to contribute to peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, and to the welfare of nearly 80 million Koreans on both sides of the DMZ.

The Division of the Peninsula is the Strategic Problem

The challenge is how to reach peace and ensure the welfare of all Koreans. The only way we are going to see an end to the nuclear program and military threats from the North, as well as its human rights abuses, is through achievement of unification and the establishment of a free and unified Korea. Some things are easy to see and to say, yet are very difficult to achieve. But we cannot be dissuaded from this goal by the uncertainty of the future and the complexity that is caused by the Kim family regime. 

While the ROK has become a developed and advanced nation, the DPRK is stuck in time because of the nature of the regime and its objectives and strategy to dominate the peninsula on its terms. It refuses to accept outside help. It refuses to reform its economy, and it refuses to allow freedom in the North. It seeks regime survival through domination.

The complexity of unification has led to strategic planning paralysis. The North Korean situation has been described as a “wicked problem,” an issue or concern that is difficult to explain and inherently impossible to solve. The Korean people in the North are trapped in a vicious cycle of deprivation, corruption, repression, and endemic bribery, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry. But it must be solved. As my brothers in the South Korean Special Forces say, “make the impossible possible,” 안 되면 되게 하라. 

Civil Society Support to a Free and Unified Korea

The Yoon and Biden administrations as well as civil society in both the ROK and U.S., and in countries around the world, have an opportunity for a new approach to the Korean security challenge. The ROK/U.S. Alliance’s way forward is an integrated deterrence strategy as part of the broader strategic competition that is taking place in the region. There is a need for a Korean “Plan B” strategy that rests on the foundation of combined ROK/U.S. defensive capabilities. It includes political warfare, aggressive diplomacy, sanctions, cyber operations, and information and influence activities, with a goal of denuclearization. But ultimately the objective must be to solve the “Korea question” (e.g., the unnatural division of the peninsula as described in para. 60 of the 1953 Armistice), with the understanding that denuclearization of the North and an end to human rights abuses and crimes against humanity will only happen when the “Korea question” is resolved. Such a resolution will lead to a free and unified Korea, otherwise known as a United Republic of Korea: UROK. Civil society can make great contributions to help achieve this worthy goal.

There are four paths to unification. The first is war, which we must work to deter but also must be absolutely prepared for. The second is regime collapse, which can lead to war or to widespread conflict and human suffering. The desired path is peaceful unification and the merging of North and South through mutual agreement. And the fourth is the emergence of new leadership in the North who seeks peaceful unification.

South Korea, with the support of its friends, partners, and allies, and civil society around the world, should plan and prepare for peaceful unification. Paradoxically, this is the most complex and difficult path to unification and possibly the least likely one to occur, because Kim Jong Un is unlikely to ever go quietly into the night. But it is the morally right path, because we must seek to do it as peacefully as possible. However, even if war or regime collapse occurs, all the work done for peaceful planning will still have application in the unification process. Regardless of the path taken, planning for peaceful unification will provide the foundation for a free and unified Korea.

While the ROK and U.S. governments, as alliance partners, should form their own unification task force, civil society can play a very important supporting role and contribute to a free and unified Korea. I recommend the formation of civil society task forces that are willing to support the goal of a free and unified Korea. There is much work that can be done in long-term preparation for the future: humanitarian assistance, education, economic engagement, infrastructure development, political process integration, and communications, just to name a few areas for consideration. Frankly speaking, there are many Koreans who are fearful of the enormous costs of unification, but these fears can be overcome if civil society members around the world are willing to step up and show their support for the Korean people. 

One of the areas where civil society can begin immediate work is in information. The UN Commission of Inquiry identified this as one of the most egregious human rights abuses, writing:

Throughout the history of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, among the most striking features of the State has been its claim to an absolute monopoly over information and total control of organized social life. The commission finds that there is an almost complete denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information and association. (p.73)

Kim Jong Un denies access to information because he fears it would undermine the legitimacy of his rule and it would erode the regime’s ability to maintain absolute control over the population. While the North is isolated by design, information is getting into the North through myriad electronic media and other pathways to help inform and educate the Korean people in the North and prepare them for eventual unification. Furthermore, there are Koreans from the North working around the world. Although difficult due to North Korean security services, efforts should be made by civil society task forces in countries hosting Korean workers to engage them to also inform them and help them bring back knowledge and ideas. 

Lastly, civil society and governments also need to understand the “Korea question” and the importance of unification for the Korean people, the region, and the world.  The removal of a rogue nuclear country and a major human rights abuser is in the interests of the international community. In addition, the contribution that a free and unified Korea will make is significant. With some 80 million people combining the industry and advanced technology of the South with the vast untapped resources of the North, unified Korea will make substantial contributions to the global economy. The possibilities of civil society support for a free and unified Korea are limited only by our imagination.

Freedom and Unification are the Necessary Conditions for Peace

As we observe Liberation Day in Korea, we should be thankful for the rights we all enjoy, such as the Four Freedoms from President Roosevelt’s famous speech:

  1. Freedom of speech
  2. Freedom of worship
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

We should ask, when will the Korean people in the North enjoy these freedoms?

We should aspire to help all Koreans to achieve the freedom they called for in their own declaration of independence in 1919:

“We claim independence in the interest of the eternal and free development of our people and in accordance with the great movement for world reform based upon the awakening conscience of mankind.”  

We need to awaken our conscience.

South Korea experienced the Miracle on the Han, while the only “miracle” in the North is that the Korean people continue to survive under the most despotic regime of the 21st Century. The ROK is the only developed nation in history to go from a major aid recipient to a major donor nation, and it has become the 10th largest economy in the world, with a global reputation for excellence. The Korean people in the South accomplished this due to their hard work, ingenuity, initiative, and sacrifice, and with the support of friends, partners, and allies. The unification process will be difficult, but with the support of nations and civil society, it can and must lead to a second miracle in the 21st Century – a free and unified Korea.


The only way we are going to see an end to the nuclear program and military threats, as well as the human rights abuses being committed, is through achievement of unification and the establishment of a free and unified Korea. One that is secure and stable, non-nuclear, economically vibrant with free market principles, and unified under a liberal-constitutional form of government based on individual liberty, freedom, rule of law, and human rights as determined by the Korean people: A free and unified Korea, or in short, a United Republic of Korea.

As the South Korean Special Forces say: “통일” (Tong Il) – Unification!

David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 30 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He 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 (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea), and a Senior Advisor to the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy.

Written By

David Maxwell, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel who has spent more than 30 years in Asia and specializes in North Korea and East Asia Security Affairs and irregular, unconventional, and political warfare. He is the Vice President of the Center for Asia Pacific Strategy and the editor of Small Wars Journal. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies and the Global Peace Foundation (where he focuses on a free and unified Korea).