South Korea has defeated North Korea. The only question remaining is whether the victory will eventuate in the eradication of the North Korean state, or-through some combination of South Korean hesitation and North Korean luck-its recons~~on as a modern state compatible with the economic and strategic realities of East Asia.
In either case, be it unification on Southern terms or Northern reform and survival, there is a fundamental strategic transition underway in Northeast Asia. For the mere prospect of one Korea fundamentally alters the relations of the powers involved in the region. Instead of cooperating around the issue of nonproliferation, something which is comparatively easy, South Korea, Japan, China, the United States, and Russia will all have to decide what Korean unification would mean for them and thus either maneuver to preserve the current partition or attempt to push the North over the edge.
Short-term problems drive out long-term problems every time. The immediacy of dealing with the problem of nuclear proliferation has obscured the prospect of a unified Korea. But now the short-term problem is giving way to a new and grander game of political geography in Northeast Asia. For political geography deals not only with the sovereign control of territory, as in Hong Kong, but also with influence on surrounding space, presence or absence of foreign military bases, and impact of treaties both old and new. A unified Korea is closer to China’s space, and Beijing’s views on what happens there surely increase.