This article argues that prospects for change in North Korea and, thus, reduction in threats to regional security, lay more in rising prospects for Korean unification than in scant hopes for reform inside North Korea. It identifies several factors that have made unification a more salient idea than at any time in the last decade. First, Kim Jong Il’s failing health and his youngest son’s and designated heir’s uncertain grip on succession mean greater risk of political instability in North Korea that could bring discontinuous change, including reunification. Second, it has become clear that the Six Party Talks and other diplomatic efforts will not produce denuclearization and reduction of the regional security threat posed by Pyongyang’s weapons program. Third, the current and likely future leadership in Pyongyang is incapable of reform, making regime collapse a more likely scenario and unification a more likely route to meaningful change. Fourth, the North Korean regime has become heavily dependent on Chinese support, material and political-diplomatic. Finally, thinking about how unification might occur has shifted to scenarios that are more feasible to key parties, including South Korea, the United States and Japan.
The author wishes to thank the Academy of Korean Studies Global Lab for their generous support.