The recent crisis on the Korean Peninsula has once again brought to the fore China’s support for North Korea, which many deem vital for Pyongyang’s survival. In explaining this support analysts typically cite two factors: Beijing’s fear that the North Korean regime’s collapse will bring untold numbers of refugees across the border into China, and Beijing’s fear of a unified, democratic, and pro-American Korea under Seoul’s leadership with a large U.S. troop presence stationed on the Sino-Korean border.
These factors probably accurately reflect Beijing’s strategic calculus. However, although possible, it’s not at all clear that a unified Korea under Seoul’s tutelage would in fact be as pro-American as Western and (presumably) Chinese policymakers assume. A number of factors could undermine this assumption.
The first one being the process that unification takes. Even assuming the North Korean regime collapses and is quickly unified under Seoul’s leadership, there are a number of different ways this can unfold. One of the most plausible is that Chinese troops would rush across the Yalu River at the same time that ROK troops came across the DMZ in the south. In the process China would come to occupy a sizeable chunk of North Korea, which would also likely contain some of Pyongyang’s nuclear and other WMD programs. Beijing would therefore have powerful leverage in bargaining the terms of its withdrawal from Korea. This would almost certainly be used to extract concessions from Seoul and Washington on the U.S. presence north of the DMZ.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Even if Chinese troops did not play a role in the immediate aftermath of the North Korean regime’s collapse, Beijing would still hold important cards to extract concessions from the U.S. and South Korea. The most important of these would be to help develop the former North Korean state following unification. It’s difficult to understate the immensity of this challenge. Although German unification was difficult, the income disparity between the two Germanys at the time of unification was estimated at 3:1 or 2:1. Comparable figures for North and South Korea today are anywhere between 1:15 and 1:40 and are almost certain to continue growing.