How China Could Benefit From a United Korea


North Korea has found its way into the news again recently, thanks in large part to basketball player Dennis Rodman’s controversial trip to the closed-off state. There have also been more traditional attention-grabbers related to the North Korean nuclear program. In mid-December, South Korean media reported the possibility of another North Korean nuclear or missile test. In his New Year message, leader Kim Jong-Un repeated the traditional threats against the United States and warned of a “massive nuclear disaster” should war break out on the peninsula.

Whenever North Korea appears in the media, China usually gets dragged into the stories as well. China is often blamed for enabling or propping up the North Korean regime, despite its belligerence and nuclear threats. A recent New York Times editorial by Brookings Institution expert Jonathan Pollack asked, “Why does China coddle North Korea?” Pollack noted, ironically, that “China’s policy record on Pyongyang over three decades remains unblemished by success.” He argued that it is time for a change.

China’s policy towards North Korea is predicated almost entirely on one simple goal: keeping the state functioning as a viable “buffer zone.” The mainstream line of thinking is that China must support North Korea enough to prop up the Kim regime. Should the regime fall, the resulting instability in North Korea might lead to unification on South Korea’s terms — which would in effect mean a U.S. military ally now borders China. This would be anathema for China.

However, this traditional line of thinking might actually be short-sighted. Below, I argue that in the (extremely hypothetical) case of Korean unification, China could actually be the long-term winner.

For starters, South Korea and China have a remarkably smooth relationship. Of course, there are occasional flare-ups (South Korea’s reaction to China’s new ADIZ being one example), as there are in any state-to-state relationship. However, China has a far better relationship with South Korea than with many of its other neighbors. For one thing, China and South Korea have an extremely important trade relationship. As Jonathan Pollack noted in his New York Times editorial, China’s joint trade with South Korea is currently worth over $250 billion — more than South Korea’s trade with Japan and the United States combined. Further, China and South Korea have recently banded together in their opposition to Shinzo Abe and the Japanese government. Both countries have been vocal about rejecting what they see as Japan’s return to militarism.

China-South Korea ties were highlighted during South Korean President Park Geun-Hye’s June visit to Beijing. Park, who speaks Chinese, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and reiterated her commitment to improving China-South Korean relations. Also at her New Year’s press conference, Park reportedly said that the relationship with China is closer than ever before. In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry “highly commend[ed]” Park for her comment, and promised that China will “push for sustained, sound and steady advancement of China-ROK [Republic of Korea, the official name of South Korea] strategic cooperative partnership.”

Despite these positive signs, China-South Korea relations are undermined by one glaring difference: their hopes for North Korea. South Korea’s goal has always been unification. In her New Year’s press conference, Park identified laying “the foundation for unification on the Korean Peninsula” as a “key task” for her administration. Such a task, she said, is “a prerequisite for an era of happiness for the people.”  Yet China, while it shares global concerns over North Korea’s nuclear program, has a very different picture of the ideal outcome. Chinese foreign policy leaders’ greatest hope is that North Korea will open up to the world and become a normalized state — in essence, following China’s own transformation. The Chinese government shies away from supporting unification, and maintains a relationship with North Korea despite repeated provocations. This damages China’s relationship with South Korea more than any other single factor.

The United States is the other obvious wedge between China and South Korea. Ever since the Korean War, the South Korean government has depended on its alliance with the U.S. to provide a guarantee of security against North Korean belligerence. This creates something of a vicious cycle in China’s Korea policy: China is wary of a unified Korea and so continues to support the Kim regime. Yet as a result, the North Korean government continues to issues its threats and provocations, driving South Korea closer to the United States. As Pollack pointed out, this strategy is not really benefiting China.

Now let’s imagine that China’s worst fears come true – the Kim regime collapses and South Korea takes control of its unstable northern neighbor. Korea is now unified, and it’s actually a good thing for China.

For one thing, while China is understandably anxious of a U.S.-allied Korea on its border, once unification is achieved, there’s little strategic value to continuing the U.S.-South Korean alliance — at least from South Korea’s point of view. The major driving force behind the partnership is the need for South Korea to guard against the military threat from the North. With a unified Korea, this threat no longer exists. Would the South Korean government continue to pay over $800 million a year to house U.S. troops on its soil under these circumstances? Rather than fulfilling China’s nightmare scenario of U.S. troops stationed near the Yalu River, a unified Korea might actually boot U.S. troops out of the country altogether.

Further, without the problem of North Korea, South Korea’s foreign policy is more in line with China’s than the United States’. Once Korean unification is achieved, South Korea might decide the alliance with the U.S. is more trouble than it’s worth — particularly as the U.S. is always cajoling South Korea to improve ties with Japan. Korean unification, in other words, could destabilize the U.S. alliance system in Northeast Asia, which would be a huge net gain for China both in its bilateral relationship with South Korea and in its general geopolitical strategy to gain more influence in the Western Pacific.

Even if a unified Korea was unwilling to cut military ties with the U.S., it’s unlikely that the country would make any moves that overtly threaten China, such as allowing U.S. troops to be stationed above the 38th parallel. As noted above, South Korea’s economic ties with China are hugely important. The South Korean government simply cannot afford to antagonize China, and would likely consult with the Chinese government to ensure Korean unification happened on terms Beijing could accept.

Also, in the event of unification, China would be even more economically important to Korea. Korea would face a massive rebuilding project in the underdeveloped and impoverished north. China would be the logical choice to help jump-start this region’s new economy, which would fulfill China’s long-held dream of full access to North Korean markets and resources. In addition to reaping the economic benefits of new contracts and trade flows, China would also make itself even more indispensable as an economic partner for a unified Korea.

Long-term, Korean unification could be a win for China, both economically and politically. This is especially true if South Korea were to believe that China played a positive role in the unification process. The South Korean good-will China would win from such a move is incalculable, and would go a long way towards cementing a new China-South Korean partnership. On the other hand, if China is seen as actively preventing unification, it could easily cause the relationship with South Korea to go sour.

However, there’s little sign that China’s leaders are willing to change the traditional thinking on North Korea, even in the wake of Kim Jong-Un’s purge and execution of his uncle. Of course, unification would be a long, hard process, one that would likely bring numerous short term issues (such as a surge of Korean refugees into China). Still, looking at the long-term consequences, it’s entirely likely that unification would be an ideal outcome for China. If Kim’s regime continues to show signs of dangerous instability, Beijing might begin to reconsider the pros and cons of its support for Pyongyang.

April 7, 2014 at 23:31

“such as allowing U.S. troops to be stationed above the 38th parallel.”

They said the same thing about East Germany.

I agree that a united korea allied to china is good for china but i doubt japan will let that happen.

Manila Boy
February 22, 2014 at 05:30

I largely agree with the author’s views. Excepting maybe that from a Confucian perspective, China sees itself as Korea’s “older brother” and will seek to return Korea to a Chinese client state or protectorate similar to the status quo a few centuries ago.

Of course, Korea will never agree to this and will try to resist Chinese domination, perhaps by diversifying its trading partners. Also, there’s the historical issue of a finalized border between a unified Korea and China. Ethnic Koreans living in Northern China are a sizable minority and the area used to be a part of a Greater Korea in ancient times. I daresay this will cause additional friction, if not eventual conflict.

February 3, 2014 at 20:21

All of you are fretting about all of how this will occur. I am just thinking of when. When NK opens (not unification) the biggest development campaign will commence to get the road built from Seoul to the completed bridge on the Yula River. A pioneering effort. There will be constructions crews on every kilometer. That will complete the connection so that you will be able to be to put goods in a container and seal the door and nobody will touch it until it gets to its destination either some where in south China or even on the docks in Bangkok. The State Council has been planning this for a long time. Laos and Thailand have been given forgivable loans to complete their part. They want East Asia to be like Europe or North America for good and services. Meanwhile I will be banging on rocks in the mountain range along the Yula. I’m a geologist and I can’t wait.

Anti Korean
January 14, 2014 at 23:57

Looks like Korea is getting closer everyday to being engulfed in flames……excellent!

TV Monitor
January 14, 2014 at 14:26

Ms Tiezzi makes so much false assumptions that I don’t know where to start.

First of all, Koreans don’t like China and Chinese at all, North and South alike. Yup, Kim Jong Un is educating his people to prepare for a possible Chinese invasion right now according to press reports; so much for North Korea and China being allies. The situation isn’t much better in the South, whose nationalist propaganda has long brainwashed its people to consider China and Chinese to be inferior to them and Koreans have the reputation of being the most racist people in Asia.

Second thing is value incompatibility. Korea is a Christiandom, so much so that it has second largest number of missionaries sent overseas and ranks 6th in terms of number of Roman Catholic saints. Why so many Korean saints for a church that’s only 150 years old? Because traditional Korean value system was compatible with Christian values, so Christianity took a root in Korea rapidly. By comparison, Christianity was ultimately rejected in Japan and China after 400 years of preaching due to value incompatibilities with traditional Chinese and Japanese values. Accordingly, Koreans really do not find themselves compatible with Chinese values in spite of the faulty western assumption, and actually find a commonality with fellow Christian democracies like European nations and the US. This is why the Korea-US alliance isn’t going anywhere after the unification, because this is an alliance of common shared values of free democracy and Christianity against a hostile totalitarian communist society of China.

So the outcome of the Korean unification is that the US bases aren’t going anywhere, and China now faces something that it never faced before, a full free democratic country bordering itself and spreading the ideas of free speech, Christianity, and democracy across border into China. This is a dangerous situation that China would not want to face, so it is a loss-loss situation for China with no gains.

Do expect China to resist the Korean unification until the end.

Dewey Last
January 16, 2014 at 02:38


I do hope to read more about your observations in the future.

January 16, 2014 at 04:39

TV Monitor

If Christianity is not compatible with Chinese values, then what would be the point in trying to proselytize China? And most Koreans do not look upon the Chinese as being inferior. In fact Korea has historically embraced/adopted/modified Chinese traditional culture, values, food, etc.

Antagonism is not necessarily a prerequisite between a united Korea and China. However, historically, China has never been willing to tolerate a powerful neighbor (e.g., the ancient kingdom of Koguryo/Goguryeo, from which the name of Korea is derived), and will spare no effort to destroy such competition. Guess you made your point.

January 14, 2014 at 12:11

The author and all US Asia experts should re-study China and the whole Asia (excluded South Asia) histories more carefully and thoroughly before commenting about NK-China relationship.
The Korean war has been formally known as the expansion of Communism by USSR with China collaboration.But China real intention was not that simple but it wanted to bring the whole Korea under its complete control and influence as a vassal state (as the case of VietNam war later on) However ,it failed to achieve its goal due to US and UN forces defended SK successfully.Therefore, China shall never and never again to let two Koreas reunite on US and SK terms.
Let be reminded that China is a natural Chauvinist/ Expansionist .It expands its territory and influence whenever it’s strong and holds on whenever it’s weak.Let look back its 3,000 years history as well as Korea, Vietnam and Myanmar histories. All Chinese ancient empires including the last one ,Qing empire attempted to invade Korea, VietNam, Myanmar ,Thailand, Khmer, Laos etc.. If Western powers did not conquer Asian nations and defeated China in 16th century and following century .The whole Asia region might have become provinces of today China already.
Some Korean politicians have naively thought that if SK buils a good relation with China that could enhance the possiblity of China’s approval for a reunification.
In conclusion, the two Korea are able to reunifiy only when China collapses like USSR.If it remains economically and militarily strong as of today. Never dream of a happy ending for the two Koreas.

TV Monitor
January 14, 2014 at 14:33


China cannot preven the collapse of Kim’s regime. When that happens, it will happen overnight like the collapse of the Soviet Union. The ROK and the US already has a war plan to invade and take over North Korea. It’s called OPLAN 5029 and the ROK and the US troops drill on this scenario twice a year.

I understand China also plans to send in 100K troops , but they will face a far larger and better trained ROK-US combined troops. How China’s 100K rapid deployment troops will fare against the ROK-US’s 600K+ troops moving in from South, but things won’t be pretty for the PLA troops if they decide to battle.

January 28, 2014 at 12:56

you analyst is wrong as chinese troop movement was still toward taiwan during the start of the korean war. china was force to fight against the west because the west refused to accept them and instead put their fleet in the taiwan strait. this send the signal to china that US intend to prevent chinese unification, and only then did chinese troop amass at the korean border.

it was US that decided to make china it enemy, not some communist ideology, the fact that china broke from USSR prove there is so such alliance.

January 14, 2014 at 08:39

“The Chinese government shies away from supporting unification, and maintains a relationship with North Korea despite repeated provocations. This damages China’s relationship with South Korea more than any other single factor.”

Actually, In my opinion, the vast majority of the SOuth Korean people would prefer that China manages to cajole the North Koreans into accepting market reforms, and goes along with them for a few decades, before the highly painful and economically disadvantageous process of reunification. China’s “support” of the North has also clearly not damaged the relationship with SOuth Korea, with more petty disputes and natioanlist outbursts more representative of SIno-Korean problems than geostrategy.

TV Monitor
January 14, 2014 at 14:38

Actually Southerners are OK with an immediate take over of North Korea as long as its borders are sealed, because of cheap labor and five trillion dollar worth natural resourced buried under North Korea’s mines. It won’t be like the German unification at all, but the grander version of Kaesong Industrial Complex where the whole of North Korea becomes the new Kaesong Industrial Complex available to South’s corporations that no longer have to go half way across the world in serch of cheap labor.

average chinese
January 14, 2014 at 06:03

it is entirely unthinkable and absolutely abhorrible for China to allow a unified Korea before a unified China. At minimum, China must trade Taiwan with North Korea at the negotiation table with US and South Korea.

In the worst case strategic scenario, if America, japan and maybe, south Korea collude to gang up on China, China should let loose the North Korea mad dog to carry out the dirty deeds for us to attack japan and the south to breakaway the containment and coersion. In such a worst case scenario, — America sided with japan to try to militarily, economically and diplomatically, isolate and contain China and suffocate and prevent China’s peaceful rise, China should actively encourage North to ramp up nuclear development and encourage it to start a war, a nuclear one, if necessary. China can certainly afford and standby watching gleefully the North destroying japan and then destroyed by America.

In the end, the only historical enemy and long-term strategic threat to Chinese nation is japanese rightwing nutjobs and not America. So let us keep it that way, and if we have to sacrifice a mad dog to kill another even worse mad animal, so be it.

TV Monitor
January 14, 2014 at 14:01

You can’t compare North Korea with Taiwan, because North Korea is unstable and could collapse tomorrow, while Taiwan can stand on its own forever until China takes it over by an invasion.

January 28, 2014 at 12:50

i will be brief and say she miss the reason DPRK exist is because US move it fleet into taiwan strait. China doesn’t really care if korea unified or not, unification is better since the korean hate the japanese more then even they do. the problem is Taiwan FULL STOP. unless ROK goes out of it way and say they support China unification, China supporting Korean unification would be a one sided deal. it is as simple as that. Taiwan must be return to China, and for anyone who wish to see a unified Korea must understand this.

what is to stop US from invading chinese waters again? thus assurances must be given to China on the Taiwan question.

January 14, 2014 at 05:49

Traditional thinking is that China wants North Korea as a buffer state that it can control and avoid the nightmare of a wealthy democracy at its communist doorstep. But millions of Chinese tourists visit South Korea and millions more South Koreans visit China each year. This would not be possible if there was no mutual affinity. A unified Korea will be busy developing the undeveloped North with the assistance of interested parties, including China. There can be a windfall of not having to spend excessive amounts on defense. But U.S. military presence in Korea, at least South of the present DMZ, is a necessity to ensure peace in the region.

January 14, 2014 at 09:57

explain why, in a united korea scenario, would the US NEED to be in south korea to “ensure peace”?

that said, the author banks on basically two points for china to be happy about a united korea under seoul. one is that korea would not need the US, and the second is that korea is very economically linked to china and thus would not present a threat.

however economics isnt a very high prority to china with regards to the korean situation. there is only really two considerations. one is the refugee problem is NK ever collapses, the other is the presence of US military forces.

i would point to the case of Europe, Germany in particular. the soviet threat is long, long, gone, Germany faces no military threat and yet the US still has multiple bases there including nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. what reason does china have to believe that the US will leave a united korea on its own? after all we all know the US and china is preparing to fight a potential war with each other, how ever unlikely that conflict is. in fact even if the US remains only in its current position, it would be unacceptable to china. think about this, currently to fight to Beijing from SK, the US would have to fight through NK and its million man army, A united korea however presents a highway straight to the yalu even if the bases are still south of the DMZ.

on the other point. this article make zero mention of refugees, who will accept them? will they be china’s problem? can a newly formed korea even afford to handle that many refugees?

in my view, if SK and the US guaranteed china today, that the US will inmmediately leave and its military treaties with korea is null and void, in addition united korea would handles/take-in all refugees, then tomorrow is when NK falls.

January 14, 2014 at 10:45


Presence of U.S. forces in Korea, post unification is necessary for several reasons. U.S.-Korea Treaty provides security for Korea in case of coercion by China, Russia or a nuclear Japan. Another reason is that constant training and interaction with the best and most capable military in the world maintains force readiness for the Korean military at a level not possible at any hike in military spending. U.S.-Korea relations, economic, military, cultural and political, are second to none for Korea, and benefits the U.S. as well. Most Koreans still prefer to have the U.S. as its closest ally. U.S. military presence, post unification, can be reduced substantially, while maintaining the alliance.

January 14, 2014 at 21:26

As long as a single US soldier remains in SK, China will not allow re-unification.

The only acceptable outcome for an unified South Korea is Finlandization.

February 19, 2014 at 15:49


such an alliance however benign it may seem, is unacceptable to china, simple as that. It may sound fine to you, but to china that is it biggest competition/potential enemy mere hours drive to Beijing with zero obstacles in the way, hence absolutely unacceptable so long can china can do something about it, it will. to allow such an alliance to exist when it could prevent it would mean china has to trust the US 100%, which as we all know is not possible. SK basically has to make that sacrifice for unification and help in rebuilding. no one said they needed to end relations with the US, nor do they have to be in the “chinese camp” what china would need them to do is end basing for american forces and declare openly or privately, neutrality at the minimum in any conflicts involving china. if that much is accomplished then refugee problem would probably be solved in the blink of an eye as china would gladly take in large numbers of refugees in return for a neutral united korea.

January 14, 2014 at 05:49

Good piece of reasoning except for one major flaw….Washington decides on US military presence in South Korea,Japan etc etc…not Seoul or Tokyo…much less their people.

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