Does North Korea still play a role as a 'buffer' state for China and neighbouring states?
Strategists in China continue to see North Korea as a buffer. I think there’s reluctance on China’s part to allow a unification of Korea under South Korea as US forces might be on the border between Korea and China. I don’t think we (the United States) would be interested in that, and we could make pledges to China that we wouldn’t put troops up there. But they might not necessarily believe us. So, I think for some in China, it’s an important reason to keep North Korea afloat, make sure the succession keeps going forward, while opposing tightening the implementation of sanctions.
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I think it will be unified at some point, but it might not be in my lifetime. I think it will be, and that it will remain unified. It could be difficult for South Korea because the northern part of Korea that they will inherit will be a basket case—materially, psychologically and politically. It will require a big sacrifice on the part of the South to bring the North along. This is probably a harder job than what West Germany had to do in unifying East Germany.
In light of the rapid overthrows of government in the Middle East, do leaders in the Asia-Pacific have a contingency plan for unification?
I expect that some in North Korea are watching the situation in the Middle East. I expect they are also watching the way that US forces made short shrift of Col. Gaddafi’s war machine—at least the air dimension of it. But, I think in the case of any political rebellion in North Korea, the regime doesn’t have to worry about it.
The first reason is that the repressive capabilities are much stronger in North Korea than those that existed in Tunisia and Egypt. Second, tools of social and political mobilization, such as social network sites and so on, don’t exist in North Korea. There are cell phones, but not everybody has them, and you can only use them to talk. And people are also pretty scared. And finally, the army is probably a lot more loyal to the regime and the Kim family than was the case in Tunisia and Egypt.
Richard C. Bush is Director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies and a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of ‘The Perils of Proximity: China-Japan Security Relations’ and ‘A War Like No Other: The Truth About China's Challenge to America.’ This interview was conducted by Sally Herd.