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Must China Fear a Unified Korea? (Page 2 of 2)

Upon becoming fully aware of their plight relative to their brethren in the South, North Koreans are presumably going to be eager to see their economic livelihoods improve. Seoul alone is simply incapable of bringing to bear enough resources to fulfill these ambitions. China would be best able to help develop the former state of North Korea, given its immense amount of capital, proximity, and current economic enterprises inside the country. Although Beijing would have a strong economic interest in participating in this development, threats to withhold aid, investment, and expertise would likely force South Korea to make concessions on America’s role in a unified Korea.

Finally, even if China did not overtly pressure leaders in Seoul, it’s not clear South Korea itself would support a huge, sustained U.S. presence in a unified Korea. Since its formation, the form the ROK-U.S. alliance has taken has been the unique byproduct of the threat from North Korea. During much of the Cold War Pyongyang’s conventional capabilities were menacing enough to keep leaders in South Korea interested in a large U.S. troop contingency. As Seoul’s economic miracle has led it to surpass the North in terms of conventional military technology and capabilities, Pyongyang has developed WMDs in general, and a nascent nuclear capability in particular, to enhance the threat it can pose to its southern neighbor.

Absent this threat from North Korea there would be little reason, from Seoul’s perspective, to continue to welcome a large amount of U.S. troops on its borders, particularly after the messy business of unification is completed. China’s growing military capabilities might be one rationale, especially given South Korea's disputed borders with China. At the same time, even now when Beijing supports the North, South Korea has shown a strong reluctance to play any part in an American-led regional security architecture, which most see as aimed at China. Furthermore, even with the common threat of North Korea uniting them, Seoul has continued to keep Japan at arm’s length. Absent the threat from North Korea, this reluctance would almost certainly grow.

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Domestic politics in a unified Korea would also reinforce this. Already the Left in South Korea— which is traditionally more skeptical about the alliance with the U.S. — has come to power at various times. Without the threat of the North gone it could very well see it’s positioned strengthened relative to the conservative Right. Furthermore, regardless of political affiliation, leaders in a unified Korea are almost certainly going to need to harness the demonstrated power of nationalism to more tightly unify the formerly separate halves of Korea. Any leader relying primary on the ideology of Korean nationalism for their political survival is going to have a difficult time acquiescing to a large U.S. military presence on the Peninsula.

For all these reasons, then, it’s quite possible that China may gain strategically from a unified Korea relative to the U.S., or at least not be adversely affected by it. Although policymakers are right to focus on the immense difficulties that will likely immediately follow the collapse of the North Korean regime, they should not completely ignore the fact that such an event has the power to reorder the balance of power in Northeast Asia nearly overnight.   

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