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.