China Power

Would Korean Reunification Threaten China?

A view from Beijing on Korean unification.

Would Korean Reunification Threaten China?
Credit: Flickr/ Christopher John SSF

Showing that even in a society where political news and analysis is tightly controlled and managed to reflect the best image and interests of the Communist Party of China, everyday people in Beijing expressed a surprising diversity of opinion this week over the results of the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.

A store owner said, “Who knows what will come out of it. Trump and Kim are the same. The only thing you can predict about either one of them is their unpredictability. They probably understand each other, even if no one else does.”

An online retailer declared, “Kim has come to China three times now. Xi is trying to rein him in, but he knows better than to be tough with Kim. He doesn’t dare. Kim is dangerous.”

And a former Chinese government official told me, “America doesn’t understand the Chinese position on North Korea. But Xi will get what he wants in the end.” And what is that? “To keep North Korea under Chinese influence.”

If even ordinary Chinese citizens are in disagreement on what China specifically wants out of any lasting rapprochement between the United States and North Korea, perhaps what China doesn’t want is easier to define. The received wisdom is that China absolutely does not want a unified Korea that is aligned with the United States.

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Is there a possibility, however, that such an eventuality could be less alarming to China than it superficially would seem to be? What would change for China if the Koreas reunited and the resulting single nation of Korea maintained the U.S. alliance which South Korea has depended upon for decades?

The premise that underlines this question is that any reunified Korea would naturally fall under U.S. influence. But why assume this? South Korea has been an ally of the United States largely because of the existence of North Korea. What happens if North Korea disappears?

What does China lose?

First, it loses a problem. China no longer needs North Korea as a last remaining communist ally. China is forging new diplomatic and economic relationships around the world, and does not need to be seen as a nation tied to an outdated version of communism. China is now a world player, and wants only to bolster that image. It wants to be of the first tier of nations, not among the struggling holdouts for an idea that clearly didn’t work well. To be sure, Xi Jinping, more than others, couches China’s continuing forays into world affairs in the language of the Communist Party, but the Party in practice today has more in common with the Boards of Directors of Fortune 500 companies than with the ideological basis upon which it was founded.

Second, China loses a friend that hasn’t been a particularly good one. As Xie Tao pointed out in his recent article for The Diplomat, Kim Jong Un has been in charge in North Korea since 2011, and yet only this year has he paid visits to China. True vassals behave with more deference.

Third, China supposedly loses a buffer, and a balancing weight to South Korea. But how much of either function does North Korea really play? It is impoverished and a has been a pariah in the world community. It has neither the wherewithal nor the legitimacy among nations to offer China either a financial reward or a credibility cushion.

What does China have at the moment?

First, it has a chance to push for the reduction or even elimination of the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Currently, China lives with a Korean peninsula already home to tens of thousands of US forces. Those forces are there to deter a North Korean attack, and perhaps also to deter similar ideas from South Korea. Under reunification, the justification for the troops ostensibly goes away.

Second, it has a diplomatic feather in its cap. China is still seen as a major contributor to solving the issue of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. But it cannot retain that image if the promises made in Singapore do not come to fruition. China’s newly-found chops as an international statesman will suffer elsewhere if the North Korea issue is not settled to the satisfaction of both itself and the West.

Third, it has an opportunity to extend its role as statesman, and honest broker, in the manner in which it would build relations with a reunified Korea. Many watchers living in China at the time that China and South Korea established diplomatic relations in 1992 were stunned by China’s recognition of a country which it had fought, not to mention one whose fiercest enemy Beijing supported. In hindsight, China signaled with that move, as they did with their encouragement of Japanese investment, that they were willing to forego ideological purity and deep resentments for pragmatic statehood and the economic benefits that could bring.

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It is clear that China is now encouraging North Korea to do the same. In fact, in the past two weeks, Kim Jong Un has been barraged with evidence and images, in Singapore and in Beijing itself, that paint a picture of what he can do for North Korea.

North Korea has a population of 25 million, half that of its neighbor to the south. In other words, North Korea is somewhere in the vicinity of the size of Shanghai. If it aligns to any degree with South Korea, or even allows itself to become part of a larger nation of Korea, it is going to take at least a generation, as it has taken in China, for meaningful economic and social change to occur. It will experience what China has: a tortured coming-out process that will see the North Korean people bewildered and confused, and more than a little suspicious of an outside world that North Koreans have been indoctrinated to believe is their enemy. China has an opportunity to help the North manage that process, if it is willing – and capable – of synthesizing the lessons of its own development process over the last three decades.

The irony is that the biggest winner in this process is the concept of capitalism. As a vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Zhao Weichen, said some time ago, “We in China have had to change our ideas much more than you in the West have had to. We have had to throw out almost everything that we were taught to believe in. You’ve only had to be willing to show us how it’s done.”

China can do the same for North Korea, if it is clever enough. China has the experiences of transformational change, accommodation with uncomfortable ideas, and incorporation of Hong Kong, an entity with a completely different political and social structure, into its sovereign realm. In the end, a reunified Korea might begin as a U.S. ally, but over time, a balanced relationship between the two behemoths of the United States and China is more likely.