No One Knows What To Expect: Chinese Influence on Unification

A U.S. Senate report published in December, available on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations’s website, advises North Korea watchers not to expect China to support full-fledged democratic unification on the Korean peninsula in the event of regime collapse in North Korea. A Washington Post article explains that China’s aggressive stance toward territory in the South China Sea, including some islands currently administered by Japan, suggests that it will seek to preserve as much influence as it can in North Korea. China has ancient territorial claims to the region.

It’s usually thought that if the Kim regime collapses, South Korea would absorb the North in a political unification similar to West Germany’s absorption of the East. It is increasingly apparent that the Korean case is very different, and China’s opposition would present a major obstacle to unification.

China has made major investments in North Korea’s transportation infrastructure recently, putting billions of dollars into building new roads and ports, as we’ve seen in Rason. China also makes up 70 percent of North Korea’s total trade. Moreover, China has a historical stake in the peninsula, the report argues, as the northern regions of Korea have long been influenced (and sometimes controlled) by Chinese empires.

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This map from the Senate report, among others, shows historical Chinese control and influence over parts of the Korean peninsula.

Not all observers agree about China’s intentions, though. In fact, even the leaders in China don’t seem to agree on how China should act. In the Post’s article, Chinese professor Zhang Liangui notes that “one misunderstanding of the U.S. is that they think of China as a whole,” with unified leadership. That’s an oversimplification, and opinions in China are as divided as they are here in the United States.

South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported in January that Pan Zhenqiang, a retired general and senior adviser to the Council of China Reform Forum, said, “With regards to the format of unification, China’s formula of ‘one country, two systems’ may have some exemplary value.” This type of unification as a loose federation would enable China to exert more influence on the northern half of the peninsula than it would under a completely Seoul-dominated (and therefore US-influenced) government.

On the other hand, Zhang (who, interestingly, has his degree from Kim Il Sung University in North Korea) believes that China will probably support unification. The Washington Post article gives as his main justification the possibility of “even deeper Chinese investment” in the event of unification.

It is certainly probable that China will fight to win as much influence as is possible on the Korean peninsula, now and also if the regime were to collapse. What will really happen is anyone’s guess. Officials in the United States and South Korea hope for more dialogue on this issue to better prepare for it (though the Kim dynasty seems to be holding on to power just fine right now), but such dialogue is too sensitive for China to be interested in talking about it officially. For now, no one knows what to expect.

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