China and its Discontents

Wikileaks as it Pertains to China and Korean Relations

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Over an official lunch in late February, a top South Korean diplomat confidently told the American ambassador, Kathleen Stephens, that the fall would come “two to three years” after the death of Kim Jong-il, the country’s ailing leader, Ms. Stephens later cabled Washington. A new, younger generation of Chinese leaders “would be comfortable with a reunited Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the United States in a benign alliance,” the diplomat, Chun Yung-woo, predicted.

That is a bold prediction – and the Guardian (here and here) is much more direct than the New York Times in claiming this. I agree with Stephen Walt that in regards to China and North Korea, the embassy cables are much more of a wash than they are portrayed as (what an ambassador says to another ambassador is not necessarily the discussion the Politburo Standing Committee is having). Even assuming Kim Jong-eun or the military cabal is somehow incapable of successfully negotiating the power transfer, there would need to be some pretty astounding diplomacy for China to be comfortable with a unified Korea. The entire idea behind supporting a divided peninsula from China’s perspective is that, regardless of how odious the North Korean regime is (and it is a serious headache to China), any unbalancing of the status quo will ultimately hurt China’s interests. Any US or NATO military presence above the DMZ and the floods of North Korean refugees, as the article notes, would be untenable. But that’s not all.

An ascendant, unified Korea could not be a benign ally of the US, according to certain Chinese viewpoints. Already, China is boxed in on all sides by countries closely-partnered with the US: South Korea (of course), Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, and India. Unification means a great deal psychologically. A unified Korea would have subtle, but greatly-expanded persuasive powers on the international stage. I hope that, as the Guardian suggests, younger leaders are no longer concerned about this, and want to work with both Korea and the US in a mutually beneficial manner. But that’s not a given.

The goal, then, is to make unification in China’s interest. China might not be able to prevent it – the regime might slide so quickly as to be unsalvageable (and China certainly is never going to war over North Korea again). But the US and Korea should want China to recognize the unified state on its own terms. Not consulting the Chinese would harm our relations with them on all fronts. Incentives for Chinese investment in Korea would help – so would significantly paring back American military presence on the peninsula. (Why, in a post-North Korean world, would we even need military bases there? Is war with China a realistic threat in this day and age? And besides, we always have Japan) We could even couple some of the things China wants with some of our own priorities (on trade, fiscal policy, climate change, energy policy, you name it). I have a feeling that this is not a zero-sum negotiation in which China and the US negotiate, tit-for-tat. Instead, an outcome in which both sides are satisfied can only be positive.

I’m having a hard time imagining how painful the reunification process would be. The North Korean state, if it did merge with the South, would probably go down in flames. The state is already a wreck with food shortages and the like, but without even minimal state assistance many more would probably starve. The military would suddenly be a loose cannon – and the nuclear material currently lying around Yongbyon would be up for grabs. Of course, South Korea and the United States have certainly drawn up coordinated response plans to rush into the vacuum when needed, and have practiced plenty of military scenarios (the current exercise with the two countries’ navies being conducted right now included). But it still boggles the mind.

Written by Will

November 30th, 2010 at 6:10 am