Is Status Quo Destiny? China's Interests in Post-Kim Dynasty Korea

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Is it possible to imagine a scenario under which the People's Republic of China comes to see the continued existence of North Korea (DPRK) not only as unnecessary, but even undesirable? Sung Yoon Lee, adjunct assistant professor at the Fletcher School at Tufts University believes so. Noting that the rise and fall of states is inherent to international history, Lee stated that at the very least, "the collapse of the DPRK falls within the realm of possibility—within a reasonable degree of possibility." Indeed, mainstream academic discussion and military planning within South Korea assume the possibility of such a contingency, and Lee believes such discussion should be encouraged in China too.

At an Asia Program event on January 24, Lee pondered the question of which would be in China's best interests were a reunification scenario to occur: a capitalist, democratic, open, unified Korea led by Seoul and aligned with the United States; or an autarkic Korea united by war, led by Pyongyang and hostile toward Japan and the United States. Lee noted that China has always considered the Korean peninsula a vital component of its strategic calculations even in pre-modern times. But this does not mean that China will back the DPRK in any contingency on the peninsula today.

It is true that China has viewed the existence of the DPRK since the Second World War as a strategic buffer zone. Concentrating on its own internal problems and preoccupied with sustained economic development, China has preferred stability in its immediate international environment over rapid change. Also, the DPRK stands between South Korea, and therefore American military bases, and the Chinese mainland. It is no secret that China has therefore considered the status quo on the Korean peninsula desirable up until now.

Nevertheless, Lee believes there are signs that the status quo may soon change. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il's apparent stroke in August 2008, currency reform in late 2009 that elicited public protests by North Korean citizens, and preparations by Kim to anoint his son Kim Jong-Un as a successor, all set against the memory of famine in the North during the 1990s, suggest that the collapse of the North Korean state is a distinct possibility. While any Chinese support for a U.S. policy aimed at toppling the Pyongyang regime is out of the question, Lee believes that Beijing may soon consider scenarios for change in North Korea, if it has not done so already.

Generational change in the Chinese leadership is one factor that could strengthen tendencies to consider such possibilities. China increasingly views its rise in the world as enabling it to move from former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's self-restraining "wait and see" (tao guang yang hui) posture to more active engagement with the world (you suo zuo wei). While communist and military solidarity used to be a factor that bound China and North Korea together, new leaders in Beijing, too young to remember the efforts of Chinese "volunteers" during the Korean War, may be less interested in conducting foreign policy on the basis of ideology and will regard developments on the peninsula with a greater degree of pragmatism.

Indeed, Pyongyang's recent brinkmanship means that North Korea has become a diplomatic liability to China. Moreover, the more prosperous China becomes and the more it seeks to make a mark on the world as an influential and responsible great power, the less incentive it feels to support North Korea's gamble with nuclear weapons or its other illicit activities. Lee believes that China would now hesitate to take action to support the North even after the unlikely event of a first strike on the DPRK by South Korea and the United States. There would be too much at stake to protect a small peripheral ally that is increasingly a pariah on the world stage.

Moreover, other nations in the region would favor a democratic, capitalist, unified Korean regime based in Seoul. Obviously, North Korea poses a potentially existential threat to South Korea and Japan, but even Russia, previously—as the Soviet Union—an ally of the North, would not oppose reunification. A united Korea and economic development across the whole of the peninsula would be an attractive prospect for Russian capitalists as well as Chinese, not least because this would raise the possibility of extending the trans-Siberian railway out to the Pacific. Lee believes that it is obvious that the United States should take advantage of aligned strategic interests and engage Moscow, Tokyo, and Seoul, both individually as well as collectively, in imagining and planning for a more stable and prosperous future in Northeast Asia.

But such planning should also include Beijing. Lee believes that it is both possible and desirable for the United States to begin indirectly engaging Chinese leaders so as better to manage the potential collapse of a North Korean regime. In the event of collapse, Washington would move swiftly to secure or account for all of North Korea's stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, potentially bringing U.S. forces close to the Chinese border, where there are a number of North Korean military facilities. In the wake of a contingency in the North, ad hoc decisions by either Washington or Beijing could be interpreted by the other side as aggressive intentions, exaggerating the threat posed by actual decisions. While Beijing would never agree to discuss plans for such a contingency in public, Lee believes that the United States should begin to approach China through backroom diplomacy and through non-governmental organizations bearing "unofficial" messages to pave the way for more sustained discussion.

By Bryce Wakefield
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program