The Skeptics

The Real North Korea Disaster Isn't War (But Collapse)

Moreover, the assumption that Korean reunification is the inevitable outcome ignores China. The People’s Republic of China is simply assumed to be a passive actor, a very large potted plant sitting just north of the Yalu River. However, Beijing would prefer not to see reunification, which could create a stronger, independent, nationalistic state on its border—one which could spur irredentist claims to Chinese territory populated by ethnic Koreans and would still be allied with the United States. Indeed, the possibility of expanded base opportunities, useful for containing the PRC, would complete China’s nightmare. Observed George Mason University graduate student John Dale Grover, “A world without North Korea would be dangerous for Beijing.”

That means the PRC might intervene to forestall such a result. Although some Western pundits have invited Beijing to invade the North to oust the Kim dynasty, that seems beyond unlikely. Almost certainly the North Koreans would fight and the conflict would be ugly. China then would be left with the unpleasant task of occupying and remaking the DPRK. It is hard to imagine the current leadership giving such an idea serious consideration.

In contrast, a faltering North Korea would provide the PRC with a better opportunity to act. If the Kim government was ousted but the system did not collapse, China might intervene, perhaps short of an invasion, to aid pro-Chinese actors and buttress or even impose a more pliant regime. Beijing could try to turn the North into a province, but that seems very unlikely: the Kim dynasty has protected the nation’s independence from its neighbors and North Koreans share the nationalism evident in the South. The DPRK might be small, but China likely would find it indigestible.

More likely would be the establishment a mini-me version of the PRC, an authoritarian North adopting economic reform while eschewing nuclear weapons—and relying on China to guarantee its security. Such an outcome seems more likely the more serious the problems facing the North. If chaos threatened, possibly overflowing the border into China, Beijing might choose to intervene militarily to restore order and create a temporary government. The PRC could retain its buffer state, but one which did not threaten its neighbors. Journalist Bill Emmott suggested a relationship in which the North lived “under a Chinese nuclear umbrella, benefiting from a credible security guarantee.”

Such an outcome would fall short of the ideal imagined in Seoul and Washington and could result in confrontation and even conflict if the allies also intervened in the midst of an imploding North Korea. Armed North Korean factions and American, Chinese and South Korean troops would be a volatile mix; an incidental clash could ignite something far more serious. The long-term consequences would be unpredictable, perhaps resulting in a partitioned North Korea and more hostile China.

Still, even the survival of North Korea under Chinese influence would be a substantial step forward. The nuclear crisis would end; conventional threats against the South almost certainly would end as well. Chinese influence would be enhanced, but would not threaten America or its allies. And the new North Korean state might evolve in a more liberal direction and ultimately join the South.

Nevertheless, Chinese military intervention doesn’t look likely and presumably would be viewed as a last resort in Beijing. Yet it is difficult to predict anything about North Korea. There are plenty of reasons to fear the unexpected and unusual. Given recent events, if a bad outcome is possible, a worse one seems likely.

At the very least, Washington and Seoul should talk with China about North Korean contingencies. Beijing has refused, to publicly do so in the past lest it cause trouble with Pyongyang, which could not be happy with other nations discussing a successor state. However, the interested parties need to ensure that however a crisis evolved, there would be no clash among their respective militaries in a mad rush to grab territory, weapons and population in the North.

If that approach didn’t satisfy, the ROK and United States could minimize the possibility of Chinese intervention by addressing Beijing’s presumed interests: the role of a reunited Korea and its relationship with the U.S. The PRC went to war in 1950 to forestall an American ally with U.S. troops on its border. Although such a presence has minimal military significance today, in an era of ICBMs, air wings and carrier groups, it would retain powerful symbolic significance. And the full peninsula could provide America with additional bases, which would be useful in any Sino-American conflict. In short, a reunited Korea allied with America would change regional dynamic to the PRC’s disadvantage. Beijing might not go to war to stop it, but would have no reason to adopt policies which encouraged it.

To ease China’s concerns the United States should indicate that if the Koreas reunited, then American forces would go home. Washington would not seek to use Beijing’s forbearance against the PRC. If China accepted a reunited Korea, then the latter would not become a base for American military operations.

Seoul could reinforce that message by pledging military neutrality. (Robert Kelly of Pusan National University terms it “Finlandization,” after Finland’s careful policy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union during the Cold War.) The ROK would trade with everyone, including China, Japan and America; the many personal and cultural ties between the South and United States would remain. But South Korea would be an independent military actor, rather than act as a tool of American foreign policy.