China’s Support for North Korea Kills Any Chance of Unification

Visitors bowing in a show of respect for North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Bjørn Christian Tørrissen

Beijing is opposed to a unified Korea because it uses Pyongyang as a buffer against Western-style democracies.

Robert Manning and James Przystup have written a thoughtful rebuttal to an story I wrote for the National Interest. There I suggested that the neutralization of a unified Korea could entice China to abandon North Korea. This built on a similar suggestion by Michael Swaine earlier this spring. I thank Harry Kazianis, executive editor of the National Interest, for allowing me to reply.

Manning and Pryzstup argue that Swaine and I would cut Koreans out of their own vital debate on unification and leave them to the “tender mercies” of China, which has often mistreated Korea in the past. I concur that Chinese intervention in Korean unification is unfortunate. I also believe, however, that it is an insurmountable roadblock to unity. Therefore, to peremptorily reject a Chinese role is, de facto, to tolerate the semi-permanent division of Korea and, more importantly, the continuing moral catastrophe of North Korean human-rights atrocities. If mild Chinese concessions are the price we must pay to extinguish the world’s worst human-rights abuser, a tyranny worse than 1984, and a global public menace, which threatens the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons, trafficks drugs and people, and feels no concern about using weapons of mass destruction in an airport, then that is a price we should at least consider. Our foremost goal should be the elimination of North Korea as soon as possible, and if dashing hopes of a wholly unconstrained Southern-led unification process is the price of that, then the benefits still far outweigh the costs.

The argument for post-unification “Finlandization” builds on three basic observations:

North Korea Survives

It is increasingly clear that the choice facing us is not over the happy details of South Korean-led unification, but whether unification will occur at all. The Korean unification game, as I argued in the previous essay, is not as forthcoming to the democracies as the German one. North Korea is not about to collapse, and its patron is not about to cut it off the way the Soviets did with East Germany. Indeed, China’s ability to prop-up North Korea is expanding, not declining, given its explosive economic growth. Chinese assistance and the willingness of North Korea’s elite to do anything to stay in power, including allowing 10 percent of its population to starve to death in the late 1990s, means that North Korea could hang on for a few more decades, unless we deal with China.

To formalize this, our ranked preferences are:

1. Southern-led unification without external (Chinese) intervention;

2. Southern-led unification with Chinese-imposed constraints, likely “Finlandization;”

3. An indefinite continuation of the status quo.

I believe almost every democratic analyst—American or Korean, and including Swaine, Manning, Przystup and myself—prefers the first option. The unification discussion in South Korea, especially on the right and in the nationalist press, often frames the debate as either option one or two. If those were the only two options, then one would obviously be the superior option. Unfortunately, the reality is that the choice is increasingly between option two and three—accepting some Chinese role in unification or no unification.

In the 1990s, North Korea seemed to be on the verge of implosion. Many people thought option one would occur whether China liked it or not because they believed North Korea would simply collapse in pieces into South Korea’s backyard. Just as the Velvet Revolutions and Arab Spring brought down other autocracies, we instinctively feel that North Korea, the “Impossible State,” is somehow living on borrowed time and will one day collapse. A unified Korea could then be a fully sovereign actor, deciding with whom to align as it pleases, regardless of Chinese opinion.