Will China Prevent Korean Reunification?

A recent report by a United States Senate Republican committee speculates that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) could prevent any potential reunification of North Korea and South Korea in the event that the Kim family is thrown out of power or the government of the DPRK collapses.

Of course, such a scenario is not entirely implausible given the general opacity surrounding the North Korean regime and the somewhat tenuous nature of the youngest Kim’s leadership – he’s young, he’s new, and he’s stepped into one of the world’s largest international fiascos with no international experience or political sophistication.

So, let’s imagine a scenario in which the armed forces of North Korea overthrow Kim Jongun and assume power. Of course, since so much of the state’s legitimacy is predicated on the Kim family’s existence, this could either result in the total collapse of the regime due to infighting or rule by a virulently autocratic and oppressive military cabal.

Naturally, ‘virulently autocratic and oppressive’ is relative, given that North Korea is already giving international seminars in the art of dictatorship; however, for the DPRK to survive without a personality cult, initially it would have to be even more controlled than it is now.

Either way, the North will collapse westward, towards China, and not towards its cousins in South Korea. The reasons for this possibility are manifold and not least among which are:

  • The need for China to prevent a U.S. ally from being so close to its capital.
  • North Korea’s reportedly vast mineral wealth.
  • Historical ties between Korea and China that bind the PRC into alliance.

The Senate Republican report agrees with much of this argument and stresses that the international community should not expect an East Germany scenario in which North Korea is allowed to either gradually dissolve into South Korea or collapses into it. The report also stresses that China is becoming increasingly aggressive in the region in staking out its claims in terms of influence. Keeping North Korea firmly locked in its camp allows the PRC to hold the United States and its allies Japan and South Korea at bay. The report asserts:

[China will] safeguard its own commercial assets, and to assert its right to preserve the northern part of the peninsula within China’s sphere of influence.

The report was compiled by Keith Luse, an East Asian expert and former senatorial aid who worked for former Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), a member of the Senate’s powerful Foreign Relations Committee. The options for the Obama administration in grappling with the North Korean situation are engagement or retrenchment in isolating the North through its allies.

South Korea’s newly elected President Park Geunhye says that the Republic of Korea will not restart engagement with the Kim regime unless it abandons its nuclear weapons, something that the DPRK claims is impossible.

The real crisis for South Korea and the United States is the potential lack of international coordination in the event that North Korea collapses. Beijing, of course, has no interest in working with the Republic of Korea or the US and considers such talks highly sensitive and premature.

It has been intimated, however, by Chinese People’s Liberation Army officials that the PRC would use its military to control the flood of refugees coming out of North Korea as well as to reestablish control. Further complicating matters is that South Korea and the United States seek the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program while China merely seeks influence and control over the direction of the juche state.

Since the withdrawal of South Korean trade with North Korea, the DPRK’s trade with China now accounts for 70% of all of North Korea’s international trade, causing some to label the DPRK a ‘vassal state.’ More controversial are assertions that China may be starting to make its case to lay claim to North Korea’s territory because the ancient kingdom of Gogureyo had such close ties with ancient China.


[Washington Post]