As I wrote in my previous column, it would not be advantageous from China’s perspective to interfere in North Korea in the event of chaos or a rapid turn of events. If they were to do so, the negatives would far outweigh the positives. However, China may have no choice if South Korea were to do nothing in the face of a crisis within North Korea.
The reason for this is because long term lawlessness in a country like North Korea would pose a threat to Northeast Asian stability as well as peace and order throughout the wider world. From China’s perspective the proliferation of fissile materials, including plutonium and uranium, and other dangers such as nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction pose the greatest threat, but there are more threats besides.
Therefore, if South Korea couldn’t come to a conclusion in good time, Chinese decision-makers would see moving into North Korea and installing a sympathetic regime as a necessary measure, one in the state’s interests and crucial for its continued stability.
This would not be an ideal scenario for South Korea. It goes without saying that any regime sympathetic to China could potentially collapse on its own later on, like many communist regimes in Eastern Europe did in 1989. However, were such a regime to continue as-is for several more decades, it is not beyond the realms of possibility to imagine that the division of the Han race could extend into perpetuity.
There are many such precedents in the Middle East and South America; people with the same language and culture finding that after being separated so long for political reasons they begin to develop their own new and separate cultural identities, despite their shared histories. It is difficult to say that the same thing could not happen on the Korean Peninsula.
Therefore, any consideration of what is best for the Korean people long-term places the onus on South Korea to seize upon a crisis in the North as an opportunity to obstruct permanent division. But, does South Korea have a way of stopping China from moving into North Korea?
In my view, one method would be to internationalize the issue. Naturally, doing so would not be the most desirable way forward from the perspective of the people of North and South Korea. It would be more desirable for South Korea to unilaterally stake its claim and take control of the northern half of the peninsula.
However, as noted previously, it is possible that the South Korean government may have neither the will nor the ability to make this happen. It would then be possible that the internationalization of the North Korea issue could turn out worse than the creation of a Chinese satellite state.
Internationalizing the North Korea issue would take the responsibility for restoring order in a North Korea plunged into violence and anarchy away from the Republic of Korea or People’s Republic of China and onto the international community. This would mean that those charged with restoring order would have been dispatched under UN auspices as peacekeepers.
Considering the UN’s character in such matters, ineffective and slow to make decisions, they may agree to play a merely symbolic role. The real organizations pulling the levers behind the scenes would be the Six-Party Talks participant nations, or committee of core members.
Such an international peacekeeping plan may be agreeable to South Korea. Even if Chinese troops made up the bulk of such a peacekeeping force, South Korea would be able to use international mechanisms to control their movements to some degree. If it was a part of an international peacekeeping force, China would be unable to publicly suppress those expressing the desire for unification and would have no choice but to respect the North Korean people’s rights.
It would be equally essential to clearly limit the timeframe for any peacekeeping force in advance, with the Chinese forces leaving the Korean Peninsula at its conclusion. From then on, if a vote for the North Korean people to decide their own future were to be proposed, it would be a fair demand and hard for China and other members of the international community to reject. The likelihood is that the North Korean people would vote for unification with the South, opening the path to unification.
Somewhat paradoxically, China also has its own reasons not to oppose the internationalization of the North Korean issue. First of all, it would be a chance for it to successfully neutralize a number of threats including the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Secondly, because any such plan would require the consent of the United Nations, it would allow China to avoid being seen as an imperialist power. Thirdly, the support provided by nations including the US, South Korea and Japan in a combined effort would mitigate the financial burdens of unilateral action by any one state.
And of course, because China is a superpower with a keen awareness of its own interests, it would work to secure the backing of Seoul, inevitably under the condition that Beijing consent to eventual unification. From listening to Chinese academics and experts it is already possible to gauge what China’s demands would be.
The first is likely to be an effort to curtail the influence of the US, which China sees in some ways as a warring state. It is possible that China will demand the withdrawal of US forces from the Korean Peninsula in exchange for giving its blessing to Korean unification. At the very least it would demand absolutely no US military bases or other facilities to be stationed north of the DMZ.
Secondly, it would want recognition of the licenses granted to Chinese corporations and individuals prior to any unification. In the last decade countless Chinese companies have received mining and infrastructure development licenses in North Korea.
Thirdly, China would demand guarantees regarding the border it shares with Korea. In recent times the clamor over South Korea’s claims to sovereignty over Gando (known in China as Jiandao) has increased Chinese concerns over unification. It is therefore likely that China would demand a guarantee from the South Korean government to recognize the pre-unification borders.
I believe that such concessions would not be difficult to make, and I believe they would be a small price to pay for unification, the ultimate goal of the people. This is why I am relatively optimistic about the future of Korean unification.
It is unfortunate the case that there is a good chance of a violent crisis in North Korea and an equally good chance of that inducing intervention from China. But through exacting and dispassionate analysis and diplomacy, South Korea can overcome these challenges to create the basis for a unified state.