There are many variables that influence the future of unification and the Korean Peninsula, but none so important as the attitude of China. In recent times, China has overcome centuries of its own internal crises to set out on a path to superpower status. Korea, like it or lump it, has to live with China’s influence.
China’s perspective is the most important of any of Korea’s neighbors in the region in any consideration of unification scenarios. Recently, South Korean experts have spoken of the impossibility of realizing Korean unification if China does not specifically desire it, given its ability to block the whole process.
I do not agree with this assessment, however. It is true that China does not seem to want unification of the two Koreas, but I think that tempered and appropriate diplomacy can help South Korea overcome China’s objection to it.
As I argued in my previous column, a gradual and phased process of unification would be the most desirable, although an unlikely scenario. The North Korean regime sees market liberation and reform as a threat to the system, and therefore there is almost no chance that it will implement the Chinese model of reform. The chances of the regime eventually being destroyed by a spiral into revolution and chaos is far greater than that of it gradually ‘coming in from the cold’.
Unfortunately, the likelihood is that a North Korean revolution would be a bloody affair. Because the privileged classes which support Kim Jong Il see a bleak future for themselves if the system were to collapse, they would almost certainly rather fight to retain their privileges and power than give it up of their own free will. In other words, the outbreak of a crisis at some point in the future would almost certainly be inviting chaos and violence.
But if North Korea descended into anarchy, what would South Korea’s response be? Had it happened in the early 1990s there would have been no prizes for guessing the correct answer. The South Korean government, which saw itself as the only legitimate government of the Korean Peninsula at the time, would have seized the opportunity to move into North Korea and press the issue of unification by force. In the past South Korea would have been able to mobilize the military to suppress the pro-Kim Jong Il groups without any domestic political blowback. Although looking at recent trends in South Korean society, there no longer appears to be any such determination.
Many Koreans pay lip service to the idea of unification, but the reality nowadays is that their desire for unification is fading fast, particularly amongst its youth. As time passes by, peoples’ perceptions of North Korea are changing; from being a territory that rightfully belongs to their country, to an entirely foreign country.
You can see from various surveys that young people have huge concerns about the costs of unification and do not feel inclined to pay for it out of their own pocket. It is clear that the youth of South Korea who have no desire to pay higher taxes have absolutely no desire to lobby for unification either.
There is certainly a lack of high profile individuals or groups publicly lobbying for the necessity of unification. Yet if Kim Jong Il’s regime one day succumbs to the good reasons for unification and collapses, and the citizens of North Korea call for unification as soon as possible, then the North Korean elite and South Korean society will have no choice but to accept this demand. If people see images on TV of the North Korean public taking to the streets, waving the Korean flag and yelling for unification, then support will even outweigh the concerns of those who are loathe to pay for it.
The problem is that it is unlikely to pan out this way. Most people in North Korea probably would go around wielding flags and calling for unification as soon as possible after the collapse of Kim Jong Il’s regime. It makes sense for them, because the South is a symbol of material affluence and personal freedom.
However the Kim Jong Il loyalists would fight to protect the class system that has allowed them to live so well, in defiance of the large number of people who desire unification. If South Korea sent in the military, they might be welcomed by some, but others – the elite – would be more likely to meet their presence with grenades.
And at any rate, would South Korea have the stomach to send in military forces to a North Korea plagued by violence and chaos? It is hard to say at the current point in time, although based on recent domestic trends the possibility seems to be dissipating as time goes by. In my personal opinion, military intervention would be plausible in a non-violent revolution, but not so a violent one.
I believe that it would be an extremely beneficial thing to make good use of a crisis within North Korea for the future of the Korean race. Admittedly there would be suffering and hardship, but a policy that results in a unified Korea would create a solid foundation and improve the lives of those who live out their days on the Korean Peninsula. Regrettably, however, when you look objectively at the current situation and recent trends in South Korea, it is hard to imagine the government wanting to take any such measures.
And if that is what happens, China would be stirred into action. China would not be able to sit idly by and ignore a deepening North Korean crisis. Many South Korean academics see China as a neo-imperialist that has dreams of molding North Korea into its own satellite state. People of this view are particularly prevalent in conservative circles.
Having met many Chinese analysts and experts, I am skeptical of this. Admittedly it is difficult to deny China’s tendency towards expansionism, but more importantly from China’s perspective, a move into North Korea could end up being a heavy political and financial burden. If China was to establish a puppet regime in the northern half of the Korean Peninsula then the ramifications would be massive.
First of those would be hostility towards China from within South Korea. Most of South Korea’s hostility is currently aimed at Japan, but such a turn of events as described above would probably drive both the left and right wings of the political spectrum to redirect their animosity towards China. It would have the potential to strengthen the US-ROK alliance and even result in a similar alliance between South Korea and Japan.
Second of all, there is little chance that the people of North Korea would be fond of a puppet regime sympathetic to China. Such a regime might well work to improve the lives of ordinary North Koreans through liberation and reform, but the people would not be especially grateful for it.
There is a telling precedent in the history of communism. In the 1960s and ‘70s the former Soviet Union began establishing and supporting a large number of satellite states in Eastern Europe. And yet despite no shortage of support from the Soviet Union, the anti-socialist, anti-Soviet dispositions of people in those nations gradually increased.
The third reason is that intervening in North Korea would upset China’s legendary ‘peaceful rise’ that its diplomats place so much importance on. Neighboring countries that already harbor grave fears over China’s expansionist ambitions would see those fears increase, and take various measures to suppress China’s influence, possibly including strengthening their alliance with the US.
When you look at all of this dispassionately, it would clearly be unwise for China to interfere in North Korea. They would have more to lose than they would gain. And yet if North Korea falls into anarchy, China may well be forced into a position where it has to do something about it.