How China and the US really view the prospects for South Korean-led unification

Although ex-South Korean President Park Geun Hye asserted it, can unification really be considered a bonanza? If there is sufficient strength of government to manage what needs to come before and after unification as well as protect the economy, then unification is indeed an opportunity. However, bringing together the two Koreas–each cut off from the other for more than half a century–is no simple task. Remaining optimistic about unification is necessary, but understanding the positive and negative aspects involved is of critical importance.

To this end, Daily NK will deliver a series of excerpts from the recently published book, “Unification Strategies During Sudden Changes in North Korea,” co-authored by Kim Young Hwan, head researcher at the Network for North Korean Democracy and Human Rights; Oh Gyeong Seob, researcher at Sejong Institute; and Ryu Jae Gil, secretary general at the think tank Zeitgeist. This 40-installment series seeks to offer fresh insights into pending issues relating to the unification of the two Koreas.

The US and Korean Unification

Currently, the United States supports unification of the Korean Peninsula as long as stability in the Northeast Asian region is maintained. But with this apparent neutral stance comes criticism that the US is too complacent over the matter. The US government prioritizes the stability of their own country above all else when it comes to problems on the Korean Peninsula, but they still want to maintain influence in the region via a strong alliance with South Korea. There is a lingering question over how the US would view the alliance after a South-led unification as well. The US likely is most concerned about China when it comes to Korean unification, which may have an influence on their calculation of the value of their alliance with the South going forward. One US priority is to find a way to leverage South-led unification in continued efforts to contain China. Nevertheless, the US likely still sees their relationship with South Korea as more important than their relationship with China, due to the similarities between their political systems, in contrast to China’s very different system.

The US wants a South-led unification that eliminates the current risks associated with North Korea. On the other hand, there is some doubt that the US desires unification at all considering its internal priorities. But there is no clear reason why the US should not want unification, as it would bring an end to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea. And while it would be reasonable to oppose North-led unification, there would be no strong reason to oppose a South-led unification which could bring peace and stability to the peninsula. Some consider any requirement for the US to withdraw its troops from the peninsula as the primary factor in its possible opposition to unification, but it is not clear if the US would withdraw or not. In any case, the US will first and foremost consider its strategy for regional influence in a decision. The US also has substantial military resources, including B-2 bombers, F-22 fighter jets, and other core weapons deployments nearby in Japan, which mitigates the need for a direct military presence in Korea. While unification may appear to weaken the need for a strong US-South Korea alliance, an expansion of the alliance is inevitable.

So while the US may not have any obvious reasons for opposing unification, they also cannot neglect to consider the problems that may arise out of the unification process. Major concerns include chain-reaction effects on peace and stability in the region as well as the potential for closer South Korea-China relations, for which the US is wary of Chinese influence on the peninsula. With a possible increase in China’s regional influence amidst a weakened US-South Korea alliance, the US will also have to increase spending in order to keep pace in the region, which is cause for more concern. While the US prioritizes stability on the peninsula, it will also act according to its plan to maintain influence over a possible South-led unified government.

China and Korean Unification

Although China has outwardly expressed support for the idea of Korean unification, the country is also considering the possibility that South-led unification may lead to greater US influence in the region. Depending on the situation, China has tried to use North Korean issues to its own advantage. Above all, China wishes to preserve the status quo, limiting US regional influence and maintaining peace and stability. China hopes for a stable current North Korean system in order to retain the North as a political and military buffer zone and prevent North Korea-related problems from becoming regional crises.

But there is still the possibility that China will gradually wean itself off of a plan involving such maintenance of North Korea. This is because China may have something to gain from South-led unification after all. Still, many observers continue to believe that China will never abandon North Korea. There are not any nations in Asia on which China can rely for strong support. China and Japan remain at odds, and Southeast Asian nations generally fear China’s influence. Middle Eastern and Central Asian nations also distance themselves from China, in part due to their treatment of the country’s Muslim Uighur population. So North Korea may hold the unique position of being China’s only ally in the region, although the truth is that the relationship is a cause for many of China’s international problems, where diplomacy is also having little effect. North Korea does not have any clout in the international community, nor are they in any position to help China in any particular way. In the end, South Korea is really the only trustworthy nation for China in the region on whom it can rely in the long term.

South Korea also likely will not back away from their relationship with China. South Korea prioritizes its economy above all else, and trade with China has surpassed any previous notion of further economic integration with Japan. Two-thirds of Korea’s trade surplus comes from China. Any drift, or worse, severing of economic ties between South Korea and China would lead to significant problems. By supporting South-led unification and continuing to develop mutually beneficial economic relations, the Chinese government believes there will be little chance of South Korea being considered their enemy. Although it seems hasty, a small portion of academics in the Chinese Communist Party are beginning to move towards this position. In terms of economics, there is very little chance of the two becoming enemies in the near future.

China’s cooperation will also be required during the unification process, and China actually holds the key to determine the direction in which the process goes. But South Korea sees the question of whether or not China will help them throughout unification as one of the most important deciding factors for the long-term future. China will focus on preventing threats to its national interests during the process, and on keeping the balance of power in its relationship with the US from tipping. This seems to be the current direction that we are heading towards, with China, the US, and South Korea seeing South-led unification as eliminating North Korea-related problems and contributing to stability in the region.

But Chinese influence over North Korea also seems to be ever-increasing, and the North is concerned about the resulting ‘Chinafication’ that is perceived to be occurring. This is distinct from any concern over the North becoming Chinese territory, and China’s influence over the North and the North’s dependence on China do not signal China’s opposition to unification. There is no direct connection between the North’s dependence on China and the idea that the North could become part of Chinese territory. There is no objective evidence now pointing to China standing in the way South Korean-led unification.

Following unification, China and South Korea can expect political, economic, societal, and cultural opportunities to rise to levels far beyond what they are now. China can also look forward to new economic integration between Korea and its adjacent regions such as Jilin and Tumen. For these reasons, the chances seem high that China will support the collapse of the current North Korean system and subsequent South Korean-led unification.