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The Peninsula

Use Caution When Working on Korean Unification with China

Published May 3, 2013
Category: North Korea

By Nicholas Hamisevicz

Dr. Sunny Lee’s recent PacNet article captured the dynamics between South Korea, China, and the United States as they try to develop better overall relations while simultaneously dealing with a provocative North Korea. A fascinating part of the article touched upon South Korea wanting to “‘work on’ China so that China leans toward South Korea and eventually supports Seoul-led unification.” In addition, writings by Chinese scholars and online commentary are creating a perception that China may be shifting its policy on North Korea and potentially being open to more conversations on unification. Yet there are reasons these talks on unification have not developed previously, such as China’s own vision for unification, historical and territorial concerns, and closer ties between the U.S. and South Korea compared to China-ROK ties. South Korean desires for better relations with China are understandable and important. However, South Korean leaders should use caution when discussing unification with China as the perceived opportunities could actually be detrimental to the South Korean-led process of unification.

Dr. Lee cited the Financial Times op-ed by Deng Yuwen of China’s Central Party School as an example of China’s shifting policy on North Korea and that South Korea may be able to convince China to let South Korea lead. Setting aside the question of whether China’s policy toward North Korea is shifting, evolving, readjusting, or staying the same, the more interesting aspect of the piece was the second to last paragraph on unification. Deng suggests China should abandon North Korea in order to “take the initiative” on unification, which would “undermine the strategic alliance between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul; ease the geopolitical pressure on China from northeast Asia; and be helpful to the resolution of the Taiwan question.” None of those appear to be in the main interests of South Korea. Even though his reasons for ditching North Korea might resonate with Seoul and Washington, if Mr. Deng’s argument wins out, South Korean officials will have a lot of work to do on Chinese leaders to convince them to let South Korea handle everything.

China’s views and interests regarding stability on the Korean peninsula in the case of a collapse of North Korea should be considered as well. As these precarious periods with North Korea have illustrated, the Chinese leadership has a different definition and comfort level for stability on the peninsula. If collapse is imminent, there is a possibility that the Chinese government would work to prop up the North Korean leadership in order to avoid the negative consequences stemming from instability on its doorstep. As painful as the reunification process may be, a more painful sight might be unification being so close only to be taken away at the last minute by China’s support for North Korea.

In addition to differing views on unification and stability, contentious views over historical territory could prevent an understanding between China and South Korea on the unification process. The Koguryo issue, where Chinese and Korean historians and leaders dispute the historical territory of the Koguryo kingdom and the Chinese empire, has been a vexing complication in South Korea-China relations. Koreans fear China using historical claims that its former people controlled areas that are now part of North Korea to allow the Chinese military to move in if there was trouble in North Korea or just for political purposes during unification talks. In contrast, Chinese leaders and scholars are worried Korea will claim parts of China after unification as part of a greater Korea because parts of the former Koguryo kingdom are now part of modern China.

In Scott Snyder’s book China’s Rise and the Two Koreas: Politics, Economics, Security, he states that “…the Koguryo dispute takes on a greater significance and drastically limits options for compromise on either side.” Mr. Snyder also emphasizes that many South Korean leaders and citizens view China’s handling of the Koguryo issue as a litmus test for China’s overall intentions in Northeast Asia. Putting it all together, if the Koguryo issue leaves China and South Korea little room to compromise, South Korea will have to work very hard to convince China that the compromise is actually to let South Korea manage the unification process.

Moreover, former U.S. Senator Richard Lugar thought this historical issue and its impact on China’s views toward unification was so important, before he left office, he pushed the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Minority Staff to write a report for the committee in order to explain the complexities and concerns over China’s views on unification of the Korean peninsula. Thus, while China and Korea may have been able to keep the issue quiet recently, when unification is close, this territorial issue will likely be prominent again.

In his PacNet article, Dr. Lee suggests that South Korea’s efforts with China are actually also geared toward getting the U.S. to “accommodate Seoul’s long-running complaints” in the U.S.-ROK relationship. While there may be some difficult issues between the U.S. and South Korea, it would appear that on big issues like unification, the two countries are on the same page or at least very close. The main evidence for this is the Joint Vision Statement that came out on June 16, 2009 during President Lee Myung-bak’s visit to the United States. The statement acknowledges the desire by the United States and South Korea to work together “to build a better future for all people on the Korean Peninsula, establishing a durable peace on the Peninsula and leading to peaceful reunification on the principles of free democracy and a market economy.” Moreover, during her time as U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, Kathleen Stephens emphasized the Joint Statement at a Korea Institute for National Unification event featuring the U.S., Japanese, and Russian ambassadors and noted that “nothing has disturbed me more over the years than at times having it suggested to me by Korean friends or others that somehow the United States thinks the division of the Korean peninsula is right or even serves U.S. interests. Nothing could be further from the truth.” China’s Ambassador to South Korea was invited but did not attend the event. It might be easier for South Korean-led unification to happen with a free democracy and a market economy as seen in the U.S. and Korea versus the soft totalitarianism and mixed economy in China.

In addition to the Joint Vision Statement, David Straub from Stanford University stated that “the United States is more than willing to let South Korea take the lead on North Korea — as long as it is comfortable with the general direction.” In many ways unification policy is an extension of North Korea policy. Therefore, if the U.S. is comfortable with South Korea taking the lead on North Korea policy, then if South Korea’s plan for unification is with the framework expressed in the Joint Vision Statement, the U.S. should be comfortable with South Korea leading the unification process as well.

Almost everything involving unification is complicated. But a perceived shift in China’s North Korea policy doesn’t automatically mean it will shift its unification policy to be like South Korea’s. As Deng Yuwen’s article suggests, China might ditch North Korea in order for the Chinese government to take the lead in facilitating unification. South Korea should be careful in thinking that it can easily woo China into accepting South Korean-led unification and remember that it has a committed ally in the United States already capable of supporting South Korea’s desired process.

Nicholas Hamisevicz is the Director of Research and Academic Affairs for the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are his own.

Photo from Christian Senger’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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