Korean unification: A risk and an opportunity for China

North and South Korea could soon be prepared for political talks, challenging China's strategy and investment in Pyongyang. Photo: AP

NEW YORK, March 25, 2013 ― Critics argue that the Chinese government is turning North Korea into its own dependent tribal state in the wake of growing economic integration and political relationship between China and North Korea. China’s extensive and growing economic interests in North Korea are turning the region, once dominated by former President Kim Jong Il, into a 21st-century “colonial state.” Consequently, the Chinese government will have the incentive and ability to stand as an obstacle for any future reunification of North and South Korea.

While its economic interests in North Korea may become more important for Chinese business, they will never match its economic interests in trade with the United States and Europe. Chinese government officials are focused first on formulating a comprehensive Korean policy that benefits them, not North Korea. In spite of the economic possibilities, this policy has not been primarily about business thus far.

Consider China’s gains from this strategy; the net economic returns to the Chinese government from its Korean involvement have so far been negative. Over the past 30 years, China has invested billions of dollars in direct aid to North Korea, and in return has received very little in economic return. Rather, Beijing’s interest in North Korea has revolved around Chinese national security and its international political policies. This has been the main reason China has opposed any form of reunification or reconciliation between North and South Korea.

North Korea may not have realized that its neighbor, China, views it mostly as a buffer and an irritant against western nations, like the United States. Whether it has realized this or not, the regime has been happy to take the money, pursuing its own motives just as China has pursued its own motives. Chine has strong motives for spending billions to sustain this economically depressed region, and the North Korean regime has motives for making itself the indispensible buffer for China.

It appears to some East Asian policy experts that the survival of the Kim dynasty is critical to the success of China’s security operations, which would be severely challenged if North Korea ended this relationship. The two nations effectively hold each other hostage, each depending on the other, China having made a bargain that it can’t easily walk away from.

If it loses its grip on North Korea, China faces a variety of dangerous scenarios. One would be for the extremely nationalistic North Koreans to seek support from western countries on better terms than it gets from China, otherwise going its own way in the world, a nuclear wildcard on the Chinese border. Another would involve rapprochement with South Korea, which given the enormous level of mutual distrust would be difficult. However, it would also be popular with a lot of South Koreans, creating pressure which South Korea’s government might find almost impossible to resist. China would find a less unpredictable Korea on its border, but a much more powerful one. 

The North Korean regime has a lot of leverage against the Chinese government, which it might apply if China becomes too aggressive about pushing its political interests in Pyongyang. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal changes the game in the region, and its missile program underlines that fact. China is seeing a more independent North Korea, one that has bargaining chips to play with Russia, Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

SEE RELATED: North Korea, China, United States nuclear threats and cyber attacks

A unified Korea would be a potential powerhouse, joining South Korea’s vibrant economy with the North’s nuclear facts on the ground. If China looks at this in the long term, it may see that Korea would be a better neighbor as a stable and independent economic powerhouse, one no longer dependent on China, but also no longer dependent (from the South) on the United States for security guarantees.

Risk comes with opportunity, and opportunity requires risk. China’s current course with North Korea comes with no real economic advantages, and it creates instability, which is the opposite of the security that China seeks. 


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