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Korean Reunification Would Cast Off China’s Shadow

Donghae-bukbu train-line on Korean DMZ

By Mark P. Barry

Finland is far from Korea, but the Finlandization of the Korean Peninsula may be closer than many think. That fate can be averted if the Koreas took steps to unify.

China, like Russia, has its own “near abroad”: those nations on its periphery where it wants to exercise preponderant influence, even hegemony. China is especially assertive about its sovereignty in the South China Sea, in the process worrying an arc of nations from the Philippines to Vietnam. Yet the Korean Peninsula for centuries was a land largely under Chinese suzerainty, and though divided today, may again face similar circumstances. Despite North and South Korea’s serious differences, irreversible steps toward reunification may be the best solution to avert potential loss of full autonomy for each.

Usually deemed the only nation with influence in North Korea, we have often heard that only China can moderate the North’s behavior. As host of the Six Party Talks and the world’s second largest economic power, China ostensibly understands the North Koreans better than anyone. In March, at the nuclear summit in Seoul, President Obama asked President Hu Jintao to use all the instruments of China’s power to reign in Pyongyang—an example of the continual outsourcing of the “North Korean problem” to Beijing.

Yet, in most respects, China has not lived up its billing as a moderating force for North Korean behavior. Though the North remains critically dependent on Chinese economic aid, China’s policy toward the DPRK is manifestly based on self-interest and not on the broader interests of the other members of the Six Party Talks. There are also limits to Chinese influence in the North, both self-imposed, and more importantly, beyond Beijing’s control due to strong underlying distrust of China in the North.

Despite massive Chinese economic assistance in food, fuel, consumer goods, and investment, the North wishes aid could come from elsewhere. As the DPRK’s current food shortages are aggravated by a spring drought, and with U.S. food aid cancelled due to the failed mid-April missile launch, the North again has no one to turn to but China.

In my experience, I have learned the North Koreans’ distrust of China is fundamental and profound. It is not polemical and for public consumption as it is with Japan, South Korea, and the U.S.; it is deadly serious. It is based on both recent and distant history, and the undercurrent of Chinese-North Korean relations is likely more vicious and brutal than most imagine. 

North Korea sees China as a resurgent hegemon in a modern-day reprise of treating Korea as a tributary state. It remembers that in October 1950, China not only intervened in the Korean War—saving the Korean People’s Army from oblivion—but took over total Command and Control, subsuming the North’s forces into its own. It became China’s war with the U.S. After the 1953 Armistice, several thousand Chinese troops remained based in North Korea until 1958.

Today, the North senses China’s displeasure that the DPRK leadership is not sufficiently responsive to Chinese authority. It’s been intimated that China distrusted Kim Jong Il himself because he was not acquiescent to their requests. Ironically, the subversion the North fears comes not from the South, but from China. Since many Korean People’s Army officers received training in China by the People’s Liberation Army, the North suspects the Chinese may have levers to influence events in the DPRK, especially in the military, For years, the North sought improved relations with the U.S. to balance the immense pressure it feels from China, though today it may have given up on that hope.

In the purported last will and testament of Kim Jong Il, parts of which are in the possession of ROK think tanks like the Sejong Institute, Kim allegedly warned his countrymen to be vigilant of China:

“Historically, China is the country that forced difficulties on our country, the country that currently has the closest relations with us, but could become the country we need to watch most in the future. Keep this in mind and be careful. Avoid being exploited by China.”

Ironically, South Korea’s policies reveal an entirely different view of China, which is very upbeat. The PRC is now the ROK’s largest trading partner, a dramatic leap since diplomatic ties were restored in 1992. The South even seeks a mutual military logistical agreement with China (along with Japan). President Lee Myung-bak’s policies of not providing aid to the North without significant political concessions have helped push the North further into China’s grasp. From my ROK sources, it appears the underlying Lee administration policy toward the DPRK is to join hands with China, as highly developed economies bordering North Korea, to “envelop” the North in the expectation of spurring economic reform. Lee’s administration regards China as a strategic partner to help develop the North. Yet only China is actually investing in the North. Under Lee, most ROK investment in the North, outside the Kaesong complex, has dried up. North Korea is locked into a relationship with China it cannot easily get out of.

The result, some fear, may be that the North would slowly be integrated economically into China’s northeast provinces, end up using the yuan as its currency and find itself only nominally sovereign. Beijing clearly wants to avert any number of collapse scenarios in the North, including the possibility of large numbers of refugees fleeing into China. But, while the PRC has understandable security concerns, some regard its investments in the DPRK as an effort to create compatible institutional structures that would facilitate integration with China’s northeast economy. A scenario of economic assimilation would mean Korean reunification would take place—if ever—under Chinese auspices and only if a united Korea’s foreign policy conformed to China’s.

How could Koreans—North, South, or overseas—accept such an outcome after 35 years of Japanese colonialism and nearly 70 years of division? Despite the deep divisions and divides between North and South Korea, they are the same people and possess a common cultural memory of China in its various dynastic incarnations as a hegemon. Watch almost any South Korean saeguk—historical television drama—and the Chinese are typically depicted with more disdain and distrust than even Japan.

Given the concern over China’s regional intentions—in part evidenced by Obama’s renewed emphasis on Asia—Koreans, North and South, have good reason to be deeply concerned about potential “Finlandization” at the hands of China. This term refers to Finland’s 1948 agreement with the USSR under which Helsinki agreed not to join alliances challenging Moscow or serve as a base for any nation challenging Soviet interests; in return, Stalin agreed to uphold Finland’s autonomy and system.

A less pejorative term is “adaptive politics,” but nonetheless, as Bruce Gilley wrote in Foreign Affairs,

“…a Finlandized state calculates that its long-term interests… are best served by making strategic concessions to a superpower next door. These concessions are motivated chiefly by geographic proximity, psychological threats from the superpower, and cultural affinities between the two sides. Being so close, the superpower need only issue vague threats, rather than display actual military muscle, to change its weaker neighbor’s policies.”

Recently, the term “Finlandization” has been applied to Taiwan, and less so to  Vietnam – both facing the South China Sea – but not to the Korean Peninsula. Yet, for North Korea,, a more apt term may be “Hong Kong-ization,” because China could economically absorb the DPRK, not merely limit its autonomy. North Korea then would be a de facto Chinese vassal state. The PRC may defend its right to secure its regional sphere of influence so that its neighbors’ policies are more “compatible” with its interests, but Koreans could once again pay the price by giving up national unity and genuine independence.

Instead, the two Koreas should take concrete steps to reintegrate and eventually reunify as a nation of over 70 million people; this would be the most viable solution to potential prolonged division and Finlandization by China. Near-term Korean reintegration would constitute a regional strategic realignment which would be a win-win scenario for each Korea, as well as the U.S. and Japan. For the proud North, moreover, it would send the message to China that it will no longer be relegated to beggar status and subject to its exploitation.

Despite the huge challenges of incorporating the North’s underdeveloped economy and the ideological and psychological chasms between the two societies, perhaps no people can overcome them as well as the Koreans. A 2009 Goldman Sachs report, “A United Korea? Reassessing North Korea Risks,” noted the synergies between the two Koreas. It cited the North’s abundance of minerals, many coveted by South Korean industry; a large, literate labor force with a good work ethic; and the potential for rapid productivity gains. Goldman Sachs projected that, in an ideal scenario, the GDP of a united Korea could overtake that of other rich countries, including Japan, in just 30-40 years, if North Korea’s full growth potential were tapped.

Initial movement toward Korean reunification likely could not come until after December’s ROK presidential elections, but much can subsequently take place by the end of 2013. The two Koreas need to concur that neither has an assured future of political and economic independence and viability as two states sharing the same peninsula in China’s shadow. The U.S. should encourage near-term reunification as part of its renewed focus on Asia, since the ROK would more confidently move in this direction with clear U.S. backing. Reunification should not be just an old slogan or ideal for each Korea, but an urgent task to create a strong, unified, and independent nation.



Mark P. Barry, Ph.D., is an independent Asian affairs analyst who has followed Northeast Asian affairs for 22 years. He met the late President Kim Il Sung in 1994.

[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia]




Anonymous's picture
Hi I want to mention that

Hi I want to mention that China her self was a victim of conquest from 1600 to 1900. The Hans Chinese were Directly conquored by the Manchus and were 2nd hand citizens in their own country. Manchus did not directly rule korea like they did with the chinese. They left Korea alone (maybe due to common ancestry)... As a oversea korean, i feel obliged to mention that. It is irritating to give credit to the Han Chinese for something that they did not do. Again they were the conquered people and were forced to wear queues. The Han Chinese did not influence Korea the Manchus did. Thanks

Anonymous's picture
Status quo

Status quo for the foreseeable future. Reunification can only happen with the support of China, the US and obviously the two Koreas. Even if we assume reunification, a unified Korea would likely end up having a more independent policy (perhaps the Swiss approach). While Korea doesn't want to go back to the centuries old Chinese tributary system, but the reality is that China will continue to be its most important trading partner. Its economy, like much of East Asia, will increasingly be dependent on China. It also not in its interest to get caught up with the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China. It'll just play off between China and the US for its own benefit but would not openly align with one or the other. This is the bigger trend for the rest of the region as well.

Anonymous's picture
This author is clueless about Korea

A Canadian long-term resident in Seoul once wrote in her blog that Seoul has less Chinese influences than her hometown of Vancouver, which she found striking considering how China's only 250 km away from where she was living. The fact is those who live in Korea know that China has almost zero influence in Korea, and Korea is very anti-China in culture and politics. What's more, average North Koreans blame their current misery on China's support of Kim's regime and will become even bigger China haters than the resident in the South. Just as former East Germans turned anti-Soviets after the fall of the Berlin Wall, North Koreans will turn feverishly anti-China after the collapse of Kim Regime, and the unified Korea would firmly in the western block in terms of security alliances. A security alliance with China is not even dreamed up in Korean media at all. So the Post-Unification Korea's model will be Germanization(Where the unified Germany became the leader of Western Europe), not Finlandization(Political Neutralization).
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