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This editorial was originally published by Caixin on May 1, 2015. It was subsequently removed from the site on May 28, 2015.

Korean Reunification Is in China's National Interest

Jamie F. Metzl

05.01.2015 10:41

Someday, high-speed rail and communications links will connect southern Korea to northeast China. This corridor will weave together southern Korea's advanced technology, northern Korea's low cost labor and natural resources, and China's manufacturing expertise into an unparalleled and mutually beneficial value chain. Korean reunification will make this possible. It will also reduce regional tension, advance mutual understanding, and increase wealth and well-being in Northeast Asia more broadly. China will be an enormous beneficiary. It will also be its catalyst.

Here is why.

For nearly three decades, North Korea has developed its nuclear weapons program because the country's leaders feel they need nuclear weapons to survive. Observing the fate of Saddam's Hussein's Iraq, whose lack of nuclear weapons made it susceptible to attack in the first and second Gulf Wars, and of Ukraine, which gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security promises later violated by Moscow, Pyongyang has logically concluded that nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of national sovereignty and security in a dangerous world. Although Iran may be negotiating some limits on its nuclear capabilities, it is hard to imagine the leaders in Pyongyang, who are more insecure, less connected to the world, and further along in their nuclear weapons program, would voluntarily give up their greatest asset in exchange for security guarantees they would likely never trust.

But while a nuclear weapons-armed North Korea may be in Pyongyang's perceived interest, it is hardly in anybody else's. In fact, a nuclear weaponized North Korea is a threat to all of its neighbors. For South Korea, Japan and the United States, all of whom have been repeatedly threatened with annihilation by North Korea, the reasons for concern are obvious. These countries, however, have very little leverage over Pyongyang and are mindful that past efforts to negotiate with the North, particularly South Korea's Sunshine Policy and the 1994 nuclear agreement, have failed completely.

With little leverage and this history of past failures, South Korea, the United States, China, Russia, and Japan have engaged North Korea in the six-party talks in an unlikely effort to find common ground. These talks have failed because of the four parties other than North Korea, only China has any real potential influence over North Korea, and Beijing has refused to meaningfully exercise that power. The talks are ultimately a bilateral China-North Korea process masquerading as a multilateral effort. They could work if China were to take strong unilateral action, and not if not. And China has been cautious in its dealings with Pyongyang.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, China has not only been North Korea's sole patron, its aid and political backing have also kept the country alive. Today, China provides North Korea with 90 percent of its energy and most of the food going to its military. Without this support, and China and Russia's protection in blunting UN sanctions, North Korea would collapse in short order.

North Korea has not collapsed, even when going through its deadly famine in the 1990s, because China has strong reasons to not want that outcome. The Chinese and Korean Communist parties have been connected since the 1930s; China's entry into the Korean War ensured the survival of the North Korean state; and today, North Korea is China's sole official ally. Although North Korea doesn't do much for China, its existence provides a buffer between China and the U.S. forces stationed in South Korea and could potentially pin down those U.S. troops in case of military conflict surrounding Taiwan. China also fears North Korean refugee flows into northeast China in case of collapse.

But if China has strong reasons to want North Korea to exist, it has stronger reasons to not want it to become a fully nuclear weaponized state. North Korea's weapons programs and belligerence justify the strong U.S. military presence in Korea, Japan and Korea's participation in U.S. missile shield efforts that weaken China's nuclear deterrent, and even the potential change to Article 9 of Japanese constitution that would alter that country's military posture. The existence of nuclear weapons in such an unstable political environment also increases the possibility of a nuclear accident, the fallout from which would reach northeast China. It is these types of strategic interests, not Chinese altruism, that have driven China's cautious but not insignificant participation in the six-party talks to date.

These talks have failed, however, because China, the one country with meaningful leverage over North Korea, has not been willing to apply enough pressure on the country to alter Pyongyang's strategic calculus. For efforts to prevent North Korea from advancing in its nuclear weaponization to succeed, China would need to take unilateral action either to spur internal reform in North Korea or make moving forward on nuclear weapons more costly to Pyongyang than its perceived benefit.

From a Chinese perspective, spurring reform in North Korea along the lines of China's own economic and political development would clearly be the preferred option. The possibility for Beijing to effectively use this approach took a nosedive after the 2013 execution of Jang Song-taek, the architect of economic reform in North Korea and the North Korea-China opening, by his nephew, Kim Jong-un. Since then, relations between the two countries have deteriorated to the point of brutal name calling in respective medias and even alleged troop movements along the border. And even if China-North Korea relations were better, the nature of North Korea's system puts a natural limit on the extent of possible reform.

Terror against its people is the core of the North Korean system. Because it has no alternate source of legitimacy, the regime would collapse if it stopped deploying this terror to control every aspect of people's lives. While meaningful economic reform would require the loosening of controls and public access to market and other information, the continued existence of North Korea's totalitarian regime depends on the opposite.

Because possibilities for reform are limited, China's only other option for slowing North Korea's nuclear weapons program will be unilateral pressure based on withholding assistance, even at risk of destabilization. To follow this course, China would need to feel it would ultimately be better off with a reunified Korea, even following a phase of instability, than it would from a fully nuclear weaponized North Korea.

Taking this step would be made all the easier because Beijing today has far more important and beneficial relations with Seoul than it does with Pyongyang. The numbers speak for themselves. In 2013, China's trade with South Korea amounted to roughly US$ 230 billion compared with US$ 7 billion with the North. President Xi Jinping has met with Republic of Korea President Park Geun-Hye seven times. Xi and Park have visited each other's capitals, but Xi has yet to visit North Korea or meet once with Kim Jong-un. China is negotiating a free-trade deal with South Korea, and benefits enormously from South Korean know-how and investment, but gains virtually no economic benefit from the North. Additionally, China and South Korea work closely together in important forums like the G20 and South Korea is a founding member of China's Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

China also stands to be an enormous beneficiary of a reunified Korea. Korean reunification would open a high-tech corridor from southern Korea to northeast China, eliminate the threat of nuclear proliferation, reduce the justification for the maintenance of U.S. forces in Korea, and put China in great position to positively assist in the transitional process, leading to generations of good will. And it is not unthinkable that China might even negotiate some type of arrangement that could address China's fears of U.S. forces coming north of the 38th parallel following reunification, with, perhaps, a limited exception to help secure nuclear weapons and stockpiles.

In spite of these benefits to China of Korean reunification, however, China's most important rationale for using aid to pressure North Korea to pull back on nuclear weaponization will not be the attraction of reunification but the realization that North Korea's nuclear weapons program is ultimately directed at Beijing.

North Korea's bellicose rhetoric often threatens South Korea, the United States and Japan with annihilation, but it is highly unlikely North Korean nuclear weapons would ever target those countries, not least because the threat they pose to North Korea is largely fictional and attacking any of them would invite North Korea's destruction. Given the nature of the North Korean regime, it also seems highly unlikely that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons in order to follow Ukraine's example and negotiate their removal in exchange for financial assistance or political normalization. The only logical explanation seems to be that North Korea is developing nuclear weapons primarily to put a limit on China's ability to influence Pyongyang. North Korea may not plan to ever use nuclear weapons against China, but it will very likely leverage its nuclear capabilities to limit China's influence over Pyongyang.

So how might all of this play out?

Recognizing North Korea's efforts to use its nuclear weapons to reduce China's range of action, Beijing will seek to use its influence to slow the advance of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. China will at first continue to do this through the six-party structure, but the talks will remain only a fig leaf covering China's essential decision. Ultimately,

China will see itself as having little choice but to increase unilateral pressure on North Korea by moderating aid in order to slow its nuclear weapons program.

Although North Korea will feel the pinch, its leaders will continue forward in their nuclear weapons programs to ensure their survival. China's pressure, however, will force North Korea to look for alternate sources of income, none of which will be able to make up for the loss of Chinese assistance. Their first stop will be Moscow, North Korea's former benefactor. But Russia, badly weakened by low energy prices and international sanctions, will hardly be in a position to help in any meaningful way. South Korea might have been an option before the failure of Kim Dae-jung's Sunshine Policy, but not today. An interesting possibility might be North Korea flipping from Chinese toward American support in the spirit of Myanmar's transition, but this would be extremely difficult to pull off, not least due to North Korea's ideology.

Facing a reduction in Chinese aid and unable to find an alternate patron, North Korea will have to look internally for growth. Recent evidence of preliminary agricultural and industrial policy reforms indicate this is already happening. But the type of systemic reforms needed to eliminate the need for outside assistance would require opening up the North Korean system in a manner that would fatally undermine the country's totalitarian regime. Reform simply cannot work in the current political environment. Conversely, effective reform would require a different political configuration in Pyongyang not possible under the current regime.

For these reasons, North Korea is at a crossroads. Its leaders feel it needs both nuclear weapons and economic growth in order to survive, but the weapons program and it economic needs are in existential conflict with each other. If North Korea charges forward on nuclear weaponization, it will alienate China and fatally undermine its economic needs. If it seeks to improve its economic situation, it will need to either scale back its nuclear program to placate China or open up its system to an extent that will ultimately undermine the regime's foundations.

As the government totters under these inherent contradictions, China and other interested states will recognize that the only rational path forward will be the absorption of the North into South Korea's economic and governmental system. Just like East Germany was dissolved and came under West Germany's political system during German reunification, Korean reunification will only work if the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is dissolved, North Korea comes under South Korean law, and the process is legitimized through a democratic election following a transitional period.

The end of the North Korean regime will be a blessing for the world. It will reduce tensions in the region, end a strange relic of the Cold War, foster economic growth, and improve the tortured lives of North Korea's long-suffering population. Other than Korea, the country that will benefit most from Korean reunification will be China.

A newly confident China has recently begun to demonstrate a greater willingness and ability to play a more active and responsible global role. China can and will reassess its position on North Korea and Korean reunification not because it is the right thing to do, although it is, but because doing so will eventually be recognized as being in China's strategic national interest.

Jamie F. Metzl is a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council and author of Genesis Code. He served on the U.S. National Security Council and in State Department, and with the United Nations, and is the former executive vice president of the Asia Society.