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Why Korean Reunification is in China’s Strategic National Interest

North Korea’s July 4 launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile has highlighted once again both the extent to which Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program and aggressive behavior is destabilizing the Asia Pacific region and the relative impotence of efforts to date designed to respond. Although North Korean nuclear weapons seem primarily designed to ensure regime survival, these weapons will, once fully deliverable, provide Pyongyang with the almost unlimited ability to blackmail its neighbors, primarily China. If China’s leaders do not want to fall victim to North Korean blackmail, they will need to ask themselves hard questions about the costs and benefits of Beijing’s longstanding relationship with Pyongyang and reposition China accordingly.

It is easy to imagine what a reformed North Korea not threatening its population or its neighbors might look like. That country would close its labor camps and protect the rights of its citizens, open its borders to trade and new ideas, work with neighboring countries to enhance peace, security, and stability in the region, halt its incendiary propaganda, stand down its aggressive military posture, eliminate its nuclear weapons, and rejoin the family of nations working together to build a better future for all.

The current leadership in Pyongyang, however, is doing exactly the opposite. It oppresses its own citizens in what a U.N. Commission of Inquiry has called a “crime against humanity,” remains hermetically closed to new ideas and opportunities, threatens its neighbors, and launches unprovoked attacks. Its nuclear weapons program is racing toward full, deliverable weaponization that will super-charge an arms race in Asia, multiply Pyongyang’s ability to occasionally blackmail other countries, increase the likelihood of a future nuclear accident, and sow regional instability.

Although North Korean nuclear weaponization is bad for the world, it is seen as beneficial by North Korea’s leaders themselves. From their perspective, nuclear weapons enhance their own leadership prestige, build leverage in international relations, provide insurance against the types of foreign intervention faced by Libya and Ukraine after giving up their nuclear weapons, and increase the cost of a potential coup d’état. For these reasons, North Korea is racing to develop a deliverable nuclear weapons capability as quickly as possible.

The only way North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons is if its leaders come to believe the cost of maintaining nuclear weapons is greater than the cost of giving them up.
Because North Korea’s leaders are structurally xenophobic, ideologically dependent on maintaining a hyper-paranoid state of war, feel they will be safer with nuclear weapons than without them, and have a long and consistent history of non-compliance with arms reduction agreements they have signed, no amount of cajoling or engagement is likely to convince Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons program. There is simply no assurance the United States, South Korea, and/or Japan could conceivably offer capable of changing Pyongyang’s calculus. The only way North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons is if its leaders come to believe the cost of maintaining nuclear weapons is greater than the cost of giving them up.

Other than a change of leadership within North Korea or an extremely improbable and almost certainly ineffective and counter-productive U.S. military strike, the only likely means of driving this perceptual change among the North Korean leadership would be by ratcheting up sanctions and other non-military coercive measures to the point of undermining their grip on power in the absence of denuclearization. Although rounds of sanctions have been imposed via the United Nations, these sanctions have not been capable of reaching this potential pain threshold because China has not been willing to go along.

Viewpoint

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China’s current relationship with North Korea has both historic and strategic underpinnings. North Korea would not exist but for China’s intervention in the Korean War, North Korea is China’s only treaty ally, and Mao famously called the two countries “as close as lips and teeth.” Today, North Korea provides China a buffer between itself and U.S.-allied South Korea, a tool for preventing the reunification of the Korean peninsula, and a cheap source of natural resources and labor. In exchange, China provides North Korea with 90 percent of its energy and most of the food going to its military, services cash transfers to Pyongyang via Chinese financial institutions, and keeps the North Korean economy afloat via trade and access to Chinese markets. Without this support and China’s protection in watering down U.N. sanctions and other forms of international pressure, North Korea would likely collapse in short order.

But Beijing’s support for North Korea comes at a tremendous and growing cost to China. North Korea is increasingly hostile to China and constantly insulting Chinese leaders and launching missiles during important Chinese events like the G20 and the Belt and Road Summit. China’s support for North Korea makes Beijing complicit in the “crime against humanity” currently underway in North Korea and its forcible return of North Korean refugees violates international humanitarian law. North Korea’s instability and technological unevenness create the very real possibility of a future nuclear accident that would contaminate Northeast China. North Korean belligerence justifies the strong U.S. presence in South Korea, the increasing augmentation of missile-defense capabilities in South Korea and Japan that undermine China’s nuclear deterrent, and the eventual revision of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution and Japanese military normalization. Perhaps most significantly, however, North Korea’s nuclear program is primarily targeted at China.

Although North Korean nuclear weaponization is bad for all other countries, it transforms North Korea’s relationship with China more than it does with any other state. North Korea may not plan to ever use nuclear weapons against China, but it is already leveraging its nuclear capabilities to limit China’s influence over Pyongyang. These trends will only strengthen if the North Korean nuclear weapons program advances. This places China in a lose-lose situation. China’s acquiescence to a North Korean nuclear weapons program is leading to both a more hostile relationship between China and North Korea and is also justifying a host of responses by the United States, Japan, and South Korea that undermine China’s security. Although Beijing’s reasons for continuing to support North Korea are understandable, they are far outweighed by the growing harm the China-North Korea status quo relationship is inflicting on China.

Chinese policymakers may fantasize that North Korea might on its own follow Deng Xiaoping’s example and reform from within, but North Korea’s leaders will not be able to make sufficient economic reforms in the absence of political reforms that would undermine the foundation of its totalitarian structure. The more realistic range of possibilities for the future of North Korea essentially faces Chinese leaders with a binary choice. If China believes it is better off with a nuclear armed and hostile North Korea on its border, it can continue on its current path of expressing displeasure and supporting mild sanctions but not placing sufficient pressure on North Korea to alter Pyongyang’s strategic calculus and actions. If China believes it cannot live with a nuclear armed and hostile North Korea, Beijing must do what it takes to force the North Korean leadership to either give up their nuclear weapons or face regime destabilization and collapse.

If China chooses to continue along the path of supporting and enabling North Korea, Pyongyang will develop ever more leverage over Beijing and an increasing ability to force China to maintain or increase levels of material and political support no matter how much damage North Korea might be doing to China’s broader strategic interests. By maintaining the current approach, Beijing will invite the United States, South Korea, and Japan to more fully realize that the best and perhaps only way to influence North Korea’s behavior will be by increasing the costs imposed on China for Beijing’s endorsement of the status quo. Like the Obama administration before it, the Trump administration is moving in this direction and will be working with partners over the coming months to strengthen secondary sanctions on Chinese and other financial and business institutions dealing with North Korea, beef up and integrate regional missile defense systems, and more aggressively deploy military assets.

Changing its policy and choosing to use its formidable leverage to effectively promote denuclearization in North Korea, on the other hand, would also carry real potential risks for China. In the best-case scenario, once Pyongyang realized that Beijing was willing to cut off North Korea’s trade and aid links to China in the absence of denuclearization, North Korea would step back from its nuclear weapons program and, in the name of regime survival, begin a gradual reform process based on something like the Chinese model. But it is also possible that North Korea’s leaders would resist Chinese pressure even up to the point of regime destabilization. In this scenario, the likelihood of a North Korean regime collapse that would eventually lead to Korean reunification under South Korean law would increase. For this reason, any consideration by Beijing of a change in its North Korea policy would require a clear-headed assessment by Chinese leaders of the costs and benefits of Korean reunification.

While China’s fear of a reunified Korea allied to the United States has been the primary driver of Beijing’s North Korea policy for decades, it is not at all clear that the benefits to China of a divided Korea still outweigh the potential benefits of Korean reunification. Given the volatility and high cost to China of the status quo, the likelihood of a North Korean nuclear accident, how rapidly China’s relations with South Korea have grown, and how deeply its relationship with North Korea has sunk, Beijing must now reassess the costs and benefits of relations with the two Koreas and ask whether China would be better off with a hostile North Korea as currently configured or with a Korean peninsula reunified under South Korean law.

Beijing today has far more important and beneficial relations with Seoul than it does with Pyongyang. Chinese trade with South Korea is nearly 40 times greater than its level of trade with North Korea, and the two societies’ economies are deeply connected via robust economic, cultural, and human flows. Korean reunification would enhance this relationship, 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 at current levels, and put China in great position to positively assist in the transitional process, leading to generations of good will and mutually beneficial collaboration. It would also remove one of the greatest causes of conflict and division in Northeast Asia and help lay a foundation for a much more stable and secure region.

Recognizing this, Chinese scholars like Deng Yuwen and Shen Zhihua have clearly articulated China’s interests with regard to North Korea. As Shen writes, “The fundamental interests of China and North Korea are at odds… Judging by the current situation, North Korea is China’s latent enemy and South Korea could be China’s friend… We must see clearly that China and North Korea are no longer brothers in arms, and in the short term there’s no possibility of an improvement in Chinese-North Korean relations.” As these and other scholars have articulated, while shifting away from China’s traditional relationship with North Korea would be difficult and risky, the current path of blind support for Pyongyang at the expense of China’s security and strategic interests is ultimately self-defeating for Beijing.

Because China has traditionally seen North Korea through the prism of its broader strategic rivalry with the United States, some level of strategic trust between Beijing and Washington would be required to make this type of transition possible. China would need some level of comfort that Washington and Seoul would work with Beijing to reach an optimal outcome that respected each nation’s most important interests if China pushes North Korea to the point where Pyongyang either gives up its nuclear weapons or faces destabilization. Given the erratic behavior and perceived unreliability of the new U.S. administration, reaching this level of strategic trust in the present context will be a tall order. For this reason, the onus would be on the United States and South Korea to convince Beijing that Chinese interests would be sufficiently respected under a reunification scenario. If China, on the other hand, sought a decreased U.S. military presence in the Korean peninsula following reunification, Beijing would need to convince the Koreans that China did not seek a tributary or unequal relationship with a reunified Korea.

But after nearly 70 years of existence, the North Korean state has outlived its usefulness to everyone except North Korea’s few top leaders. As Pyongyang races toward full nuclear weaponization, China, the only state with the power to change North Korea’s behavior, is faced with a strategic choice. By continuing to support and protect North Korea’s leaders, Beijing is placing itself on the wrong side of history, betraying the North Korean people, and harming its own interests. By taking a stand against North Korean nuclear weapons, aggression, and criminality and supporting the eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula under South Korean law, China would enhance its own strategic interests, demonstrate a new level of international leadership, and place itself in the driver’s seat for future efforts to build a better and safer Asia-Pacific region for all.