CHENG Xiaohe, Ph. D, Associate Professor, School of International Studies, Deputy Director, Center for China’s International Strategic Studies, Renmin University of China
Global Peace Convention
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, December 5-8, 2013
As Korea’s next-door neighbor, China has keen interest in Korean affairs, in which Korean unification issue occupies a central position. Although China is not the creator of the Korean division, but its military intervention in the Korean War helped to harden the division.
As the two Koreas bogged down in a drawn-out military confrontation and political competition on the divided Korean Peninsula, the Peninsula became one of major sources of conflicts and instability in Northeast Asia. The divided situation on the Peninsula remains basically unchanged even though the Cold War was left behind in early 1990s.
Nonetheless, as the Peninsula remains divided, the relations among major players have undertaken dramatic changes. China and the United States, once pitted against each other in a dead confrontation, shook hands and became strategic partners; China and South Korea, another set of antagonists, exchanged diplomatic recognition and also formed a strategic partnership; the Sino-North Korea relationship, which has been characterized as “lips and teeth” has had hard time and still faces daunting challenge regarding North Korea’s nuclear issues; the inter-Korean relations also have changed from hostile to reconciliatory and to hostile. As the wealth gap between the North and the South is widening, coupled with leadership changes in Pyongyang, the expectation of imminent national unification in South Korea runs high.
For China, it realizes that the division of the Korean Peninsula is a historical product and the master of the ultimate unification on the Peninsula are the Korean people, outside powers’ interference, no matter what the motive will be, cannot stop the unification trend. For China, which also faces its own national division, it is immoral to stand in the way of eventual Korean unification and at the same time, it is strategically unwise for China to take a hands-off policy toward Korean affairs. A number of non-intervention and non-obstruction principles should be observed: (1) China should avoid taking specific position on how the unification process should go; in other words, China should refrain from publically endorsing any specific unification programs before they become acceptable to both Koreas; (2) China should continue to maintain friendly relations with both Koreas, no matter who absorbs whom; (3) China should prepare to influence the process that best serve its national interests through bilateral or multilateral venues; (4) China only conduct selective interventions as they deems necessary, China should do so with caution; (5) China should not fight alone, international cooperation is a necessary tool that helps to transform the unification process into a plus-sum game for major powers.
Guarding against two extreme situations, namely, massive chaos and military conflict or smooth accomplishment of the national unification, China should prepare to intervene to restore and keep peace on the Peninsula and to participate post-unification reconstruction in the united Korea.
The Korean division is a legacy of the Cold War and makes the Korean Peninsula a most dangerous place in the world. As a major source of conflict, the perennial inter-Korean rivalry from time to time threatens peace in Northeast Asia, provoking major powers ‘competition, dividing the region into competing blocs, and fueling regional arms race. As an immediate neighbor of the Korean Peninsula and major stakeholder in Northeast Asia, China has a keen interest in the Korean affairs. As the two Koreas, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, also called North Korea) and Republic of Korea (ROK, also called South Korea), work to their final unification, what kind of role China have played and what role it will play in the future matter. Since what happen on the Korean Peninsula is closely associated with the general security situation in Northeast Asia, what peace building role China can do in the region also deserves a special attention in this paper.
The Roles China Had Played in Ancient History
In order to understand what kind of role China may play in the future in Korean Unification process, it is necessary to know what roles China had played in its long ancient history. A brief historical assessment is in order.
A Unification facilitator
China dominated East Asia for more than two thousand years. It had carefully cultivated a complex tribute system to deal with external relations, in which China occupied a central and superior position vs. other states on its periphery. The system made its debut in Han Dynasty. In its early years, the system was not firmly established. The tributary states were not always submissive to the Middle Kingdom. Sometimes, they rose up and fought with China for a variety reasons. In the Sui Dynasty, border military conflicts flared up and China tried to conquer the Korean Peninsula, but to no avail. Sui’s military expeditions led its quick fall. New Dynasty, Tang, followed Sui’s suit. In order to eliminate a threat from the Koguryo, which was the most strongest states on the Korean Peninsula, the Tang government adopted two-pronged strategy, namely, “using barbarians against barbarians” (YiyiZhiyi) and “befriending distance states while attacking those nearby” (YuanjiaoJingong), and formed an alliance with Silla to attack Koguryo, which posed direct threat to China. China’s intervention in the inter-Korean rivalry decidedly tilted the balance of power on the Korean Peninsula and helped Silla conquered and united the whole peninsula. Even though Chinese intervention derived from its self-interest, including destroying long-time strong competitor and imposing a direct control of the peninsula, one of its unintended results was that the divided Korean for the first time accomplished their first unification in ancient times that laid down groundwork for their reunification in the future.
A Security Protector
The tribute system was a device for interest tradeoff. Small and poor states on China’s periphery paid tributes to Chinese emperors to demonstrate their submission and allegiance, the emperors reciprocated in kind with much generous largesse, regime recognition and security protection. Among all the tributary states, Korea and Vietnam occupied a special position in that they served as a buffer zone separating China from outside hostile powers. In Ming Dynasty, Korea’s security value came to be appreciated by Chinese ruling class. After Suffering from frequent harassment and invasion from Japanese pirates, China begun to see Japan as a direct threat to its security. To China, Korea was a “protective screen” (pingzhang).As General Toyotomi Hideyoshin brought an end to the Sengoku period and united a divided Japan, he embarked on a risky overseas military adventure by invading Korea in 1592. Recognizing the loss of Korea to Japan would invite further invasion of China itself, the Ming Court decided to fulfill its obligation to offer its security protection to Korea. With China strong intervention, the Korean finally drove Japan out of the Korean peninsula. The place then remained in peace for nearly three hundred years. But in the next round of head-on competition for sphere of influence on the Korean Peninsula in late 19th century, China, which haunted by internal turmoil and extern wars, could not repeat what it did in Ming Dynasty. Even though China once again tried to honor its security commitment to Korea by sending its military forces to Pyongyang in a vain attempt to shore up Korean King’s rule, the rising Japan defeated China and drove it out of the peninsula. China not only lost its last buffer zone, but also lost capacity to compete with Japan in the years to come. The vulnerability of China’s homeland security was completely exposed to Japan aggression.
China’s Roles in the Cold War Era
In ancient time, living beside giant neighbors had been a tragedy for Korea, Korea fell victim to Sino-Japanese rivalry. In modern time, Korea still could not escape this misfortune. The end of the WWII finished Japan’s occupation but did not return a unitary Korean Peninsula to the hands of the Korean People. As the Soviet Union and the United States carved up their spheres of influence in Northeast Asia, they artificially divided the peninsula into two parts along the 38th parallel with two nations’ military presence in each side. The unfolding of the Cold War gave a birth to two competing states on the Peninsula, the ROK and the DPRK, and the two Koreas’ competition for Korean unification on their own terms became a perennial drama that has been significantly impacting on the geopolitical landscape in Northeast Asia. As an immediate neighbor, China inevitably entangled in the Korean affairs. In contrast with its roles in ancient times, mainly defined by a single factor, namely, geopolitical security consideration, its role in Korean unification process in the Cold War had determined by more factors, including its relations with the two Koreas, the Soviet Union and the United States.
An Adamant Supporter
The People’s Republic of China (called China in the following text), which shared with North Korea with similar ideology and mutual ally, the Soviet Union, and was indebted to North Korea for its critical assistance in Chinese civil war, became Pyongyang’s adamant supporter, as evidenced in Kim Il Sung’s military unification drive in June 1950.
Although China’s tribute system had totally collapsed a long time ago, China also faced a similar situation when the Korean War broke out. As US forces crossed the 38th parallel and approached China’s border, China needed to make a strategic choice: to stay put simply China was still weak and ill-prepared for a war with the most powerful nation, the United States and its support; or to militarily intervene for the sake of keeping hostile powers from its buffer zone. China chose the second option for two basic reasons: 1) the United States, which had sided with the Nationalist government and had recently been driven out of the Chinese mainland, was the head of the Western camp and the number one enemy with the capability and political will to topple the regime; so it could not tolerate the presence of such hostile forces in its vital buffer zone; and 2) viewing history as a mirror, China saw the United States through the lens of what Japan had done on the Korean Peninsula, fearing a repeat performance. Even though, China’s participation of the Korean War was mainly motivated by its own self-interest, it offered security protection to North Korea, with which it shared an ideology and membership in the communist camp. In 1961, China’s security commitment was formalized by a legally-binding alliance agreement, also called the Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance between the PRC and the DPRK.
China’s support to North Korea has also been demonstrated in political and diplomatic fields. Since the 1954 Geneva Conference, China has offered its consistent endorsement to Pyongyang’s unification proposals. After joining the United Nations, China made a good use of this international organization to help North Korea to promote its own diplomatic agenda. In 28th UN General Assembly, held from September to October 1973, Qiao Guanhua, the head of the Chinese delegation, wasted no time in presenting China’s position on the Korean issue: (1) The foreign troops, mainly the American forces, are the obstacle to Korea’s independent and peaceful unification, the UN Command should be allowed to disband and the foreign military forces should be allowed to withdraw; (2) The two Koreas’ July 4th Statement to large extent makes the Korean Armistice Agreement dysfunctional; (3) the continuing presence of the United Nations Command and foreign military forces on the Korean Peninsula encourages South Korea to refuse a series of rational proposals made by the DPRK and stalls the dialogue between the North and the South; (4) two Korea’s simultaneous admission to UN will legalize and perpetuate the division of the Korean Peninsula, the two Koreas should not enter the United Nations as separate nations, and if they want to join the UN before national unification, they should form the north-south confederation under the single name of the Confederal Republic of Koryo, and enter the UN under that name; (5) Kim Il Sung’s five point proposal is completely rational and reasonable and should gain support and sympathy from all the nations that pursue justice. With China’s active support, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a consensus statement, confirming Kim Il Sung’s three principles and decided to dismantle U.N. Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea.
In the 1974 UN General Assembly, China made new efforts to promote its own draft resolution with regard to the question of Korea, cosponsored by other thirty seven nations. With China’s intensive lobby, the UN General Assembly adopted the Resolution 3333, which promised to consider the dissolution of the UN Command. Upon China’s insistence, the UN for the first time formally invited North Korea to participate in the discussion of Korean issue in the UN General Assembly. In August 1975, Qiao Guanhua, then China’s Foreign Minister, once again made a high-pitched speech, which the question of Korea ranked second in five major issues Qi addressed. Qiao reiterated that the UN Command be dissolved, all the foreign troops under the flag of the United Nations in South Korea withdraw, and parties directly concerned to the Korean Armistice Agreement instead of its signatories as the US delegates insisted should sign a peace treaty. For Qiao, signing a peace treaty and withdrawing all the US troops are the keys to the peaceful solution to the question of Korea. With China and 42 other nations’ intensive lobby, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution, calling for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from South Korea and dissolution of the UN Command.
As discussed above, from the end of the Korean War to early 1980s, China had been North Korea’s adamant supporter. With China’s diplomatic support, North Korea made some headway in its unification pursuit, including the dissolution of the UN Commission on Unification and Reconstruction; a consensus-building for turning the armistice agreement into a peace treaty among the two Koreas, China and the United States. As China experienced leadership changes and normalized its relations with the United States, its enthusiastic interest in the Korean issue abated.
As of early 1970s, China and the United States firmly stood behind their Korean allies respectively. Their decision to bury hatchets certainly had a significant impact on the geopolitical situation on the peninsula. On July 15 1971, one day before the Chinese government publically announced Nixon’s upcoming visit to China, Zhou Enlai made a secret trip to Pyongyang, explaining China’s decision to invite Nixon. Zhou pledged that “China’s position on the Korean issue remains unchanged” and “China will not trade its principles with the United States”. Kim Il Sung replied, “Nixon’s visit to China is a new problem for the Korean people, the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) will educate its people.” In comparison with Vietnam’s negative reaction, North Korea sent a special envoy, Kim il, to Beijing in July 1971, confirming that the WPK fully understood the Chinese government’s invitation of Nixon and the meetings between Premier Zhou and Kissinger, which would be conducive to the world revolution. At the same time, Kim il asked China to convey an eight-point proposal to the United States. In October, Zhou Enlai passed the message to Kissinger and received no feedback.
After Nixon’s visit, Zhou Enlai once again travelled to Pyongyang, briefing Kim il Sung on recent Sino-US summit. Zhou highlighted three points: (1) the United States agreed to abolish the U.N. Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea; (2) “the United States will support efforts of the Republic of Korea to seek a relaxation of tension and increased communication in the Korean peninsula” could be interpreted as a sign that the US will encourage inter-Korean consultation; (3) Nixon made it clear that the US would not allow Japan to enter Taiwan and South Korea. Obviously, Zhou tried to emphasize that with China’s behind-the-scene work, the United States was ready to meet some of the eight-point proposal North Korea government recently put forward. In fact, the Sino-US rapprochement offered North Korea a chance to seek a direct contact with the United States through China’s help. In 1972, the North Koreans for the first time publically demonstrated its interest in establishing diplomatic, commercial, and cultural relations with the United States. In February 1973, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ho Tam asked China to explore the possibility of a direct DPRK-US contact. In March, Zhou passed North Korea’s intention to Kissinger. Kissinger replied: 1) “he does not consider the direct US-North Korea contact issue”, 2) U.N. Commission for the Unification and Rehabilitation of Korea would be dissolved in the second half of 1972, and 3) the US military forces would gradually withdraw from South Korea and begin the implement the withdrawal plan next year.
In the same month, Zhou updated Ho Tam on his conversation with Kissinger. The normalization of the Sino-US relations in 1979 rekindled Pyongyang’s interests to explore the direct contact with the US. China was once more requested by Pyongyang to act as an intermediary again. Whenever Chinese leaders exchanged visits with American counterparts, they passed North Korea’s messages on to their American counterparts and did not forget to demonstrate China’s support for Pyongyang’s position on the unification issue. In September 1983, Deng Xiaoping told US defense secretary Weinberger that China supported Kim il-sung’s three principle program and his federation proposal. When Ronald Reagan visited China, Chinese leaders reiterated their support for Kim’s proposals and demanded the US to withdraw its forces from South Korea. At North Korea’s request, in 1987 China again conveyed a message to the Secretary of State Shultz that North Korea wanted to establish a direct contact with the US. As a response to China’s continued efforts, the US government sent a written reply to China, declaring that US officials would be allowed to contact North Korean officials. On December 6, 1988, North Korea and US political counselors for the first time met in Beijing and exchanged letters. Since then Beijing has become an important venue for the two nations to conduct direct contacts.
All in all, since China had a very unique position in its relations with North Korea and the United States, China had faithfully acted as an intermediary between Pyongyang and Washington. In addition to passing on messages, China succeeded in promoting direct contacts between the two nations.
China’s Roles in the Post-Cold War Era
The late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed serial dramatic changes in China’s relations the two Koreas. As a direct result of China’s adoption of reform and opening door to outside world policy and South Korea’s robust practice of “North Policy”, China and South Korea began to conduct business, which led to serial diplomatic breakthroughs. The June 4 Incident and end of the Cold War helped China to overcome North Korea’s stubborn opposition and normalized relations with South Korea in 1992. The diplomatic recognition between Beijing and Seoul immediately threw Beijing and Pyongyang into troubled water. In the following years, North Korea had been preoccupied with engaging the United States in a vain attempt to secure a diplomatic recognition from the United States; China was a bystander, lukewarmly watching new drama unfolding at a distance.
A Lukewarm Bystander
North Korea took the full brunt of the Soviet’s disintegration and the democratization East European. Pyongyang lost major trading partners and critical sources of external assistance. For Pyongyang, Beijing-Seoul rapprochement was tantamount to rubbing salt into wound. In order to redress the change of balance of power that tilt in South Korea’s favor, North Korea had to resort to developing nuclear weapon. North Korea’s nuclear activities triggered the first round of nuclear crisis, into which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United States were dragged. As North Korea’s nuclear issue unfolded in late 1980s and early 1990s, China remained as a bystander for two basic reasons: first, China’s relations with North Korea came under strain, a direct result of the Sino-South Korean rapprochement, Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang decreased rapidly, China had no intention to venture into an issue that might further complicate its relations with North Korea. Second, in the wake of June 4 Incident, China’s relations the United States plunged to a freezing point, the US imposed economic and military sanctions against China and two nations were bogged down in a number of highly-charged disputes regarding Taiwan, human rights and Most-Favored Status, China had no intention to step into the controversy over North Korea’s nuclear issue. Its indifferent attitude toward the Korean Peninsula shifted for the first time when Clinton and Kim Young Sam jointly proposed four-party talks on April 16, 1996, in an effort to “reduce tensions and build confidence on the Korean Peninsula with the aim of putting a formal end to the hostilities of the Korean War”. Two days later, Shen Guofang, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responded positively, stating, “We believe replacing the armistice with a peace mechanism in accordance with the development of the situation is conducive to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula……China is ready to play a continuing constructive role in maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula.” On July 2, the Chinese government announced its decision to participate in the proposed talks.
An Active Participant
The change in China’s attitude was not a surprise to many experts. In fact, as early as 1994, the Chinese government reiterated its long-time position toward the situation on the Korean peninsula: “the status of no war and no peace on the Korean Peninsula is abnormal, and to replace the armistice with a peace mechanism is a trend of the times”. The following factors encouraged China to seek a positive role in the proposed peace talks. First, after weathering the severe crisis caused when Taiwan’s Li Denghui visited Cornell University, China and the United States were poised to mend fences. The proposed talks offered a chance for China and the United States to repair their relations that had been repeatedly damaged since 1989. Second, the proposed peace talks also gave Beijing a chance to reach out to Pyongyang with an aim to reverse the downturn in their relationship. Since 1992, China’s relations with North Korea remained cold, although North Korea continued to insist that “to incessantly strengthen and develop the friendship between the Korean and Chinese people is the Korean party and government’s unwavering guideline and position”.
The exchange of visits between China and North Korea’s top leaders came to a halt. China’s efforts to redress North Korea’s deep-seated grievance produced few results. The proposed talks, which echoed North Korea’s 1994 proposal, offered China a badly needed opportunity to revive its friendship with North Korea. Third, by endorsing the peace talks, China was also able to provide necessary support to South Korea, with whom it had a hard-earned honeymoon. The DPRK-ROK rapprochement of the early 1990s was short-lived. The Sino-ROK diplomatic recognition and North Korea’s nuclear crisis effectively ended the two Koreas’ détente. The DPRK treated the United States as its sole negotiating partner and turned its back the ROK. In order to counter such a policy, the ROK made the following demands. (1) Early implementation of Article III of the Agreed Framework, which stipulated that “The DPRK will engage in North-South dialogue, as this Agreed Framework will help create an atmosphere that promotes such dialogue”; (2) the delivery of ROK-financed and built light water reactors should be conditioned by the South-North talks; (3) a linkage between further lifting of U.S. economic sanctions against the DPRK and the South-North dialogue should be confirmed; (4) that the peace mechanism should be established by the two Koreas.
In response, North Korea opposed any linkage between the Framework and direct North-South dialogue. It claimed that, “the Agreed Framework was signed to settle the DPRK’s nuclear issues and achieve normalization of DPRK-U.S. relations and had nothing to do with the DPRK-ROK dialogue”.North Korea also said the new peace mechanism “is a matter between the DPRK and the United States, and South Korea is not qualified to participate”. Furthermore, it stated that implementation of the Agreed Framework “is just on the primary stage; the atmosphere for the DPRK-ROK dialogue is not created yet, it is premature to hold the bilateral dialogue”. Therefore, as the two Koreas were pitted against each other, China’s swift and positive response to the proposal for the Four-Party Talks certainly could be interpreted as the implicit support to South Korea, which hoped to play a central role in the peace mechanism negotiations.
The first sign of China’s changed attitude was demonstrated by China’s remarkable tolerance to its exclusion from the informal three-party meetings, held in New York three times among the United States and the two Koreas. As China joined in the exploratory talks, it prescribed a guiding principle, namely, “equal participation, patient consultation, seeking common ground while maintaining differences, gradual process”. China believed that “replacing the current armistice with a new peace mechanism is a pragmatic and plausible proposal”. Under the spirit of the “Three Conducives,”China prescribed its own guidelines for the two-tracked Four-Party Talks. The Chinese government proposed that the permanent peace treaty contain the following basic elements. (1) The relevant parties should end their confrontation, improve their relations, peacefully coexist, and achieve peace and autonomous unification on the Korean Peninsula. (2) The relevant parties should resolve their disputes through peaceful means and not resort to or threaten to use military force. (3) The relevant parties should promote trade and economic, technological, cultural, and sports exchange and cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual benefit.(4) The relevant parties should promote military confidence-building measures on the peninsula and cut armaments in stages.
In order to ease tension on the peninsula, the Chinese government also made a five-point proposal, including: (1) to promote broad-based confidence-building measures and cooperation, including establishing and developing political, diplomatic, military, economic, and social exchanges and mutually beneficial cooperation, comprehensively promoting confidence. (2) To support the further improvement of bilateral relations between relevant nations and welcome gradual normalization of relations between the DPRK and the United States as well as between the DPRK and other nations. (3) The relevant parties should promote military confidence-building measures and cooperation in various forms and at various levels. (4) Based on the reality on the Korean Peninsula, each party should take necessary and pragmatic measures to avoid possible military conflicts. (5) To avoid taking hostile and provocative military actions against other parties.
In fact, in order to salvage the stop-and-start talks, the Chinese government made new efforts at the sixth round of meeting by elaborating a new proposal for confidence-building measures on the Korean Peninsula. According to the proposal, the pragmatic confidence-building measures should include two parts: First, the relevant parties should set up a mechanism for exercising self-restraint, in other words, each party should formulate a code of conduct according to its own reality. The parties should comply strictly with the code, be coolheaded, and act with restraint in case of an emergency. Second, each party should reach a consensus on rules or regulations that all parties should comply with collectively, and should sincerely abide by them.
Even though, China shrugged its initial hesitation and tried to be a facilitator to the peace talks by offering a set of systematic and interconnected proposals. In comparison with previous pro-North Korea stance, China behaved as a neutral moderator, who tried to bridge the differences between the two Koreas as well as North Korea and the United States. Nonetheless, as the implementation of the Agreed Framework entered a dead end, the four-party peace talks also fell apart. Any effort to settle the nuclear and peace issues on two parallel tracks proved futile.
A Constructive Moderator
The two issues became increasingly intertwined. Such a new understanding gave a birth to the Six Party Talks (SPT), which made its debut in August 2003. For the first time, the member states of the talks agreed that the three issues the talks needed to address were interconnected and should be discussed and settled in one package. As a host, chairman and moderator, China offered its good offices to pull all the parties together and produced some concretes results. In order to deal with the three issues, the Six Party Talks set up corresponding working committees on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, normalization of North Korea-U.S. relations, normalization of North Korea-Japan relations, economy and energy cooperation, as well as a joint Northeast Asia peace and security mechanism. As a landmark achievement, the member states of the SPT released a joint statement on September 19th, 2005, claiming: (1) North Korea to agree to abandon all nuclear weapons and nuclear programs and return to the NPT as soon as possible”; (2) U.S. and the South Korea to formally declare that they have no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula; (3)U.S. affirmed it has no intention to attack or invade North Korea and will provide a security guarantee to this effect; (4)The Korean Peninsula peace treaty to be negotiated separately.
The euphoria that the “9.19 Joint Statement” had brought was short-lived. In 2006 and 2009, North Korea conducted nuclear tests. In response to North Korea’s provocations, the UN Security Council passed sanction resolutions. The SPT was thus suspended and even declared dead by North Korea. The failure of persuading North Korea not to go nuclear dealt fatal blow to the Korean Peninsula peace treaty negotiation. The principle of settling the question of Korea in a package effectively holds the peace treaty negotiation as a hostage to the North Korea nuclear issue talks, even though the former is simple and has a quick solution.
Even though China’s attitude toward the Korean unification has been positive and consistent, in the past twenty years, China’s role in the Korean Affairs has experienced a tangible transformation from a lukewarm bystander to an active participant and to a constructive moderator. The evolving trajectory of the transformation demonstrates that China’s attitude grew increasingly active and role grew larger.
The Role China Can Play in the Future
Since the Korean Peninsula was artificially partitioned into two competing parts, the Koreans have been pursuing their national unification tirelessly. From the Korean War to the admission of the two Korean into the United Nations to the 2007 Kim Jong Il-Roh Moo-hyun summit, both Koreas have exhausted almost all sorts of military and diplomatic means to achieve unification. Kim Il Sung launched a military campaign in an attempt to put the other part of the peninsula into his fold, but failed. The bloody and costly war invited major powers’ intervention and further complicated Korean unification process. The 1954 Geneva Conference also demonstrated that diplomatic negotiation had its own limit when mutual hostility among participants sill ran high. It took the two Koreas about eighteen years to move back to negotiating table. On July 4, 1972, Pyongyang and Seoul announced a first ever joint declaration, which confirmed three guiding principles for their ultimate unification. Although the July 4 Joint Declaration failed to produce a substantial follow-up progress, it did transform the inter-Korean confrontation into a mixture of confrontation plus dialogue.
The two Koreas took next nineteen years to work out their differences. In 1991, the North and the South inked the Agreement on Reconciliation, Non-Aggression, and Exchange and Cooperation. In comparison with the July 4 Joint Statement, the agreement not only detailed a concrete plans to promote reconciliation, non-aggression, and exchange and cooperation between the two Koreas, but also formulated corresponding institutes to implement the plans. Unfortunately, North Korea’s nuclear issue disrupted the hardly-earned unification momentum and postponed the inter-Korean summit to 2000, when Kim Jong Il and Kim Dae-Jung made their historical meeting. The first ever Inter-Korean Summit produced June 15th North-South Joint Declaration, a new milestone document in inter-Korean relations. According to the declaration, the North-South ministerial talks, North-South military working-level talks and the working-level contacts for the North and South economic cooperation kicked off, and the inter-Korean relations seemingly gained ground. Such euphoria did not last long; North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006 not only derailed ongoing Six Party Talks, but also disrupted ongoing inter-Korean entente. Although both Koreas tried to salvage their improved relations by holding the second inter-Korean summit in 2007 between Kim Jong Il and Roh Moo-hyun, North Korea’s new satellite launch and nuclear tests finally finished the inter-Korean entente.
Even though the Korean unification process has experienced numerous twists and turns, the inter-Korean interactions in this regards have already laid down a basic framework for future national unification. From a Chinese perspective, national unification of the Korean Peninsula is inevitable and fits historical trends. In the past sixty years, China has consistently supported Korean unification. In the first thirty years, China firmly sided with North Korea and granted it all-out help no matter how North Korea pursued the unification. In the second thirty years, China’s attitude toward the Korean unification remained positive, as its relations with South Korea steadily improved, China avoided taking explicit position on how the Korean unification should be achieved except made some general call for peaceful means.
The evolution of China’s roles can generate a number of observations: first of all, except for the Korean War, in which China played a leading role, China’s roles in the past sixty years carried a strong symbolic meaning. In other words, China has been satisfied with announcing its policy statements than taking concrete action to change the status quo on the peninsula. Second, China’s policy statements have been driven by China or ally’s interests defined by China’s relatively weak position vs. the United States and the Soviet Union. Third, China’s policy prescriptions did not contain any elements that could address broader security environment issue, which should be a necessary condition for the Korean unification.
As China rose to the second largest economy in the world, its massive military forces are undertaking rapid modernization, and its diplomatic posture also is transforming from “maintaining low profile” (Taoguang Yanghui) to “doing something” (Yousuo Zuowei), what role China can play in the Korean Unification process deserves special attention.
A Non-Interventionist and a Non-Obstructionist
By its very nature, the Korean unification is the business of Korean people, even though the unification process is doomed to be tortuous and painstaking and have a significant impact on geopolitical landscape in Northeast Asia, China has to remain cool-headed in dealing with it for a number of reasons: first of all, China has long entangled in the unification and division of the Korean Peninsula since ancient times and left unpleasant if not total negative feeling among Koreans. China’s continued entanglement in the Korean unification will deepen such feeling and may generate new anti-China sentiment in both Koreas. Second, China’s active involvement in the Korean unification process may cause chain reaction from other powers and invite their intervention, thus further complicate the unification process. For China, staying away from the highly emotion-charged domestic tussle along the unification process is always a wise move as long as the tussle would not spill over into China’s domain. Historical lessons demonstrate that unwanted intervention always produces unwanted result. So far, the two Koreas have consistently insisted that the unification “must be achieved with no reliance on external forces or interference. It must be achieved internally”. Following Non-intervention principle does not necessarily mean China should sit with arms folded, only under certain circumstance China could intervene: (1) an explicit invitation from both Koreas for good reasons; (2) China’s interest may be in jeopardy if not intervenes.
As China itself suffers national division, it would be morally wrong for China to stand in the way of the Korean unification. From Vietnam, Germany and Yemen’s experiences, no country could stop their unification. As long as China publically supports the Korean unification as it has done so in the past sixty-four years, China should not obstruct the unification process. As the traditional wisdom, which believes that the divided Korea serves China’s national interest, still has a large market in China, it is useful for the Chinese to reassess if a unified, neutral and friendly Korea will serve China’s national interests better.
A Collective Goods Provider
Non-intervention and non-obstruction principle prescribe what China cannot do, as a matter of fact, China can do something conducive for the Korean Unification.
In Northeast Asia, these coexist three sets of rivalries: the age-old inter-Korean rivalry, which has been in place for more than sixty years and is still a major source of conflict in the region; the Sino-Japanese rivalry, which has a historical root and culminate in the recent dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands; the Sino-US rivalry, which is looming large as both nations pit themselves against each other over a wide range of issues. The three sets of rivalries interconnect, reinforce each other and jointly make the region a most dangerous place on earth.
For China, as its rise is causing a fundamental change in power structure in Northeast Asia as well in the world, it should avoid a scenario, in which the three sets of rivalries give a birth to a grand coalition, preventing China from dominating the region. To build a new type of major countries’ relations is one of the solutions to mitigate, if not totally eliminate, the rivalry between a rising power and an established power. It remains unclear if China’s fourteen character policy prescription, namely no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, could serve a guiding principle acceptable to both nations. In fact, “no conflict and no confrontation” should be two basic results of win-win cooperation. How to turn the political will into concrete cooperative actions is a significant challenge both China and the United States are facing right now. If China and the United States could manage and control their differences and conflicts, the Sino-US rivalry could be effectively contained, and the Sino-Japanese and inter-Korean rivalries could not also be tamed.
As a rising power, another way for China to stave off any potential anti-China coalition is to behave in a responsible way and cultivate an image as a benign power, which could bring collective goods to the region. The collective goods include peace and stability and denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea’s nuclear issue is seen as a critical touchstone of China’s cooperation with the United States as well as China’s true intention to be a collective goods provider. In fact, if North Korea nuclear issue could be settled, a permanent peace mechanism will be also set up on the Peninsula, the two achievements will make the Korean unification much easier.
A Peace-keeper and a Reconstruction Participant
Even though caution is advised as China approaches the Korean unification issue, caution does not equal to passivism. As China exercises its caution and refrain from making unwanted intervention, it should actively prepare for unexpected situation as the unification process on the peninsula goes on.
Situation one: chaos and war
It is possible that large-scale chaos or military conflict may occur during the unification process, which may be triggered by sudden regime collapse in North Korea, quick merger of the two Koreas or ongoing confrontation of the two Koreas. Under such a circumstance, China should take a proactive approach to keep peace on the Korean Peninsula as well as in Northeast Asia. On diplomatic front, China should work with other stakeholders to make a case in the United Nations Security Council for international intervention, including forcing a ceasefire and restoring the public order. On the military front, China also needs to prepare to intervene in order to prevent humanitarian crisis and nuclear facilities and weapons from falling into wrong hands.
Situation two: smooth accomplishment of the unification
As the Korean unification proceeds to a point that a unified nation is with Korea grasp, it will be irresponsible for China to take hands-off approach to what’s happening on the peninsula. On the contrary, China should actively pursue a number of diplomatic objectives: on bilateral basis, China should contact the winning side of the unification enterprise to secure at least: (1) China’s interest in North Korea, including Chinese people and properties’ safety; (2) a friendly Sino-Korean relations; (3) the withdrawal of the US military forces; (4) an unhindered participation of post-unification reconstruction. On the multilateral platform, particularly the UN, China also needs to work with other stakeholders to map out a post-unification arrangement, including old Korea’s responsibilities and liability.
Situation three: the gray area between the situation one and two
It will be highly possible that the real Korean unification will fall in between the situation one and two. As China needs to prepare for the two extreme circumstances, it also should deal with the routine unification process on daily basis. China can take measures as follows: (1) China should avoid taking specific position on how the unification process should go. In other words, China should refrain from publically endorsing any specific unification programs before they become acceptable to both Koreas; (2) China should continue to maintain friendly relations with both Koreas, no matter who absorbs whom; (3) China should prepare to influence the process that best serve its national interests through bilateral or multilateral venues; (4) China should prepare to conduct selective interventions they deems necessary, China should do so with caution; (5) international cooperation is necessary tool that help to transform the unification process into a plus-sum game.
The Korean division is a Korean national tragedy, and the two Koreas once tried to kill, defame, cooperate each other in vain attempts to close one of their saddest chapter in history. For a variety of reasons, major powers also joined the drama and presented their variegated faces to audience.
As an immediate neighbor to the Korean Peninsula, China had already established regular contacts with Korea in ancient times. The age-old contacts helped to shape China’s multiple roles in the Korean affairs from a halfhearted unification facilitator to a security protector. Because of the geographic proximity, the relations between China and Korea were as close as teeth and lips. Even though, the long-term Sino-Korean interactions left mixed feeling among the Koreans, like it or not, China could not walk away and pretend it has no interest in Korean affairs.
Korean unification has its own historical destination and will cross the finishing line sooner or later. No country, including China, can stop the historical trend. For its best interest, as the Korean unification process goes on, China must be diligent and prepare for extreme situations that may appear on the Korean peninsula, including massive chaos, military conflict and/or civil war, and China should adopt proactive approach and intervene; But under normal situation, China should exercise tremendous caution before taking any interventionist action since Korean unification is the business of the Koreans. China also needs to avoid taking position on any specific unification programs in that the competing program supporters will be alienated.
As emerging as a world power, China has more sources and energy to influence the unification process, for the time being, what China can do to facilitate its own unification process and the one on the Korean Peninsula is to manage well its relations with the United States and Japan and create a stable and peaceful environment in Northeast Asia. By doing so, China can exercise a leadership by offering collective goods to regional community.
China is just one of Korea’s many neighbors. It would be too costly and risky for China to take a sole responsibility to promote the unification on the Peninsula; it is a collective endeavor, which demands international cooperation.
This paper was prepared for the GlobalPeace Convention 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.The Global Peace Convention is a preeminent, world-level platform organized by the Global Peace Foundation and sponsors, supporters and partners to share best practices and develop collaborative strategies in areas of peacebuilding, education, entrepreneurship, sustainable development, youth and women empowerment, and other fields of social impact.