Cai Jian, Ph. D.
Center for Korean Studies, Fudan University
Global Peace Leadership Conference
Seoul, Korea, 2012
The Korean Peninsula is located in the Northeast Asian hub where the mainland and the sea powers meet with each other. The special location of the Korean peninsula gives it particular strategic significance in international politics. Thus the great power states such as China, Japan, Russia and those western countries, have struggled and competed in this area furiously in the modern history, nowadays these great power states’ interests on Korean peninsula also intersected and they are also exerting a great influence and impacting the peace and development of Korean peninsula. The Cold War have ended more than 20 years, the Korean Peninsula still kept the division and became the only spot where the Cold War is still remaining. Since Korean peninsula is adjacent to China, when the emperor of Ming dynasty moved his capital to Chinese government five hundred years ago, the Korean Peninsula has been of particular importance to China’s security during the past few centuries for its special geo-political reason. This paper will examine China’s policy toward Korean peninsula and its characteristics; it will also analyze the adjustment of china’s strategies on Korean unification and will offer some policy recommendations on Korean unification strategies and China’s preference on them.
People always said that the Korean peninsula is just like “a shrimp surrounding by whales”, this word described and illustrated the popular image of Korean peninsula’s geopolitical environment. Korean peninsula’s geopolitical environment is determined by its natural geographical position. Since ancient times the Korean peninsula have been the natural bridge to connect the Asian continent and sea powers and always acted as the buffer zone between the continental states and Marine powers. It’s just its geopolitical significance that made the Korean peninsula the geographical center in northeast Asia and bore a unique significance in international politics. Because of the prominent strategic status and special geopolitical condition of Korean peninsula, its historical development have always been in the shadow of great powers and in the history there is no other countries have been affected so deeply by foreign actors like the Korean peninsula.
Hundreds of years before 19th century, there was an international system existed in the East Asia, which was dominated by the feudal dynasties of China. At that time, China’s neighbor countries usually maintained a dependent and “tributary” relationship with China, i.e. the so-called “Chinese tributary system”. In the past centuries Korean peninsula was an important part of this system. But with the invasion of western colonial, the dark history of Korean peninsula began. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, all kind of powers entered into Korean peninsula and fought for the controlling and influence of Korean peninsula. In just 10 years, from 1894 to 1904, there were two wars broke out on Korean peninsula. In the Sino-Japanese war of 1894, China was defeated by Japan and withdrew from Korean peninsula. In 1904, Japan defeated another great power Russia and then in 1910 Japan finally annexes Korea, After the World War II, the forces of the United States expanded rapidly in the northeast Asia, and at the same time, the Soviet union (Russia) backed to the Korean peninsula by declared war on Japan. Korean peninsula didn’t even have time to celebrate the victory and liberation and then fall into the split and confusion. After the 1950-1953 Korean war, China found a foothold on Korean peninsula with heavy casualties. Nowadays, the Korean peninsula is still shrouded in great powers’ shadow. Those external factors, which affect the peace and stability of the Korean peninsula, are still China, Russia, Japan and the United States. Their interests in Korean peninsula is intersected and they competing in this area for controlling and influence still affect Korean peninsula’s unification and development process. No wonder people always observe Korean peninsula as a perfect footnote of geopolitics.
The unification of Korean peninsula is not mere a matter of two Korean states but an important international issues. The peace and unification of Korean Peninsula not only relies on the further development of relation between ROK and DPRK, but also depends on the positive mutual interaction among concerned countries in this area. If we want to understand the complicated situation and work for a bright future of Korean peninsula, we should to carefully examine the diplomatic policies of concerned countries. Because of the historical and realistic reasons China play a very important role on Korean peninsula’s unification? Chinese government always claims its willingness to support the unification of Korean peninsula, though there was a slight adjustment on its strategy in different periods.
This paper will mainly focus on China’s policy toward Korean peninsula and its characteristics, and it will also analyze the reasons and process of adjustment of china’s strategies on Korean unification, finally it will offer some policy recommendation on Korean unification strategy and China’s preference on it.
II. The characteristics of China’s policy toward Korean peninsula –
The continuity of China’s policy toward Korean peninsula
The Korean Peninsula is located in the Northeast Asian hub where the mainland and the marine powers meet with each other. The special location of the Korean peninsula gives it particular strategic significance in international politics. Since Korean peninsula is adjacent to China, when the emperor of Ming dynasty moved his capital to Chinese government five hundred years ago, the Korean Peninsula has been of particular importance to China’s security during the past few centuries for its special geo-political reason. As a result, China’s policy toward the Korean peninsula has a consistent characteristic. That’s why the Ming Dynasty used its army to help the Korean Lee Dynasty to fight against Japan in 1592, why the Qing government sent troops to the Korean peninsula for fighting against Japan in 1894, and why Chiang Kai-shek supported the Republic of Korea’s independence movement. And it is also why the newly founded China was involved in the Korean War in the 1950s. Due to geopolitical reasons these choices were inevitable.
Just after the World War II the Cold War broke out, and the liberated Korean peninsula had also been divided into two parts, which belonged to different blocs. In 1949, the newly found China added himself to the socialism bloc leaded by the Soviet Union and adopted a “one-side diplomatic policy”. When Korean War broke out, China had no hesitate involving into the war, though there were such a lot of difficulties it had to deal with. Just as the slogan “resisting the United States’ aggression and aiding DPRK, protecting our homes and defending our country” revealed, though a lot of analysts thought that China involved into the Korean War for the ideological reason, I argued that the main reason lay on the realistic level, China’s aim was just to protect its own security! Just like other countries, the security is always the main concern of new Chinese government, so the Korean War mainly determined the new China’s diplomatic policy toward Korean peninsula in a really long period.
The word ‘security’ is one of the most often used words in modern time. Though there are different definitions about security, most of people thought that security includes two aspects: first is the objective aspect, which is security is a state of receiving no threatening. Second is the subjective aspect, viz. security is one of the main body’s senses.  There are some different methods to gain the security, among them a very popular one is security cooperation. Security cooperation could be divided into three forms according to their cooperative mode, e.g. ‘individual security’, ‘collective security’ and ‘cooperative security’. The ‘individual security’ means that the actors mainly acquire the security through strengthening the power of itself or forming alliances, this kind of security usually be seen in the modern time. But in the contemporary time when globalization is developing rapidly, the ‘collective security’ and ‘cooperative security’ are more popular, those mechanisms formed on the basis of these two kinds of security forms by concerned actors are called security mechanism.
The forming of international security mechanism rooted on the anarchy of international system and the self-help characteristics of sovereignty nations. During the Cold War, there were a lot of international security mechanism had been found all over the world. In northeast Asia, there were three kinds of different multilateral security mechanisms. One is the inward-oriented multilateral security mechanism which based on the Korean Armistice Agreement; the other two are outward-oriented multilateral mechanisms which aimed at each other. Namely the USA-Japan-ROK alliance (so-called south triangle) based on the treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, the Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States of America and the Republic of Korea and the USSR-China-DPRK alliance (north triangle) based on the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship Alliance and Mutual Assistance and the Sino-DPRK Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance. These three security situation or arrangement kept the balance in northeast Asia and kept peace in Korean peninsula. China secured its security through these mechanisms for more than 30 years.
After the Cold War, the security situation of northeast Asia is not improved, on the contrary it is becoming worse and worse. On the one hand is the rapid degeneration of the relations between the DPRK and the United States; on the other hand is the increasingly deepening of the suspicious among China, Japan and the United States.
With the adjusting of international system after the Cold War, the alliances among USSR, China and DPRK structurally changed when China and USSR realized the normalization relations with Republic of Korea, eventually this resulted in the disappearing of north triangle alliance, on the contrary, the south triangle alliance has been further strengthened. The only one super power, the United States, insisted on the Cold War thinking and strengthened the alliance with Japan continuously, adopted a long-term hostile policy to DPRK, all of these made it impossible to transform the Korean Armistice Agreement into a peace mechanism. The DPRK began to bear the military pressures coming from the USA-Japan-Korea alliance solely. For safeguarding its security, DPRK had to play the nuclear card which made the nuclear issue the most important security problem in northeast Asia. So it is just the remains of the Cold War in this area weakening and destroying the peace and stable of northeast Asia. Besides this, in recent years as china’s economic and military powers keeps growing constantly, the ‘Chinese threat’ becoming popular in western countries, as a response, on the one hand the United States, Japan and Korea point out the necessity to establish an inward-oriented regional security mechanism, on the other hand they keep strengthening their outward-oriented alliance, this causes the ‘security dilemma’ among northeast countries becoming more and more serious. Though China have wanted to changed its special relationship with DPRK, wanted to kept the balance between ROK and DPRK and between DPRK and USA, China found no better choice except from strengthening the tie with DPRK to keep the balance in Korean peninsula, in order to safeguard itself.
Nowadays DPRK still serves as China’s strategic buffer zone in Northeast Asia. With a shared border of 1,400 kilometers, DPRK acts as a guard post for China, keeping at bay the tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in ROK. This allows China to reduce its military deployment in Northeastern China regions and focus more directly on the issue of Taiwanese independence. To a certain extent, DPRK shares the security threat posed by U.S. military forces in ROK and Japan. So the cooperation and assistance between China and DPRK is, at a minimum, mutual. There is an argument that China has helped DPRK without getting anything in return. This statement is partially wrong. There is no altruism in international relations, in fact, by providing aid to DPRK; China is in essence helping itself. It is said that “for approximately no more than a few billion dollars a year, China has been provided with more than 50 years of peace.”
So we can find that it is China’s vital interests on the Korean Peninsula that determined one of the characteristics of its policy toward Korean peninsula, i.e. the continuity.
Nowadays, China’s interests in the Korean Peninsula are based in these two aspects: one is to keep the stability of the Korean Peninsula; the other is to establish the denuclearization of the peninsula.
Firstly, China’s diplomatic strategy determines its interest in peaceful diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula. After adopting reform and the open door policy, China set up a grand development strategy which mainly focused on economic construction. According to the principle that diplomatic policy should serve domestic affairs, China has been insisting on independent, peaceful, diplomatic policy during the past thirty years. The aim is to create a peaceful and benign outside political environment that does not hinder domestic economic reforms. China’s concerns and attentions not only go to the European countries, the United States and other developed countries, but particularly to its neighbor countries, just because the peace and security of its surrounding region is directly related to its domestic economic construction and development. So China’s first concern on the Korean peninsula is to avoid war, to maintain stability and peace. That is why China has always resolutely opposed resolution of the Korea nuclear crisis by force from the beginning to the end.
Any military strike could lead to a comprehensive Korean War, leading to regional instability which would undoubtedly affect China’s economic construction seriously. If a war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula again, in accordance with the Sino-Korean Treaty of Friendship, Co-operation and Mutual Assistance signed in 1961, China will face very difficult choices.
The outbreak of war would bring some awesome consequences. First, since China has very deep economic ties with ROK, Japan and the United States, the outbreak of war would destroy the prospects of China’s economic development. Secondly, the outbreak of war is likely to lead to the collapse of the DPRK regime. The sudden collapse of the DPRK regime will not only bring tremendous economic and security consequences to China, at the same time, it will lead to the rapid reunification of the Korean Peninsula and the future of the Korean peninsula will become uncertain.
The war would present a serious refugee problem. At present, there are tens of thousands of illegal border violators from DPRK living in China due to sustained famine. It has increased China’s economic and social burdens, and if there is a war, the refugee problem will indeed become a very serious problem. 
China’s interests in the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula are founded in these three reasons for not wanting DPRK to become a nuclear power:
- A nuclearized DPRK may not serve its desire for safety, but may greatly increase the instability in the region and the possibility of military conflict.
- DPRK’s development of nuclear weapons would undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty system, leading to a regional arms competition and nuclear proliferation. This will pose a serious threat to the stability of the international community, and the follow-up acquisition of nuclear weapons by Japan, ROK and even Taiwan will be fatal to China’s interests.
- Deliberations on how to solve the DPRK’s nuclear crisis has caused China to experience tremendous diplomatic pressure. China is DPRK’s traditional ally and the largest aid donor to the Korean economy. The United States has repeatedly hoped for and requested China’s use of political and economic leverage to force DPRK not to play with dangerous brinkmanship. Therefore, the outbreak of the DPRK’s nuclear crisis not only increases the difficulty for China to maintain the balance between the United States and DPRK, but also the difficulty in handling the relations between the ROK and DPRK.
However, with the development of the situation, while China adhering to the policy consistency; it also has a certain degree of flexibility.
The flexibility of China’s policy toward Korean peninsula
For a long time, China has supported DPRK consistently, but this does not mean that this kind of support will continue under any conditions. As the situation changes, China’s national interest also changes, and so does China’s policy toward DPRK.
On the Korean issue, China faces a difficult tradeoff. These difficulties not only come from the relations between China and other great powers, but also from Sino-DPRK relations. On the road to the rise of China, the level of cooperation between China and the United States is increasing, but at the same time, conflicts are also gradually increasing. DPRK knows well about China concerns on the Korean peninsula, and also knows well about the differing interests between China and the United States on the Korean nuclear issue. Therefore DPRK often made use of China; if we didn’t go so far as to call China a “hostage”. In the years of the DPRK nuclear crisis, China has been trying everything to influence DPRK and hoping that DPRK will stand together with China. But the premise is that DPRK’s brinkmanship will not violate China’s bottom line – the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
Therefore, when DPRK launched its missiles in July 2006, China withstood the pressure of the international community and even threatened to use its veto in the UN to protect DPRK. However, when DPRK conducted the nuclear test on October 2006, China carried out a strongly worded condemnation ahead of other countries and then supported the sanction resolution made by the UN because DPRK’s nuclear test touched China’s bottom line.
China opposed the nuclear test and development of DPRK for some reasons: First, DPRK’s possession of nuclear weapons will hurt the interests of China. No matter how the Sino-DPRK relations will develop in the future, once DPRK has nuclear weapons, from the experience of the international community, it will likely be permanent. The United States and DPRK do not have much direct conflict in geopolitical interest. Only when U.S. interests step up in Asia, there will be a conflict of interest between them. However, China and DPRK are eternally close neighbors; DPRK’s possession of nuclear weapons will no doubt constitute constraints or even a threat to China’s core national interests at a geopolitical level.
Secondly, the DPRK’s nuclear test would trigger the nuclear arms competition in Northeast Asia. Once DPRK really possesses nuclear weapons, the nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia and nuclear proliferation is almost inevitable; Japan and ROK are likely to follow-up. Japan already has been clamoring to become a “normal country” and has made many efforts on that. Since Japan has acquired the nuclear technology, the money and nuclear materials, the manufacture of nuclear weapons is very easy. Once Japan and ROK have nuclear weapons, China will become the only country in the world which will be surrounded by nuclear weapons, and China’s national security will be seriously threatened.
Therefore, China must know where its interests lie and when anyone violates these interests it should say “No” loudly. That is the flexibility of China’s Korean peninsula policy.
The changing Sino-DPRK Relationship
From the 1990s, though China’s diplomatic strategy still adheres to traditional bilateralism, with the changes of times, especially the improvement of its national strength, China’s diplomatic strategy has become more inclined to multilateralism. China increasingly sees itself as a stakeholder in the international community and considers the anxieties and worries of international community from a higher level perspective. In this case, how China defines its own national interests, how it cooperates with the international community and pursues national interests, is becoming increasingly important. And the DPRK nuclear crisis has provided a lot of experiences and lessons to China.
As a large country, China not only must maintain its responsibility in the international arena, more importantly, it must be able to recognize and protect its core national interests. In the DPRK nuclear crisis, to be a responsible great power and to protect its core national interests, it must have a high degree of consistency. In fact, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is almost in accord with all countries’ interests.
China and the United States’ interests on the Korean Peninsula are not always the same, but there are also some areas of common ground. For instance, the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is a shared interest. The United States’ pursuit of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is determined by its tremendous interests in East Asia. Though Japan is an ally of the United States, the United States does not want Japan to possess nuclear weapons. The Japan that is living under the U.S. nuclear umbrella rather than possessing its own nuclear weapons is more in line with U.S. interests. At the beginning of the DPRKn nuclear crisis, China believes that the crisis was caused by the United States, so China did not want to be involved in it. Many people accused the United States and even suspected a conspiracy of the United States. However, with the deepening understanding of China’s international status, as well as core national interests, China no longer merely acts as a bystander, but instead it acts to promote peaceful talks and take the initiative to adopt effective measures to resolve the DPRK nuclear crisis. On the one hand, China criticizes the United States continuously; on the other hand, it also condemns DPRK’s extreme risk-taking behavior severely. While taking effective measures to protect its core national interests, China maintained a large country’s international obligations as well. This fully reflects the combination of principle and flexibility of China’s foreign policy.
China and DPRK used to carry the responsibility of a “blood-bound alliance.” But the Sino-DPRK relationship has been sharply weakened, since China established diplomatic relations with ROK without DPRK’s understanding in 1992. Around the time of Kim Il Song’s death, ties and exchanges between two countries’ top officials decreased, and the two nations’ relations soon became nothing better than mere friendly relations as China accelerated its open policies. When DPRK conducted its first nuclear test, China voted for the UN Security Council’s sanction resolution on DPRK’s test and Sino-DPRK relations reached rock bottom. The allied cooperation seems to have greatly dissipated, though it is not abolished under international law. China appears uninterested in sustaining Article II of its Treaty with DPRK signed in 1961, which assures mutual military assistance in the case of aggression by a third party against either one of them. An attack launched by DPRK on ROK or the United States, regardless of whether DPRK has nuclear weapons, would not fall within the scope of mutual assistance required under the China-DPRK Treaty. But China will still maintain a ‘strategic partnership’ with DPRK due to several common interests. Even though DPRK has conducted a nuclear test it is still a security partner – albeit a difficult one – to China. China needs DPRK, and DPRK understands this.
III. China’s strategy on Korean unification
Maintaining the status quo?
Just as mentioned above, china’s policy toward Korean peninsula was mainly determined by its national interests in this area, i.e. the security. But with the changing of international situation, china’s strategy kept changing too.
In the 50s and 60s of 20th century, china adopted a “one-side diplomatic policy” and added itself into the socialism bloc and then took part in the Korean War, in that period, the ideological theories affected Chinese foreign policy and at times such as during the Cultural Revolution even came to dominate China’s diplomacy. Between the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the late 1970s, the ideological factor was responsible for China’s adoption of such policies as allying with the Soviet Union, supporting national liberation movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and promoting world revolution etc. It also defined China’s policy toward western countries. China had no normal diplomatic relation with the United States and ROK. So China supported the DPRK’s unification formula and actions. But at the late 1970s, the Chinese leaders founded that if they wanted to develop a stable and peaceful international environment for China, they could not afford to let ideology shape their foreign policy agenda and should take a pragmatic approach to its foreign relations. Accordingly, China gradually dropped ideological jargons such as “revolutionary struggle”, “American imperialism”, “Soviet social imperialism”, “revisionism” etc. from its diplomatic rhetoric. China did not only give up the ideological language, but also ideological affinity as a criterion for shaping its relations with other countries. China made important adjustments in its foreign policy. China’s foreign policy has been evolving from one of an inward-looking, reactive and system-challenging nature to one of an increasingly outward-looking, pro-active and system-identifying character. Broadly speaking, the year 1979 was a historical watershed in the history of China’s foreign policy. During this year, China assigned priority to economic development and adopted a policy of reforms and openness. This adjustment of strategic priority had broad and far-reaching implications for China’s foreign policy.
This adjustment demanded that Chinese diplomacy serve economic development rather than just focusing on military security and international status. It also generated a need for China to learn and understand the rest of the world objectively so that it could make the best use of the developmental opportunities the outside world has to offer. It also initiated a process of conceptual change. From then on, China gradually learned to view its relations with the outside world as a non zero-sum game and became increasingly interested in international participation and cooperation. And finally, it expressed China’s hope to cooperate with the international society in building a stable, just and mutually beneficial international order. Accordingly, China changed its policy toward Korean peninsula. It established diplomatic relations with ROK in 1992 while it kept a traditional friendship with DPRK. China not only wanted to keep a close political and military relationship with DPRK, but also wanted to develop an economic cooperation with ROK, a so-called “equal distance diplomacy”. At this period, China expressed a strong interest in Korean reunification and has played a major role in the inter-Korean relationship. Though Chinese government officially supporting an “independent and peaceful reunification of Korea” in principle, just as Tang Jiaxuan, a China’s chief delegate to the Four-Party Talks and later the foreign minister, said: “China takes maintaining peace and stability on the peninsula as the fundamental principle in its handling of Peninsula affairs. …China has dedicated itself to maintaining peace and stability there, endorsing the improvement of relations between the North and South of Korea and supporting an independent and peaceful reunification”,  it clearly prefers the current political stability and the existing balance of power on the peninsula. Maintaining the status quo, Chinese government’s basic strategic calculation has been that China needs a peaceful and stable international environment for its economic development and political stability. The status quo of post-cold war international relations is considered to benefit China’s national security and political stability. Thus, China first seeks the maintenance of this favorable status quo in its neighboring areas in general, and in East Asia in particular.
Actually, Chinese government perceives the unification of Korea with ambivalence: on the one hand, a unified Korea may create stability and peace on the peninsula over the long run, and may eliminate the existence of external military and political forces in the region. A unified and stronger Korea may also serve as an important force countering Japan in East Asia, and the reunification of Korean peninsula will also echoes the similar desire China has regarding Taiwan. Thus Chinese government publicly and somewhat genuinely welcomes efforts toward Korean reunification. On the other hand, Chinese government has a strong sense of uncertainty about the future of the U.S.-ROK military alliance, the political fate of the DPRK and the fallout of Korean reunification. Considering the possibility of a military alliance between a unified and perhaps nationalistic Korea and the United States, and fearing the political and economic consequences of a rapid Korean reunification, Chinese government has clearly ranked stability through status quo above reunification in its policy calculation.
Promoting the reunification of Korean peninsula?
A lot of people, especially the politicians and scholars from ROK, suspected that Chinese government preferring a divided Korean peninsula rather than a unified one. And some people supposed that if China grows stronger and more confident, Chinese government may conceivably develop different views and policies. It may worry much less about the possible destabilizing effect Korean reunification could produce. Actually the Korean issue is so complicated that it cannot be determined by Chinese government itself, but by the overall Sino-American relations, the status of China’s own reunification with Taiwan, Sino-Japanese relations, and the prospect of military ties between a unifying Korea and the United States. If Sino-American and Sino-Japanese relations are on good terms, China is making satisfactory progress in its own reunification effort with Taiwan, the U.S.-ROK military alliance fades and even disappears as the reunification proceeds, the reunification does not cause significant political quakes, and the newly unified Korea is at least neutral in the major power games in East Asia, Chinese government is expected to throw in its weight to facilitate Korean reunification.
The Sino-American relation is the most important relation of Chinese diplomatic affairs. To deal with the United States with extra care is the common view in Chinese government. Because “the United States is the world’s only superpower after the Cold War, and it will remain the lone superpower in the first half of the 21st Century,” and China must make its foreign policy, including its Korea policy, with that assessment as a basic understanding.
In fact, as an ally, now perhaps the ally, of the DPRK, China supports the DPRK in their struggle for political survival in a difficult time. China’s verbal support for the reunification of the two Koreas has been consistent and is expected to continue. Chinese government’s rhetorical commitment to Korean reunification is a product of its alliance with the DPRK, and related to China’s own national interest of reunification with Taiwan. In its geopolitical and strategic calculations, the PRC sees a certain desirability in Korean reunification. In an almost deterministic tone, Chinese analysts believe that “Korean reunification is just a matter of time.” Furthermore, the political division and military stand-off [on the Korean Peninsula] have been the largest threats to peace and stability in the region of Northeast Asia. If the Korean peninsula can peacefully and gradually achieve a reunification, that would eliminate the biggest potential hot issue and instability factor in the region, and thus benefit peace and stability in the region… [and] would eliminate a potential hot spot by our borders, and thus would benefit the security and stability of our surrounding areas.
Chinese perspective of Korean peninsula unification
To Chinese government, a rapid and violent reunification is clearly undesirable, but an “independent, peaceful, and gradual” reunification is different and would be desirable. Yet, such a desirable reunification is deemed by Chinese government as “unfeasible” in the near future.
Because of “currently, there is a rough equilibrium of military forces between ROK and DPRK”, the Chinese government believes “that neither the DPRK nor the ROK has the confidence or ability to militarily unify the peninsula on its own terms.”
A German-style peaceful but rapid reunification is also deemed to be “unfeasible” or even “impossible” since there are still foreign military forces on the peninsula, the ROK is unwilling and unable to play the role of former West Germany, and the DPRK is unlikely to collapse rapidly like former East Germany, due to the absence of a West Berlin-like direct contact with the ROK.
Besides those, Chinese government also believed that the ROK have decided to “abandon their ‘rapid unification’ approach and turned to a gradual method, to achieve reunification through exchanges and cooperation with DPRK.” The ROK’s increased concern over the estimated high financial cost of Korean reunification is cited as a major reason for Seoul’s new hesitation.
Apart from those reasons, about the reunification of the Korean peninsula, Chinese government has always some worries. In China’s point of view, the reunification process would likely take away the DPRK as a buffer zone and a major bargaining chip between the China and the U.S. China’s influence on the Korean Peninsula would also likely diminish. A rapid and violent reunification may cause the waves of refugees from DPRK which would pose a high and immediate cost to China’s Northeast region. In addition, a rise of Korean neo-nationalism after a Korean reunification is fully anticipated. A united and much more powerful Korea, under the influence of a new Korean nationalism, may produce very undesirable consequences to the Chinese, since there are already standing disputes between the two nations. The most unfavourable consequence would be that a unified Korea continued to maintain or even strengthen its military alliance with the United States. The American military presence on the other side of the Yalu River, which would mean that Chinese participation in the Korean War, and its subsequent efforts supporting Pyongyang, were a complete failure, would be frightening and simply intolerable to Chinese government.
Generally speaking, the “unfeasible” reunification course naturally deserves little more than lip service. Chinese government believed that Korean reunification at this time could only be rapid and violent, and thus is not in its national interests. Therefore, what Chinese government should do is to maintain the status quo and to prevent a violent reunification by either side. Strategically and politically, a surviving and stable but peaceful DPRK is a very useful buffer zone between the United States and the PRC. Economically, a stable and prosperous ROK is a major economic partner. Geopolitically, a divided Korea provides an excellent competing ground for the Chinese to deal with the United States, the number-one external factor affecting China’s security and economic interests.
To Chinese government, the reunification of Korean peninsula is inevitable and is also Chinese long-term desirability, but is currently unfeasible and likely very undesirable to Chinese national interests. Furthermore, it lacks the right internal conditions and a favorable external environment. Yet, bounded by its own interest in reunification with Taiwan, and its long-standing commitment to the DPRK, Chinese government would continue its support, however symbolic and limited, to a peaceful Korean reunification. But if we hope that the Chinese government will genuinely and actively support for the reunification of Korean peninsula, there are certain some preconditions.
First of all, it will depend on the overall Sino-American relationship. The Chinese government firmly believe that the United States will continue its military presence on the Korean Peninsula in the foreseeable future to “prevent the empowerment of China and Japan” and to “dominate the construction of a new order” in regional affairs. So long as Chinese government worries about an American threat to its political stability and even its national security, China’s support for Korean reunification is likely to be very limited.
Secondly, it is almost impossible for Chinese government to accept a united Korea with a fully functioning U.S.-ROK military alliance, while the United States is viewed as a political and ideological challenger to Chinese government, and an obstacle to China’s own reunification effort. Without significant reduction and even elimination of the U.S. military presence on the Korean Peninsula (the Chinese code-phrase for that condition is “an independent reunification by the Koreans” ), China would hard to accept the reunification of Korean peninsula.
Only major improvements in Sino-American relations and significant progress in China’s own reunification course may substantially change China’s policy and lead to a more conducive international environment for Korean reunification.
A unified Korea through neutralization is not a new idea but a very significant thought. From Chinese government’s point of view, if the unified Korean peninsula can be a permanent neutral state, it’s no doubt that it would like to support this kind of attempts. But just as Dr. Kwak said in his paper, the road to a unified Korea through neutralization will be long, rough and difficult, before this goal can be gained, we should have to work for the denuclearization and the building of peace regime on the Korean peninsula first. To achieve this goal, Chinese government and ROK can make closing cooperation, just because the two countries shared the consensus in this matter.
Principal ReferencesRoger Carey and Trevor C. Salmon, “International Security in the Modern World”, New York City, St. Martin’s Press, 1992
Nam Ju Lee, “Changes of North Korea and Sino-North Korean Relations,” Contemporary International Relations, Issue 9, 2005
Philip Pan, “China Treads Carefully Around North Korea ”, The Washington Post, Jan. 10, 2003,
Jian Cai, “How will China to cope with the nuclear crisis”, World Affairs, Vol.9, 2009
Jian Cai, “Korea Nuclear crisis tests the consistency and flexibility of China’s policy toward Korea”, China and World Affairs, Vol.2, 2009
Dingli Shen, “North Korea’s strategic significance to China”, China Security, Autumn, 2006
Yang Gongsu, “Zhong hua ren min gong he guo wai jiao li lun yu shi jian” (Theory and practice of the diplomacy of the People’s Republic of China) (Beijing: School of International Studies, Peking University, 1997), pp. 223-227
“Deng Xiaoping wen xuan”, Vol.2 (Selected works of Deng Xiaoping), 2nd print, (Beijing: Renmin Publishing House, 1994),
“Deng Xiaoping wen xuan”, (Selected works of Deng Xiaoping), vol. 3, (Beijing: Renmin Publishing House, 1993), pp
Xinhua Daily Telegraph, December 9, 1997
Fei-Ling Wang, “Joining the Major Powers for the Status Quo: China’s Views and Policy on Korean Reunification”, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 2 (Summer, 1999)
Yan Xuetong, “Zhong guo guo jia li yi feng xi” (An analysis of China’s national interests) (Tianjin: Tianjin Renmin Press, 1996),
You Dongxia, “Shi xi chao xian ban dao tong yi qian jing ji qi ying xiang”(Analysis on the prospects of a Korean reunification and its implications), Dongbeiya Luntan (Northeast Asia Forum), Chinese government, no. 3 (March 1997), pp. 67-68.
Li Fuxin and Qin Shisen, “Caoxian bendao wenti sifan huitan jiqi yingxiang” (The four-party talks on the Korean question and its implications), Xiandai Guoji Guangxi (Contemporary international relations), Chinese government, no. 2 (Feb. 1998),
Guo Xuetang, “Chaoxian bandao tongyi: wenti yu qialnjing” (The reunification of the Korean peninsula: Issues and prospects), Guoji guancha (International Observation), Beijing, no. 5 (May 1996),
Gao Zichuan, “Hanguo anquan zhengce yanbian de ruogan dongxiang” (Some moves of the development of the ROK’s security policy), Shijie xinshi yanjiu (Study of World Situations), an internal publication, Chinese government, no. 21 (July 1997),
Yu Meihua, “Xin shi qi mei, ri, e dui chao xian ban dao zheng ce te dian ji qi zou shi” (The features and developments of the U.S., Japanese and Russian Korea policies in the new era), Xindai guoji guanxi yanjiu (Contemporary International Relations), Beijing, no. 1 (Jan. 1997)
 Roger Carey and Trevor C. Salmon, International Security in the Modern World, New York City, St. Martin’s Press, 1992 , p.13.
 Fenjun Chen, Two different security definition and security strategies, World economy and politics, 11 issue, 1997, P25.
 According to their aims, international security mechanism can be divided into two basic forms, namely outward-oriented and inward-oriented form. The former aims at the outside powers or outside security threatening while the latter aims at the inner member states. http://www.iapscass.cn/xueshuwz/showcontent.asp?id=662
 Nam Ju Lee, “Changes of North Korea and Sino-North Korean Relations,” Contemporary International Relations, Issue 9, 2005
 Philip Pan, “China Treads Carefully Around North Korea ”, The Washington Post, Jan. 10, 2003, A14.
 Jian Cai, “How will China to cope with the nuclear crisis”, World Affairs, Vol.9, 2009. P28
 Jian Cai, “Korea Nuclear crisis tests the consistency and flexibility of China’s policy toward Korea”, China and World Affairs, Vol.2, 2009, P.147
 Dingli Shen, North Korea’s strategic significance to China, China Security, Autumn, 2006, P.27
 Yang Gongsu, Zhong hua ren min gong he guo wai jiao li lun yu shi jian (Theory and practice of the diplomacy of the People’s Republic of China) (Beijing: School of International Studies, Peking University, 1997), pp. 223-227.
 Deng Xiaoping wen xuan, Vol.2 (Selected works of Deng Xiaoping), 2nd print, (Beijing: Renmin Publishing House, 1994), pp. 231-232.
 Deng Xiaoping wen xuan, (Selected works of Deng Xiaoping), vol. 3, (Beijing: Renmin Publishing House, 1993), pp. 96-97.
 Xinhua Daily Telegraph, Chinese government, December 9, 1997.
 Fei-Ling Wang, “Joining the Major Powers for the Status Quo: China’s Views and Policy on Korean Reunification”, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 2 (Summer, 1999), p168.
 Yan Xuetong, Zhlong guo guo jia li yi feng xi (An analysis of China’s national interests) (Tianjin: Tianjin Renmin Press, 1996), p. 158.
 You Dongxia, “Shi xi chao xian ban dao tong yi qian jing ji qi ying xiang” (Analysis on the prospects of a Korean reunification and its implications), Dongbeiya Luntan (Northeast Asia Forum), Chinese government, no. 3 (March 1997), pp. 67-68. Similarly, Li Fuxin and Qin Shisen, “Cao xian ban dao wen ti si fan hui tan ji qi ying xiang” (The four-party talks on the Korean question and its implications), Xian dai Guo ji Guang xi (Contemporary international relations), Chinese government, no. 2 (Feb. 1998), p. 11.
 Guo Xuetang, “Chao xian ban dao tong yi: wen ti yu qian jing” (The reunification of the Korean peninsula: Issues and prospects), Guo ji guan cha (International Observation), Beijing, no. 5 (May 1996), pp. 26-31.
 Gao Zichuan, “Han guo an quan zheng ce yan bian de ruo gan dong xiang” (Some moves of the development of the ROK’s security policy), Shi jie xin shi yan jiu (Study of World Situations), an internal publication, Chinese government, no. 21 (July 1997), pp. 2-3.
 Yu Meihua, “Xin shi qi mei, ri, e dui chao xian ban dao zheng ce te dian ji qi zou shi” (The features and developments of the U.S., Japanese and Russian Korea policies in the new era), Xin dai guo ji guan xi yan jiu (Contemporary International Relations), Beijing, no. 1 (Jan. 1997), pp.32-33.
This address was prepared for the Global Peace Leadership Conference held in Seoul, Korea in 2012, organized by Action for Korea United, a coalition of more than 800 civil society organizations advancing a grass-roots movement for Korean reunification.