China’s strategic role
Developments in Korea-China relations reached new heights when President Park Geun-hye attended China’s Victory Day military parade in September.
In a bilateral summit held on the sidelines of the event, she and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to have a serious discussion in the future on the unification of the Korean Peninsula and continue talks. That means relations between Seoul and Beijing have developed so much that they can now discuss unification.
One month later, however, Liu Yunshan, one of the top leaders in China’s Communist Party, visited North Korea to attend a celebration to mark the 70th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party. Liu met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and successfully broke the impasse in frozen North-China relations for the first time in several years.
Until now, the North continued nuclear tests and operated using a politics of fear. High-level exchanges were shut down, while the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang rapidly deteriorated.
The North then temporarily stopped provocations while expanding measures to engage the principles of a market economy. China also concluded that isolating the North wouldn’t resolve the problem. It expanded trade with Pyongyang and pushed forward projects to build infrastructure in Rajin and Sonbong and develop special economic zones on Hwanggumpyong Island and Wihwa Island.
Furthermore, China actively cooperated with the regime’s plans to develop an international tourism zone linking Wonsan to Mount Kumgang.
As a result, the possibility largely increased that Beijing would back the legitimacy of the Kim Jong-un regime. During the process, it became apparent that Chinese affairs with North Korea were partially linked to the regime.
It is an important time for us to rethink China’s role on the Korean Peninsula. Until now, Beijing actively mediated dialogue between the two Koreas, but its goal was to maintain stability on the peninsula. In other words, the condition necessary to expand China’s role is for South Korea to take the lead on inter-Korean issues and develop relations.
For a while, it was thought that Beijing might abandon the North. But China’s policy on the Korean Peninsula, despite some tactical adjustments, had no drastic strategic change. That’s why South Korea and China agreed to the general idea of Korean unification while no progress was made on specifics.
China wants a unification of the two Koreas in which both sides maintain friendships while the North’s economy improves to reduce the risk of collapse and the two Koreas unite independently, peacefully, gradually over the long term.
That is delicately different from the position of the South Korean government that the North’s nuclear development should find an irreversible solution through international cooperation while it seeks to lead the Korean Peninsula order by stimulating change in the North.
Korean Peninsula affairs will have to be repositioned.
The North may act more carefully to please the international community, including China, and China may try to separate North Korea’s nuclear crisis from other North Korean issues while keeping the momentum of cooperation between China and the North alive.
The South will try to find a diplomatic solution by creating a new breakthrough in inter-Korean relations based on stable relations with the United States and China.
China has argued that the bar should be lowered and sincerity shown to resume the six-party talks to denuclearize Pyongyang.
Although it was primarily aimed at ending the U.S. policy of strategic patience, it reflects Beijing’s realistic assessment that the nuclear issue will take a long time to resolve and that it must stop Pyongyang from further operating its nuclear programs. Reducing the uncertainty is the more urgent priority.
Time and opportunity are not always on our side. The United States and China will continue to cooperate and compete when it comes to finding a new regional balance.
China’s rise has become an established fact, while the balance in Northeast Asia has become weaker.
North Korea may attempt to become an independent country with China’s support - wherein the window of opportunity for unification may shut.
In this situation, we need to act more boldly to find a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations and unification. Before relations between China and the United States are defined, we may have no more than a decade to take initiative in this matter.
If we miss this golden time, Korean Peninsula affairs will be dominated by international factors and our standing will be weakened.
The goal of the U.S.-Korea alliance and the strategic cooperative partnership between Korea and China are not to develop bilateral relations. Their aims are to build a condition favorable to unification. There is no unification policy that detours the South’s policy toward the North, and a unification strategy without North Korea policy will clearly have a limit.
In other words, creating a breakthrough in inter-Korean relations is necessary. A trust deficit exists between the two Koreas, but trust is only built when the partner acts as expected. Therefore, we need to refine our thoughts from the perspective of the North. During this process, dialogue must consistently take place.
Unification begins from building a small trust. The framework of dialogues has been established as the two Koreas and China and North Korea have all had high-level talks.
Now, we need to consider joining China’s One Belt, One Road policy in order to bring about a positive cycle in inter-Korean relations, Korea-China relations and North-China relations. During this process, the argument for seeking China’s backing will gain support.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff. JoongAng Ilbo, Dec. 11, Page 33
*The author is a political science professor at Sungkyunkwan University.
by Lee Hee-ok