China Wouldn't Mind a Unified Korea—Just Not Yet

How far will China to go to protect an increasingly belligerent North Korea?

Kim Jong Un New Years2.jpg
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un delivers a New Years address in Pyongyang (KCNA KCNA/Reuters)

In considering the security situation in Northeast Asia, it's sometimes useful to imagine the region's players as schoolboys playing in a courtyard. North Korea, bellicose and unpredictable, misbehaves and threatens the others. An outraged Japan, South Korea, and the United States then turn to China and say, "Well? He's your friend!"

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, China has had the dubious distinction of being North Korea's only ally and friend on the world stage, a relationship that has occasionally caused a great deal of discomfort. In essence, Beijing's support consists of both economic assistance -- in the form of both direct aid and trade -- and diplomatic protection. To continue our schoolyard analogy, China not only shields its ally from the others -- it also pays for North Korea's lunch.

To the United States and its allies in the region, this arrangement is less than satisfactory. It's no secret that Washington would like to see the eventual reunification of Korea under a pro-Western government in Seoul, and views Beijing as the primary obstacle to realizing this goal. A recent report by U.S. Senate Republican staff members -- mentioned in an article by The Guardian on Tuesday -- went so far as to say that China may block the reunification of North and South Korea should it appear to be imminent.

The rationale for this position is simple and purely strategic: China does not wish to have a unified, dynamic Korea with tens of thousands of American troops sitting right on its northeastern border. For all of its hassles, North Korea is a valuable buffer, one that Beijing would be loath to see fall apart. Americans might think of China's support for a divided Korea as anachronistic, immoral, and wrong. But in the great game of Northeast Asia power politics, this position makes perfect sense.

All that aside, evidence is thin that China would, if pressed, stand in the way of reunification. First, there are the words of the Chinese themselves: leaked cables published by Wikileaks in 2010 quoted a Chinese ambassador as saying that the country hopes for a reunification in the long term, though not, pointedly, in the short term.

Secondly, China has recently appeared less tolerant of its neighbor's persistent nuclear brinkmanship than before. Beijing's support for United Nations Security Council Resolution 2087, which authorizes the UN to expand sanctions on North Korea following last month's rocket launch, did not amuse Pyongyang. In announcing today that it would conduct another nuclear test, North Korea cited its bitter disappointment with China's vote.

Finally, while a unified Korea may present a security challenge on China's periphery, Sino-South Korea economic ties are strong and getting stronger. North Korea's 24.5 million people would be far more useful to China's traders if they were integrated into the South's dynamic, growing economy rather than languishing in their own broken-down system.

Why, then, does China continue to prop up its unpopular friend? The answer is less ideological than practical -- Beijing understands that the sudden collapse of the North Korean state would result in a huge influx of refugees over its border, presenting severe logistical and humanitarian challenges. The Chinese Communist Party has enough trouble helping its own poor make ends meet -- the last thing it needs is to care for North Korea's destitute as well.

China's historical ties to North Korea still have some meaning, but it would be a mistake to assume that these ties are what drives Beijing's approach to its neighbor. The Chinese government does not love the Kim family and will not shed a tear once it goes. But the timing has to be right. Ultimately, like the last remaining friend of unpopular bullies worldwide, Beijing knows that it'll have to pick up the pieces if anything goes wrong.