When President Obama hosts the Chinese president, Hu Jintao, in Washington later this month, North Korea is certain to be high on the agenda. But as in the past, Beijing is likely to use its leverage with Pyongyang only if a major war threatens.
Two standard explanations are generally offered to explain why China is reluctant to put pressure on North Korea, whether the issue is nuclear weapons, the sinking of a South Korean Navy vessel, or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island: China’s fear of instability if North Korea implodes, with the resulting massive flow of refugees across its borders, and China’s appetite for North Korea’s vast reserves of iron ore, magnesite, copper and other minerals.
Both of these explanations are valid and important. But more basic geostrategic factors, as well as latent separatism among ethnic Koreans in China’s border region, are also behind its approach to the Korean peninsula.
China does not want Korea to be reunified under a South Korean regime allied militarily with the United States, and therefore wants the survival of a pro-Beijing regime in Pyongyang. This was obvious when Beijing was aligned against Washington during the Cold War, but the Chinese desire to keep Pyongyang afloat has increased in recent years as a result of broader conflicts with Washington throughout East Asia, including U.S. ties with Taiwan and U.S. opposition to Chinese seabed claims.
A more immediate factor in China’s strategic calculus is that it hopes to get access to the Sea of Japan for the first time by helping to develop a new North Korean port at Rajin.
China is also interested in keeping Russia and Japan from making inroads into the North. At the same time, Beijing has repeatedly stated that it would not be opposed to the unification of Korea if it were peaceful and if a unified Korea maintained a neutral stance in international and military affairs, in which foreign military forces are excluded from the peninsula.
The big imponderable facing intelligence analysts in Seoul, Washington, Moscow and Tokyo, of course, is whether Beijing has kept up covert military ties with Pyongyang. In the early 1980s, when China feared that Pyongyang might give Moscow a naval base at Rajin or Nampo, Beijing launched a military aid offensive, most notably upgrading the aircraft provided to the North Korean Air Force.
Another little-noted factor that has surfaced in my conversations in Beijing over the past four decades is the fear of nascent Korean nationalism among the 2.5 million Koreans who live in the three northeastern provinces of China contiguous with North Korea.
What has made the political potential of its Korean minority worrisome to Beijing is the linkage between the Koreans of northeast China and cultural movements in South Korea such as the Damul Institute. China is aware that damul means “reclaim all,” and the founder of the Damul Institute, Ki Joon Kang, has written of the “Korean people’s fervent hopes to recover our lost land.”
In recent decades, the Damul Institute regularly took well-financed delegations consisting largely of South Korean businessmen on tours of northeast China designed to stimulate an awareness of the area as part of the Korean heritage and a good place for Korean investment. More than 100,000 people went on these tours after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Seoul in 1992.
The vigor of the Damul movement, which in the 1990s claimed 50,000 members, led Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng to protest against its activities at a meeting in 1995 with visiting South Korean Prime Minister Lee Hong-koo. Damul spokesmen then became more circumspect, emphasizing cultural objectives and denying any irredentist goals.
For North Korea, the need to make ever more economic and political concessions to China is abhorrent. But South Korea’s return to the hard-line policies and the “Bush lite” policies of the Obama administration toward North Korea — conditioning talks on full denuclearization — have left Pyongyang with no choice but to lean on China.
In all my visits over the past three decades, North Korean leaders have emphasized that they want normalized relations with the United States primarily to avoid excessive dependence on China. It seems particularly galling to them that the United States is attempting to use Beijing as a diplomatic intermediary. As then-Deputy Foreign Minister Kang Sok-ju commented during my visit in May 2005, alluding to the servile posture of the Yi dynasty monarchs toward China, “This is not the 19th century.”
Selig S. Harrison is director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy and author of “Korean Endgame.”