Thor's Korea Diary

Korea, North & South:
The Geopolitics of Unification

@30 January 2001

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For related articles see :
North Korea - Pick Your Godfather (2006)
North Korea -  The Japanese Card (2003)
North Korea - The Smell of Rat (2002)
Who Wants a Reunified Korea? -- some reflections on war, peace and the armaments business (2001)

This entry in Thor's Korea Diary is a response to an newspaper article: Dr Rhee Tong-chin, Korea Times 30 January 2001, "Will Korea Be Unified -- Under What Circumstances?" [mirror] I have a cheek to deal with this topic at all, but the best way to sort out ideas is often to write them down. As usual, informed responses from readers are welcome.

Dr Rhee Tong-chin (Korea Times 30 January 2001, "Will Korea Be Unified -- Under What Circumstances?") delves into the geopolitics or reunifying North and South Korea. His article is useful for setting out possible scenarios, and identifying the players. However the very clarity of the alternatives he sees also marks their limitations. One can easily imagine other and perhaps more likely catalysts for change.

Dr Rhee is surely right that Korea is a card in the deck of strategic world power plays. But that is only a single card in the deck, and probably not even the joker. If this is a game of poker though, it is only human to figure the odds. One question is what weight we give to the perceived interests of China, Japan, Russia, America, and perhaps other countries as well. Another question is the internal dynamics of Korean politics, which Dr Rhee surely knows intimately, and of which I have only the sketchiest knowledge. The third and most opaque question is what opportunities and threats any combination of countless possible events might throw up. These last matters can range from war to trade, from charismatic leaders to political collapse, from epidemics to natural disasters ...

The perception of Korea from Beijing may be one of the easier factors to pin down in the unification equation. Almost from the time that historical relations between the states of China and Korea have been recorded, Chinese administrations have a) understood that Korea is a critical buffer state on the northern frontier; b) felt that Korea must be controlled in China's interests; c) believed that Korea was a natural vassal, or at worst a natural ally of China. Whoever is governing northern China in the future will certainly hold the same view, and their strategic response to questions of north-south Korean unification will turn on that, more than on trade for its own sake (as opposed to trade as a weapon[see endnote below]), and certainly more than on humanistic matters. If China's goal is clear however, the path to success is wide open to debate.

Dr Rhee envisages that China might become sweetly co-operative only if the United States abandoned any support for Taiwan, and preferably if the Unites States packed its bags in Japan, went home ... and became a hermit kingdom (?). He also proposes that the internal collapse of either North or South Korea might set forces for unification in motion that would be beyond China's capacity to control.

I concur that the American presence is a standing provocation to some strands of Chinese thinking (not to speak of various groups in South Korea, Japan, and even Taiwan). However Dr Rhee's reading of Chinese political psychology doesn't square very well with the China that I know. Firstly of course, China is not a united house, but a restless entanglement of over six hundred polluted cities, and a vast, very unhappy peasantry. Its complexity is probably ungovernable in any predictable sense, but we can say that whoever has clawed their way to power in Zhongnan Hai (the Leaders' compound in Beijing) will not be too delicate about favours given and taken. Whatever the public rhetoric, the truth is that China's leaders are contemptuous of America's claims to democratic enlightenment (and looking at the American plutocracy, they may have a point). They do respect American military power, and the three hundred billion or so dollars that goes to support it every year. Coercive power is something that came with their mother's milk. That is not likely to change. I don't respect guns, but they do, and frankly I think it would be perilous not only for Korean stability but for Chinese stability if the United States took its big toys home any time soon.

Beijing gives no sign that it really expects America to abandon its Far Eastern commitments. This does not mean that the Chinese objective of bringing Korea, all of Korea, under its sway has changed. In this sense we still have the same main players at the card table who were there at the end of the nineteenth century. Japan is China's real competitor for influence in the Korean peninsula, with Russia as a bit-player in the wings. America is the bouncer at the door, keeping order. Both China and Japan have learned the hard way that they are not going to win Korea permanently by force of arms. The chips they have on the table have the glitter of gold about them. Once we understand this, we can see that North Korea is a long-term embarrassment for China. They know very well that North Korean economics are insane. They know that an ally with most of its population starving and reduced to zomby automatons is hardly an ally worth having, and in fact poses serious risks.

The big job ahead of the gentlemen in Zhongnan Hai is how to win the hearts and minds, and especially the trade, of South Korea. If South Korea can be drawn into the orbit of Chinese economic influence, then the North can be gradually nudged and bullied into some kind of rough alignment with the South. In these terms, the American military presence in Korea (or Japan or Taiwan) need not be an impediment to the Chinese vision for Korean unification. On the contrary, the stabilizing American presence underwrites economic prosperity for all countries in the region (including China), and continuing prosperity is China's best hope for winning back influence in South Korea.

Neither Dr Rhee nor I have said much about the other guest at this banquet, Japan. Japan at the moment seems to be badly in need of some new kind of "Meiji Restoration", but it is still an economic giant. It is no secret that the Japanese have an image problem in Korea, and an attitude problem at home (when it comes to dealing with the rest of Asia). However these problems should not be overestimated, and are likely to ameliorate with time. Japanese companies are deeply embedded in the South Korean economy. Japan has a sizable Korean population. By the roots of their languages, and by ethnicity Koreans and Japanese are blood brothers, though they have spent a lot of historical time as blood enemies. In spite of centuries of Confucian influence on the Korean ruling classes, to an outsider the similarities in customs and behaviour between Japanese and Koreans are striking. Now there is even talk of an undersea rail link between the two nations, ultimately connecting through Russian territory to Europe.

Thus in modern Korea and Japan we have two mercantile, maritime trading nations, neighbours with deep links of ethnicity and culture. They form a natural axis. Certainly the Japanese have always seen it that way, and hopefully their style of pursuing the relationship is becoming more civilized over time. Korea's abject complicity with Chinese suzerainty under the Yi Dynasty for five hundred years reduced it to a rural backwater, a laughing stock even in China. That lesson might not be forgotten. Certainly modern Chinese leadership respects the economic strength of South Korea infinitely more than it respects the indigent, "brother socialist state" of North Korea. So in the end the South Koreans may balance a brisk development of Chinese trade by a firmer and more intimate alliance with the Japanese people(it is a mistake to think only in terms of the moribund Japanese political elite). If this is to be the case then Japan too will have an ever increasing motivation to encourage reform and development in North Korea to a point of commercial integration with the South.

endnote on China's trade with South Korea: Korea's exports to the Chinese Bloc came to US$34.21 billion in the first 11 months of 2000, up 31% from the same period a year earlier. This was 21.7% of the nation's exports, compared to the 21.6% taken by the United States. Exports to mainland China increased by 38.3% (to US$16.93 billion), while imports from mainland China increased by 48.1% to US$11.72 billion during the year. [Korean Herald, p.9, 13 February 2001]. The Chinese Bloc includes PR China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Korea, North & South: The Geopolitics of Unification", copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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