Is Xi Jinping Rethinking Korean Unification?

Editor’s Note: On January 20, 2015, Jonathan Pollack gave the following presentation at the 3rd Korea Research Institute for Security-Brookings Joint Conference on “Cooperating for Regional Stability in the Process of Korean Unification: Contingency Preparations with the ROK-U.S. as Anchor” in Seoul, Korea.

Does Xi Jinping assume that Korean unification is a realistic possibility for which China needs to prepare? If he considers unification a genuine prospect, how does he envision it? Does unification pose inherent risks to Chinese political and security interests, or are the risks deemed manageable? Would China cooperate with the Republic of Korea and with the United States to advance this process? Is there any reason to conclude that Beijing is moving beyond  ritualized calls for “the peaceful independent unification of the Korean peninsula”?

Most observers of Chinese foreign policy doubt that Chinese thinking about Korean unification has progressed very far. According to the prevailing analytic consensus, Xi and other senior Chinese officials are increasingly alienated by the conduct of North Korea’s impetuous young leader, Kim Jong-un, but prefer to sustain an uneasy status quo rather than run the risk of acute geopolitical upheaval on China’s doorstep. Some also argue that the prospect of a unified, democratic Korea allied closely with the United States remains one of Beijing’s recurring strategic nightmares. By this logic, China will do all that it can to forestall unification, or even move actively to prevent it. But few if any Chinese discussions posit unification as a realistic near to mid-term prospect.

However, these questions may be the wrong ones to ask. With or without unification, the ground on the peninsula continues to shift, and Beijing is deeply involved both as observer and participant. Pyongyang remains grimly determined to chart its own course, and China is ever more deeply enmeshed in relations with the ROK, thus redefining Chinese equities in relation to both states. It is therefore important to first address how China weighs its interests in the context of a still-divided peninsula.

The Debate in Beijing

From the time of  Pyongyang’s first nuclear test in 2006, there has been unmistakable evidence of internal debate among Chinese researchers about the Kim dynasty and and its strategic priorities. In the aftermath of the initial nuclear detonation, Beijing was for the first time prepared to address whether Pyongyang was an asset or liability to China, the potential risks that Pyongyang posed to Chinese interests, and Beijing’s options for influencing North Korean behavior. Chinese policy makers had thus enabled consideration of issues that were long deemed too sensitive for open publication. But this debate offered only oblique hints about how Chinese policy makers assessed the longer-term future of the DPRK and about how China could protect its interests on the peninsula.

The elevation of Kim Jong-un to supreme leadership in the North and the parallel succession of Xi Jinping to power in China has appreciably sharpened the terms of debate. To a far greater extent than his predecessors in top leadership, Xi imparted growing frustration with North Korean behavior; a readiness to  weigh the alternatives to  long-entrenched Chinese policy on the peninsula; and a willingness to permit fuller consideration of the potential risks to Chinese interests posed by the North’s actions.

At present, China continues to occupy a distinctive position among the major powers with a major stake in the future of the peninsula. Though Russia clearly hopes to elevate its role in both Koreas, China at present is the only outside actor with substantial links to both Seoul and Pyongyang. At the same time, Beijing has repeatedly advocated an evolutionary approach to unification, thereby rejecting any abrupt or riskier strategies. But China’s alienation from the North is increasingly apparent, and Chinese experts –quite possibly with explicit sanction from senior leaders- voice their frustrations much more openly. The open question is how (if at all) China seeks to employ its existing relationships on both sides of the 38th Parallel to protect and advance its own interests.

The divergence between Beijing and Pyongyang encompasses a broad range of issues. The burgeoning of China-ROK economic, political, and institutional relations; President Park Geun-hye’s political and personal affinity with President Xi Jinping; China’s increased unhappiness over North Korean nuclear weapons and missile development and the North’s undiminished hostility toward neighboring states, especially the ROK; and Kim Jong-un’s rejection of Chinese policy advice despite North Korea’s economic dependence on Beijing have altered the tenor and substance of Chinese ties with both Korean states. But has China definitively altered its underlying strategic calculus toward the two Koreas as well as its assumptions about inter-Korean relations and unification?

Most analysts continue to argue that China remains unprepared to contemplate bolder shifts in its Korea strategy. Some of these reasons are rooted in the past history of the Chinese and Korean communist movements. The links between the Chinese Communist Party and the Korean Workers Party from the 1930s (including close ties between Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders and Kim Il-sung); China’s essential role in sustaining the North Korean regime during the Korean war; China’s opposition to US containment strategies of the 1950s and 1960s (thereby enabling North Korea to serve as a buffer state that protected Chinese interests); and Beijing’s continued suspicions of US political-military objectives in Northeast Asia are among the more salient factors. These considerations also highlight the continued role and voice of various institutional bureaucracies in China within the party, the military, and in the northeastern provinces.

China’s Shifting Interests

Without question, however, the past history of China-DPRK relations has been overtaken by events. In the words of a senior Chinese diplomat, “then is then and now is now.” Unlike the 1950s, 1960s, and much of the 1970s, when Beijing and Pyongyang both pursued highly autarkic economic strategies, China is now the world’s leading trading state, and it is increasingly integrated into global institutions and trade regimes. The normalization of relations with the Republic of Korea in 1992, and the steady enhancement and diversification of China-ROK relations in the ensuing two decades, attests to a profound realignment of China’s political and economic interests. Even though China’s trade with North Korea is presently close to record levels, Beijing’s two-way trade with the ROK is approximately 45 times as much. President Xi has now met on seven separate occasions with President Park Geun-hye, including reciprocal state visits to each other’s capitals. Xi has yet to meet Kim Jong-un, nor has Kim been invited to visit China since assuming top leadership.

Situational factors nonetheless retain a strong pull on Chinese thinking and actions. There is unease in Beijing about the latent risks to security along the long China-DPRK border. Recent incidents, including the early January 2015 murder of four Chinese citizens by a North Korean soldier who had crossed into Chinese territory, have led Beijing to file protests with Pyongyang about lax North Korean border security. Various reports persist of higher levels of surveillance by Chinese public security and military personnel in locations contiguous to North Korea. But the Chinese seem disinclined to greatly heighten pressure against Pyongyang.

Many American observers have long advocated that Beijing pursue harsher measures to impose costs on North Korea for its continued defiance of Chinese policy preferences. But a more activist Chinese strategy would not be risk free, and could readily trigger intense nationalistic animosities within the DPRK. Despite ever increasing attention to China’s power ascendance, leaders in Beijing remain much more equivocal about the overt exercise of power in foreign policy than most analysts acknowledge.[1] As a consequence, Beijing continues to tolerate an inherently unsatisfactory status quo on the peninsula, and remains unwilling to undertake a major roll of the strategic dice. For example, China demonstrates  continued wariness about operational cooperation with the ROK and the United States in managing the risks of an acute peninsular crisis. It also helps explain Beijing’s willingness to sustain a meaningful level of economic involvement in North Korea.

However, situational logic obscures the major changes that have already occurred in Chinese thinking and actions. Xi Jinping has played a very important role in China’s shifiting priorities. He appears to grasp the risks posed by North Korea to vital Chinese interests much more than his predecessors. Since the fall of 2013, China has devoted particular efforts to “peripheral diplomacy,” hoping to ensure a longer-term foreign policy environment more favorable to Chinese interests. But North Korea has remained conspicuous by its absence from these developments. At the same time, Pyongyang has excluded Beijing from its efforts at political and economic breakout, leading one Chinese observer to describe North Korea’s present policy as “going in all directions while only lacking China.”[2] 

Reviewing the Status of China-DPRK Relations

Arguably, China’s current relations with North Korea are bad by historical standards; they are also in worse shape today than Beijing’s relations with any other land neighbor with which it shares a border. Yet China does not seem overly exercised by these circumstances (including recent efforts by Pyongyang to revive long dormant relations with Moscow) , nor does it seem prepared to undertake major efforts to repair the damage in bilateral relations.

A telling illustration of the troubled state of bilateral relations is the lack of involvement of Politburo Standing Committee member Zhang Dejiang in policy making toward the North.[3] Zhang’s knowledge of North Korea and his previous experiences in the DPRK far exceed that of any senior Chinese official. Zhang earned a degree from Kim Il-sung University. His early career experiences were primarily in China’s northeast, first as a professor at Yanbian University, and subsequently as a Party official in Jilin province, culminating in three years as Party Secretary at the time of the North Korean famine in the latter half of the 1990s. This personal history enabled Zhang to acquire familiarity with conditions in the North and the spillover consequences of the North Korean famine. He hosted Kim Jong-il in Tumen during one of Kim’s final visits to China in 2011. Zhang also met with Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un when he led a delegation to Pyongyang to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Sino-DPRK alliance.

Zhang and Premier Li Keqiang are the only current members of the Politburo Standing Committee to have met Kim Jong-un, but Zhang’s role in North Korea policy making at present appears largely ceremonial. This in part reflects Xi’s decision to downgrade the level of official contact with North Korea. No Politburo member, for example, has traveled to the North since 2013. As observed by Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, “President Xi appears to have made a conscious decision early in his tenure to sideline Zhang Dejiang from policy decision-making [toward North Korea].” This in part reflects Xi’s efforts to consolidate control over foreign policy, and it might also reflect concerns that Zhang is overly identified with the DPRK. But Zhang’s conspicuous non-involvement  suggests that Xi has decided to keep relations with the North diplomatically correct but decidedly arms-length.

The Execution of Jang Song-thaek

North Korea’s determination to sustain and enhance its nuclear program in the face of Chinese opposition is undoubtedly a primary reason for Beijing’s alienation from Pyongyang. But the execution of Jang Song-thaek appears to have had a determinative effect on thinking in Beijing.[4] There is little to suggest that Chinese leaders were fully aware (or perhaps even aware at all) of Jang’s growing political vulnerabilities, let alone that his life was at risk. His ouster and death removed the one senior North Korean official with whom Chinese policy makers were known to maintain reasonably close ties. These extended to Jang’s control of different business interests in the North and his responsibility for special economic zones along the Chinese border.

Jang’s purge and execution placed various subordinates (no doubt among the most internationally engaged of North Korean officials) in political and physical jeopardy. It defies belief that any senior figure in the Pyongyang leadership would advocate closer relations with Beijing under prevailing circumstances. Various reports suggest that some of Jang’s colleagues may have met the same fate, though definitive confirmation of additional executions is lacking. Without question, however, Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of internal control appreciably reduced any leverage or influence that China might have possessed earlier in the young leader’s tenure.

If Xi Jinping hoped to heighten Pyongyang’s attentiveness to Chinese policy concerns, Jang’s death must have been particularly sobering. In the period since Jang’s execution, China has emphasized its desire for normal state to state relations with the North, making clear that bilateral ties have long since ceased to be an active alliance. The level of official exchanges with Pyongyang has also been appreciably diminished, and (in stark contrast to the frequency with which Xi Jinping continues to meet with Park Geun-hye) Xi has not extended an invitation to Kim Jong-un to visit China.

Beijing’s Tilt toward Seoul

In scope and scale, Beijing’s relations with Seoul now matter far more to Chinese long-term interests than its ties with Pyongyang. [5] There is a striking difference between Beijing’s deepening engagement with an open, globalized South Korea and its tenuous, increasingly problematic relations with a defiant, nuclear-armed neighbor. But China is not prepared to jettison North Korea, in part for fear of triggering a larger crisis. China has even made several recent gestures toward the North, including the visit of Politburo Standing Committee member Liu Yunshan to the DPRK Embassy to mark the third anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-il. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson  also made passing reference to Kim Jong-un’s birthday. There has been no unequivocal break in relations with Pyongyang, but the gravitational pull in Chinese policy continues to move in Seoul’s direction.

But to what end? China might still believe that an evolutionary process in the North is possible, even if Beijing appears to discount this possibility. If North Korea proves able to sustain its strategic goals (in particular pursuit of an operational nuclear weapons capability), Beijing might yet confront a profound turning point in its relationship with the DPRK. But very few Chinese experts believe that North Korea’s days are numbered.

At the same time, China remains averse to any multilateral contingency planning about North Korea’s future. Most Chinese experts continue to insist that major change on the peninsula is a matter for the two Koreas to determine, and thus inappropriate for any outside power to undertake. This may reflect China’s desire to avoid major embroilment in peninsular affairs, Beijing appears to genuinely believe that Korea’s future is foremost a matter for Koreans to resolve.

Weighing Expert Opinion in Beijing

Articles written by Chinese observers of the Korean peninsula, including several with previous high-level policy responsibilities, highlight the continued duality in Chinese thinking about the two Koreas. In a major speech delivered in Dresden in late March 2014, President Park Geun-hye advocated family reunions and humanitarian assistance to the North, the rebuilding of the infrastructure of the North to support economic recovery, and  an integration of the people of South and North, predicated on the denuclearization of the DPRK. But it was a full six weeks before Yang Xiyu of the China Institute of International Studies and a previous participant in the Six Party Talks, offered an informed view of the content of President Park’s address. [6] Though we should not assume that Yang was following authoritative policy guidance, the long lag between the address and his published assessnment suggests unresolved differences over Chinese strategy.

Yang characterized the Dresden speech as an effort “to reverse the young generation’s increasing apathy toward reunification…the dream of reunification is fading in South Korean society.”  But he then explicitly differentiated the German and Korean cases. As Yang observed, “German reunification…represents a rare and special case in the post-World War II era and is not duplicable… Park’s policy to draw on the experience of the German model is completely untenable because there is scant possibility that Pyongyang will collapse.” Yang then concluded:  “Any policy formulated or organization established on account of such an assumption that the North is no more than a passive and pathological state dragged by a defunct  economy is a mistake by the Blue House…both Seoul and Pyongyang have a strong desire for reunification, but they must readjust policies to refrain from unification through absorption. As Korea’s split had its unique reasons and went through a unique process of evolution, the two countries must figure out a unique way toward ultimate unification. But under the current circumstances, reunification on the Korean peninsula remains a distant dream.”

However, Yang is not the only former official to offer candid personal judgments about the future of the peninsula. As noted earlier, Xi Jinping has encouraged a much more diverse range of views to circulate in official publications, though it is not evident that any particular viewpoint has been privileged in internal debate. Among important new entrants in these discussions, perhaps none is more notable than General Wang Hongguang, former Deputy Commander of the Nanjing Military Region. Prior to General Wang’s involvement in such debate, no high ranking military figure had engaged in such candid discussion about the DPRK.

Since the late winter of 2014, General Wang has openly and sharply criticized North Korea actions that have endangered Chinese vital interests. These included Pyongyang’s third nuclear test (the test site is quite close to the Chinese border) and his blunt attacks on North Korea’s “missile recklessness” in March 2014, when a short range ballistic missile passed within six minutes of a Chinese commercial aircraft with 220 passengers then on final descent into Shenyang. [7] 

Wang published an even more extraordinary commentary in several major media on successive days in December 2014. The latter article was prompted by a separate commentary by Li Dunqiu, formerly a senior researcher with a State Council research office and a traditionalist in Chinese thinking about North Korea. Li had openly accused unnamed “Chinese strategic scholars” of advocating the “abandonment” of Pyongyang.[8] General Wang chastised Li by name, and put forward views of North Korea and China’s differences with the DPRK that had never before been conveyed with such directness in major Chinese media. This included publication in the English language version of the PLA’s leading daily newspaper.[9] 

Wang’s lengthy and searing critique of North Korea warrants extensive quotation. As he wrote: “On major issues of principle [nuclear weapons were cited as the relevant example], there is no need for China to harm its own interests for the sake of North Korean interests…North Korea has long since abandoned Marxism-Leninism… it is neither a proletarian political party nor a socialist country…China and North Korea only have a relationship of national interests…North Korea [has pursued] a policy of national seclusion. China cannot be blamed, and China bears no responsibility for it….The collapse of a country is not mainly dependent on external forces. If a regime cannot get the support of the people, then ‘collapse’ will happen sooner or later…China is not a savior. If North Korea were to truly collapse, China would not be able to save it. All China can do is make preparation accordingly…China does not need to invite trouble. Whoever starts the war should be responsible…China’s sons need not fight a war for another country.”  Wang’s views attest to a strikingly different  tone about North Korea increasingly evident within China, though it remains to be seen how far and how fully such views might affect future Chinese policy.

The Road Ahead

China has thus reached an important juncture in its thinking about both Koreas. But this remains an evolutionary process rather than a headlong rush into a very different future. Inexorably and unmistakably, Beijing has divested itself of many policy inheritances that no longer serve China’s needs and interests. It will continue to weigh the balance between risk and gain, mindful as always of Pyongyang’s capacity to disrupt and confound.

At the same time, the ROK must carefully ponder its own political and strategic equities in relation to Beijing. China will be Korea’s perpetual neighbor, no matter whether the peninsula remains divided or moves toward unification. Any major change in the status quo on the peninsula will therefore directly affect Chinese interests. Shaping Chinese attitudes toward such change becomes a first order policy priority for the ROK. In particular, it will be essential for Seoul to serve as a bridge between the United States and China. This will lend greater credibility to the ROK’s efforts to deal fully and effectively with Beijing when unification becomes more than a long-term vision. The major tests for South Korea in relation to China are twofold: will Beijing accord Seoul commensurate status as a major middle power, and can the ROK successfully impart to China that its core interests (including its future security cooperation with the United States) are not negotiable? Such issues will remain central to deliberations about the peninsula’s future, and upon which peace and stability in Northeast Asia will depend.

[1] For a provocative overview (though not focused on Northeast Asia), consult China and Global Crises: The “Culture of Reluctance,” (Paris: European Council on Foreign Relations: China Analysis, October 2014).

[2] Wang Muke, in Shijie Zhishi, September 16, 2014.  This journal is a publication of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

[3] This discussion draws on an unpublished paper by Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, “Whither Zhang Dejiang? In Search of China’s North Korea Envoy,” to appear in 38 North.  My thanks for his permission to draw upon his study.

[4] I discuss the effects of Jang’s execution in Jonathan D. Pollack, “Why Does China Coddle North Korea?” The International New York Times, January 13, 2014.

[5] This discussion draws on Jonathan D. Pollack, “The Strategic Meaning of China-ROK Relations: How Far Will the Rapprochement Go and with What Implications?”   published by the Asan Institute of Policy Studies and reissued by The Brookings Institution, September 29, 2014.

[6] Yang Xiyu, “Korean Reunification Must be Based on Reality,” Global Times, May 13, 2014.

[7] On the latter episode, see Wang Hongguang, “North Korean Missile Recklessness Deserves Firm Response from China,” Global Times Online, March 11, 2014.

[8] “Li Dunqiu: We Cannot Abandon North Korea: A Partner of 65 Years,” Huanqiu Shibao, November 27, 2014.

[9] Wang Hongguang, “The Issue of ‘Abandoning North Korea’ Does Not Exist in China,” Huanqiu Wang, December 1, 2014; Lt. Gen Wang Hongguang: No Such Thing as ‘Giving Up DPRK’ for China,” Jiefangjun Bao, December 2, 2014.  The wording in the original Chinese language version is noticeably sharper than the English language version.