Policy Paper

Chinese Attitudes Toward Korean Unification

By Yun Sun
in Program

Below is an excerpt from “Chinese Attitudes toward Korean Unification,” written by Bonnie S. Glaser and Yun Sun, from the International Journal of Korean Unification Studies 24:2 (2015). 

A core component of South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s policy is to establish the foundation for the peaceful unification of Korea. In a speech marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and the liberation of Korea, President Park emphasized the benefits of “a Korea made whole” and called on all Koreans to “stand together and prepare for unification.” Achieving this vision will undoubtedly require the acceptance and cooperation of North Korea. Another key player in the process is China, which remains North Korea’s largest benefactor, propping up the Kim regime with foodstuffs, energy supplies and consumer goods. Understanding that Beijing can play an important role in either forestalling or realizing Seoul’s dream of unification, Park has set out to enhance South Korea’s ties with China.

Although China officially supports unification of the Korean Peninsula, it essentially maintains a two Koreas policy. Under Xi Jinping, Beijing’s ties with the Republic of Korea (ROK) are playing an increasingly important role in China’s regional political, diplomatic and economic strategies. Strains in Sino-North Korean relations are evident and may be deepening, but China is nonetheless unwilling to abandon its historic relationship with Pyongyang. North Korea’s persistent efforts to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles pose direct challenges to Chinese interests and have led a growing number of Chinese experts to argue that their only treaty ally is a strategic liability rather than a strategic asset. However, influential voices remain convinced that Chinese interests are best served by the division of the Korean Peninsula, in part because of deep suspicions of American intentions and role on the peninsula in a unified Korea. So far, China’s cost-benefit calculus favors perpetuation of the status quo. There is no sign that Xi Jinping is genuinely willing to accept, let alone promote, a unified Korea.

Drawing on official Chinese statements, articles by Chinese scholars and officials, and author interviews, this paper analyzes evolving Chinese attitudes toward the unification of the Korean Peninsula. The paper begins by explaining China’s official position on Korean unification and Chinese interests on the Korean Peninsula. It then discusses Chinese debates about Korean unification, including the potential benefits and risks for China. Next, changes in Chinese relations with the U.S., South Korea and North Korea since 2013 are analyzed and the implications of Korean unification are assessed. The paper then examines China’s views of various unification scenarios. Finally, suggestions are put forward on how to influence China’s approach to unification going forward.

The full paper is available here

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