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The Divided Korean Peninsula Presents China with a Major Hidden Crisis

{Editor’s note: A Chinese expert argued that a united Korea, rather than the divided Korea, is better for China’s interest.

Jin Qiangyi (金强一) made the statement in his interview with Duowei, a Chinese media stationed overseas. Jin is the Chief Scholar at the Korean Peninsula Collaborative Innovation Center and is also Director of the International Politics Institute at both the North Korea and the South Korea Research Centers. Both centers are under Yanbian University in Jilin Province.

The following is the translation of the article.} {1}

What should China do with its disobedient “neighbor,” North Korea? There are two very different views in Chinese academia: one view believes that China should abandon North Korea, which has long been a burden to China; the other view is that China should try to protect North Korea as a strategic buffer (between South Korean, Japan, and U.S. forces). Is it time for China to adjust its policy toward North Korea?

From China’s perspective, we first need to establish a theoretical target: What does China want to do in Northeast Asia? Presently, a lot of people think that a divided Korean Peninsula without any chaos is good for China’s interests. It allows China to take advantage in its diplomatic work on the Korean Peninsula. I wonder, however, if that really serves a purpose. The greatest benefit may just be to make a few remarks at the United Nations, and nothing else.

The safest highway in the world is in Yanbian, (in Jilin Province, which borders North Korea), because it has no commerce.  Without commerce, where is the development? The severe economic downturn in China’s three northeastern provinces bears a direct relationship to the Korean Peninsula issue.

I think what the three northeastern provinces lack most is an open economy. The best way to have an open economy is to have a unified Korean Peninsula.

Immediately after the Korean peninsula is unified, China’s northeastern provinces and the Korean Peninsula will become an economic and cooperative zone. In Northeast Asia, there are: China, the second largest economy; Russia which has the most abundant resources; and Japan and South Korea which are technology intensive and capital intensive. Once the synergy forms (between these countries), it will immediately create an (economic) gravity. Where will this gravitational pull extend? I believe that it will attract the entire Southeast Asia and at least some other areas as well. Then Northeast Asia will form an economy that accounts for half of the world’s economy.  This (Northeast Asian) economy will surpass Europe, and maybe even North America, if it develops well.

Before China competes with the U.S., China needs to learn (some strategy) from the U.S. on how to play the game. Although the U.S. sets up fire all over the world, upon a closer look, one will find that the U.S. has two very solid foundations: one is North America, the other is Europe. The U.S. is firmly rooted in these two enormous territories, which gives it a strategic basis. Only then does it dare to light fire everywhere.

Since World War II, all the games that the U.S. has played have been to obtain control through cooperation.

Let’s take a look at Japan and South Korea. Whenever the U.S. coughs, the two countries will have a cold. Why? Of course, North Korea is a unique factor, but (the main reason is that) the U.S. laid a foundation of cooperation and instilled its own political ideology and culture as a major means to effectuate its control. So the U.S. strategic approach is to control through cooperation.

Now the biggest headache for our country is that, when we look around, we see no friends. Upon reflection, this is also very simple. If we determine and adopt the cooperative mentality, we will have friends all over the world. Without such a mentality, the world will be full of enemies.

It would be most in line with China’s interest if China were to form an extensive cooperation system in Northeast Asia. Then, even if China did not want to be the dominant force, it would be the dominant force. This would be the result of its (cooperation) strategy. China must commit to this goal and has long understood this. That was why, back in the 1990s, it carried out the Tumen River Basin development effort to build such a large cooperation system. Why did it fail? The problem lies with the Korean peninsula.

Now, some people say that an un-unified Korean Peninsula without chaos is in line with China’s interests. This argument is totally without merit. The U.S. hopes that tension in the Korean Peninsula continues. The U.S. strategy is to maintain a controlled, moderate tension in the Korean Peninsula, which will not only create a wide range of reasons for the U.S. to intervene in Northeast Asian affairs, but will also squeeze China’s development space. This is the U.S. strategy. In fact, this strategy targets China and contains (China). Shouldn’t China do the opposite? You need this level of tension, so I will destroy your tension structure.

There is no doubt that a divided Korean Peninsula is extremely ominous for China. First of all, China should understand the essence of Sino-North Korean relations. Now many people talk about Sino-North Korean relations, but they are wrong. (The real issue is that) there is a deep contradiction between China and North Korea. What is the contradiction? It is the non-synchronization of policies of the two countries. China’s reform and opening up has deviated from the traditional socialism. North Korea has not. This leads to a contradiction. The only way to change it is to induce North Korea to reform and open up; there is no other way. If North Korea reforms and opens up, the entire region will thrive.

The essence of the problem of the Korean Peninsula is that it has not gotten rid of its Cold War mentality. Especially for North Korea, if it changes its Cold War mentality, then naturally conflicts will not exist. From international law or from the perspective of state governance, as long as North Korea has nuclear capability, Northeast Asia will not be stable. Moreover, if North Korea’s nuclear capability is a constant threat, South Korea and Japan may also develop their nuclear capabilities. Then there will not be cooperation in Northeast Asia. If Taiwan also wants to develop nuclear weapons, China will not unify with it either. It can be said that the problem is grave, so China must stay firm on the nuclear issue. If China loosens up on this issue, the result will be catastrophic.

To avoid the catastrophe, China is working together with the international community to continue putting pressure on North Korea. I want to propose that all sanctions should focus on its military. The sanctions must be very forceful, because most of the components and parts of North Korea’s nuclear bombs and nuclear technology are imported; none could be produced domestically. Destroying this channel would make it very difficult for North Korea’s next nuclear development. However, (we) need to continue to communicate with North Korea concerning economic affairs affecting people’s livelihood. That way, the North Korean people will understand that the international community is not so hostile to North Korea, and that as long as you give up the nuclear program, (the international community) can work together with you. Presently, it appears that people in North Korea believe that without nuclear bombs, North Korea will be destroyed. This is not conducive to solving the problem.


{1} Duowei, “The Split Korea Peninsula Presents Major Hidden Crisis to China,” April 30, 2017.