In a post last week, I talked about what I understand to be North Korea’s main goal in its foreign and domestic policy: maintaining Kim Jong Un in power, and how that goal is driving North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.
But what about the People’s Republic of China? China is viewed by many as the key to controlling North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. What are China’s concerns? According to most commentators, they have several. First, if North Korea collapses, there could be a flood of refugees into China.
Third, if North Korea collapses and Korea reunites under South Korea, that could put U.S. troops on China’s border.
While all of these have some importance, I think China’s main concern is something else. I think China is worried about North Korea collapsing and Korea reuniting under the South Korean government – but not because of a flood of refugees or because U.S. troops would be on China’s border. What I think China is most worried about is the example of a united Korea, free and democratic, on its border.
South Korea’s economic success is impressive, but China can handle a Korean economic success story on its border. China has its own economic successes. What scares China more is what Korea has and what China doesn’t have: freedom and democracy.
Since the Tiananmen Square protests were violently put down in 1989, there has been an implicit, unspoken agreement between the Chinese people and the Chinese government. The Chinese government would make sure the economy grows and the Chinese people get richer. In return, the Chinese people would not challenge the Chinese government.
However, it seems like the Chinese government is beginning to worry how long this agreement will hold. Xi Jinping, President of the PRC and General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, has been cracking down. Lawyers trying to protect people’s rights are being arrested. The Great Firewall is being strengthened. Microbloggers have been charged with “creating a disturbance.” Last year the Communist Party reminded party members that they are not to criticize the decisions of party leaders. All in all, China’s leaders seem to be worried that, as people get richer, they are going to want more rights.
A united Korea, free, democratic, and economically successful, right on China’s borders would be a beacon for those in China who want more freedom in their country. Japan doesn’t cause the same problem because it’s not on China’s border and, perhaps more importantly, because the enmity still present from World War II (and long before) makes Japan more of an enemy and less of an example.
Korea is different. Korea was as poor as China after World War II. A free, democratic country, with an economic success story that might be even greater than China’s, is not something China wants on its border. China’s leaders can’t risk it. They need North Korea as a buffer against an infection of freedom and democracy coming from South Korea. China doesn’t need Kim Jong Un, but they do need North Korea. If they could have North Korea without Kim Jong Un, they would not mind. But if they have to keep Kim Jong Un to keep North Korea, even with his nuclear ambitions, that is what they will do. Because the contagion of freedom is too big of a risk for them.