The rising probability of a democratic transition in China may in turn facilitate change in North Korea and reunification of the Korean peninsula, says a prominent analyst.
Drawing on the recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee research report on Chinese-North Korean economic integration – China’s Impact on Korean Peninsula Unification and Questions for the Senate – Minxin Pei outlines three potential scenarios in which Beijing will be unable to exercise a veto over Korean reunification:
The first one is the repeat of a “Burma Scenario” North Korea-style. It is well known that North Koreans are fiercely nationalist and resent becoming a “tributary province” of China. Just as China’s controversial commercial behavior in Burma alienated Burmese elites and the public alike, and was an important trigger of Burma’s political opening, the ongoing economic integration of China and North Korea, as described in the Senate minority report, could also drive Pyongyang away from Beijing. The Kim dynasty could easily sell out its Chinese patron and turn to the West in the same way the Burmese military regime has done. Of course, given the blood on its hands, the North Korean regime will have a harder time getting the West to embrace it. But North Korea also has more attractive bargaining chips, its nuclear arsenal and missiles, with which it can extract favorable terms in negotiations.
The second scenario is a democratic transition in China itself. This may not be a realistic possibility in the short-term (the next five years), but the probability of a democratic transition in China is non-trivial and is on the rise. The country has reached a level of socioeconomic development (about $U.S. 8,500 per capita in purchasing power parity) at which few non-oil producing autocracies can survive. Signs of political awakening, such as the recent anti-censorship protest, calls for democracy, and civic activism, have emerged in China. Endemic corruption inside the regime, loss of public credibility, and extreme income inequality have greatly undermined the legitimacy of the ruling Communist Party. The question of regime transition in China is a matter of when and how, not whether or not. Should such a political revolution occur, a new democratic regime in Beijing will most likely jettison Pyongyang and embrace a reunified democratic Korea.
Even in the event of a rapid collapse of the North Korean regime, triggered most likely by a military coup or a popular uprising (or a combination of both) against the Kim dynasty, China’s capacity to intervene militarily in order to prevent reunification is questionable. North Korea has nuclear weapons, a factor that is likely to deter China from sending the People’s Liberation Army across the Yalu River should the Kim dynasty be overthrown by an internal uprising.
“Beijing needs to review – and completely change – its Korea policy, which is based on erroneous and obsolete strategic assumptions that are driving away South Korea as a potential regional partner,” says Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and a contributor to the Journal of Democracy.