'China Does Not Want the Korean Peninsula to Be Unified'

A commentary by Andrei Lankov
Email story
Comment on this story
Print story
Trucks loaded with Chinese goods head across the Yalu Bridge to North Korea at the Chinese border town of Dandong, Dec. 30, 2011.
Trucks loaded with Chinese goods head across the Yalu Bridge to North Korea at the Chinese border town of Dandong, Dec. 30, 2011.

Some time ago, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released a piece of research entitled “A Report on Developments in the Asia Pacific Area.” This report leveled a great deal of criticism at North Korea.

In the report, Chinese experts said that North Korean authorities believe that China will never abandon their country, but they argued that China could very well abandon North Korea if the country continues its brinkmanship-based policies, including nuclear weapons tests. They also said that China could accept a South Korean-led reunification of the Korean Peninsula.

The contents of this report are unprecedented.  Chinese experts have voiced similar arguments in the past, but this is the first time such arguments have been expressed so publicly.

Many experts now believe that China will abandon North Korea if it has to and that the regional superpower may support a South Korean-led unification. But in my opinion, the possibility that this may happen is exaggerated.

Of course, the Chinese report should not be disregarded, but I think it is not intended as a proclamation of a changing Chinese policy on North Korea, but rather as a warning directed to the North Korean leadership.

With the start of the Kim Jong Un era, the two countries’ long-difficult relationship has now become even more difficult.

'A political problem'

It is not an exaggeration to say that China holds a monopoly over North Korea’s foreign trade. Despite this, however, Kim Jong Un and the rest of the North Korean leadership believe that dependence on China has created a political problem, and they are working to weaken Chinese economic influence by reaching out to Western investors.

Of course, the North Korean leadership is worried that China will use its dominance over North Korea’s economy to involve itself in internal North Korean affairs. The execution of Jang Song Thaek may have been a result of such concerns.

At the same time, China cannot help but direct more discontent and annoyance at North Korea. North Korea is staying afloat on Chinese assistance, but the country has implemented a political stance that is causing much difficulty for the Chinese.

Moreover, China’s leaders remember little about the Korean War and have little reason to continue helping North Korea.

But when considering long-term geopolitical goals and interests, China believes that maintaining a division of the two Koreas is a desirable option. This is because of the deepening confrontation between the U.S. and China.

Buffer zone

From China’s perspective, North Korea is a buffer zone that blocks U.S. influence on the Korean Peninsula and forces U.S. troops to be stationed at a distance from China.

As the China Academy of Social Sciences report suggests, if China someday abandons North Korea, the North’s system will likely collapse.  And ultimately, the Korean Peninsula could become united under the flag of South Korea.

If the Korean Peninsula is unified by South Korea, China will try in a number of ways to establish a good relationship with South Korea and attempt to minimize American influence in the country. However, China would not have an easy time doing this.

Beijing’s view is that it wants to avoid taking any measures that could create a crisis on the Korean Peninsula. And therefore there is no reason to think that the Chinese report reflects an important shift in Chinese policy. At this stage in the game, China does not want the Korean Peninsula to be unified.

Translated by Robert Lauler.

Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, is a Russian historian, North Korea expert, and regular RFA contributor.

Comments (6)


from Busan

Remember North Korea's presence gives many reasons and excuses for Japan's expansion in the resion. US also impose more influence on the region for those. There's only one option for Chinese Regime;Lets Korea unified under South Korea (After reunification, economically, more likely to be adventageous for China) and be on its side or takes care of its reckless sister to make Japan be its threat again.

Jun 26, 2014 07:52 AM


from Toronto

It is as simple as this: CCP in Beijing loses their Communist face and a puppet to play with anytime with USA and it's allies.

Mar 07, 2014 01:49 AM

Son Tae Jin

from Incheon

China will continually use NK as a chess piece against the west. The Chinese population in general could give a rats ... about the NKs. The same sentiment is felt in South Korea where they do not want their dumber korean versions of rednecks moving into their society and North Koreans don't want reunification because they know they will be the Mexicans to the South Koreans.

[This comment has been edited by RFA Editorial staff per our Terms of Use]

Mar 03, 2014 03:05 PM


Lankov has a point, but it would be more accurate to say that the China's Communist Party leaders do not want the Korean peninsula unified" (instead of the abstract "China" not wanting this). China's authoritarian one-party-ruled government should not be linked with "China" in the abstract.

Mar 01, 2014 02:34 PM

Anonymous Reader

China can't allow North and South Korean to be unified .People love democracy. When the North people get to test true freedom and with stomach full of food ,they will realize how they been brainwashed by the evil communist .

Mar 01, 2014 01:55 PM

View all comments.





More Listening Options

View Full Site