The ‘freeze’ policy has been the stance Beijing has been pushing as a short-term resolution to tensions on the Korean peninsula. Here, Kim Jong-un would cease developing his nuclear arsenal past its current state in return for the US and the Republic of Korea (ROK) ceasing joint military engagements, as well as the dismantling of the THAAD missile defence system. By preventing a North Korean nuclear breakout China posits that the freeze policy could provide an interim step leading towards long term North Korean denuclearisation. The freeze policy would potentially open a channel for Beijing to work on renewing its relationship with the ROK. This would be the necessary precursor to give Beijing any hope of building towards its longer term goal of removing the US presence on the Korean peninsula.
The current status quo on the peninsula would seem to make the prospects of China pushing for Korean unification highly unlikely. In addition to the near-impossibility of China accepting the 28,000 US troops currently stationed in South Korea occupying a territory bordering on China, the tensions with Seoul over the THAAD missile defence system seem, on the surface, to point to China wanting to keep South Korea at arm’s length. However, the continuity of the above two issues are predicated on factors that are by no means concrete.
Implications of an improving Beijing-Seoul relationship
The current Beijing-Seoul stand-off over THAAD represents a stark interruption of the vastly improving bilateral relationship between the two nations that occurred over the preceding few years. Since 2013, President Xi made it a personal mission to achieve rapprochement with South Korea. The rapid improvement of ties that occurred between 2014-16 led Beijing to believe that Sino-South Korean relations were at new highs and that it was a new age of Chinese influence in South Korea. As such, Seoul’s decision to host the US THAAD system represented a major blow to Xi’s belief in his newfound influence in South Korea. The current issue for the bilateral relationship is that Xi has backed himself into a corner over the THAAD issue. Because Xi made it his public mission to build ties with Seoul, South Korea’s deployment of THAAD left him needing to save face by implementing punitive measures on South Korea for its ‘betrayal’ of his foreign policy vision.
However, recently elected South Korean president Moon Jae-in has built on his publicly expressed strong reservations over THAAD when on 7 June he ordered a halt in its further deployment. The progressive side of South Korean politics, of which Moon Jae-in is the figurehead, has repeatedly pushed for reversing the recent deterioration of Sino-South Korean relations. As such, the prospects for a channel appearing for Xi to re-engage with Seoul are high. It is clear that Moon Jae-in is not hostage to the normative hang-ups of the previous conservative South Korean administrations in terms of involving Pyongyang in a solution to the North Korean dilemma. It seems the new President is defining his point of difference as being an interlocutor that brings all relevant parties to the negotiating table. This approach is clearly conducive to China’s preferred method of diplomacy regarding North Korea.
Upending the status quo: how China could get to “yes” on Korean unification
Firstly, it must be predicated that any prospects of attempting to consolidate unification would still be a long way off, owing mainly to the current unwillingness of Beijing and Seoul to risk provoking Kim Jong-un’s existential insecurities. However, if the possibility is considered in a long-term capacity its feasibility starts to increase. Moon has committed to a two-step process of engagement with Pyongyang: firstly, economic unification through increasing trade engagement; secondly, re-establishing South Korean leverage and influence in the North. Moon’s goal for this process is eventual political unification with North Korea. The aim is to show the North Korean people the vastly better quality of life on offer under a unified Korea. By generating strong public support for the idea, the path to securing unification would be clearer for when Kim Jong-un either sheds his existential insecurities or, for whatever reason, is no longer leader.
China and South Korea re-discovering their previously burgeoning relationship would have significant implications for China’s approach to the North Korean issue. Given Beijing’s deteriorating relationship with the Pyongyang regime, a renewed Sino-South Korean relationship could engender the dialogue necessary to convince Beijing that a unified Korean peninsula is in its best interests. Beijing could be won over to the idea if a clean way – like that envisaged by the two-step process – was presented to disassemble the Kim regime in its current state in a manner that maintained regional stability. The Chinese requirements for this process would be that it is an independent process where the US and other actors wouldn’t be permitted any role or influence. Seoul would have to forgo its alliance with the US. Moon’s appeals to Korean nationalism – “nothing is more dangerous than letting others decide our fate” – mean that, while he won’t cut ties with the US in the short term, his policies could begin to move the status quo to a point where the US becomes increasingly superfluous to the situation on the peninsula. The June announcement of the halt in any further THAAD deployment may be an indicator of this.
The transactional nature of Chinese diplomacy, its growing displeasure at Pyongyang, and the likelihood of an increasingly Sino-friendly Seoul could combine to create an environment conducive to such a deal. The carrot for China is a large one; the credibility of America’s presence in its Western Pacific strategic footholds, primarily Japan, would be significantly undermined. Considering that there is growing sentiment amongst Chinese policymakers that the traditional strategic bogeyman posed by the dismemberment of the North Korean state – that of the threat of a North Korean refugee influx – is not as serious an issue as once thought, there are increasingly less barriers to Chinese alignment with a push for unification.
*Nicholas Lyall is a research officer at the Australian National University where he works at the National Security College as well as for the university’s Pacific studies program. His main topics of interest are Russia and China, especially cyber statecraft and maritime security as related to both countries. Nicholas has published widely, including with The National Interest, Foreign Brief, and the Institute for Regional Security.