A unified Korea led by Seoul not in Beijing's interest: expert

Beijing is reluctant to see a reunified Korean Peninsula which is led by South Korea given that it might pose a challenge to the Chinese political system, according to an expert.

During a recent seminar at the United States Institute of Peace, Michael Jonathan Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the reunified Korean Peninsula would likely adopt South Korea's democratic system, which means that it would be the biggest democratic regime bordering China.

If it becomes a reality, it would not bode well for China, which has advocated an "independent unification" of North Korea and South Korea, said Green, who is also director of Asian Studies at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.

The "independent unification" is based on a hypothesis that the unification of the Korean Peninsula would happen on the condition that South Korea ends its alliance with the United States.

China has already had a clear policy about the East Asian order, which can be reflected in the New Asian Security Concept that Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia held in Shanghai in 2014. The Concept called for all the attendees of the Conference to sign a joint declaration, which stipulates that the security of Asia should be maintained by Asian countries rather than outside forces. At the time, South Korea refused to sign the joint declaration.

Green analyzed that the Concept takes aim at the United States, which is strengthening military deployment in East Asia, and shows China's geopolitical ambition for the region, adding that it offers a significant reference to Beijing's policy toward the Korean Peninsula.

In Green's opinion, there are two possible outcomes after North Korea and South Korea reunite as one country. One outcome is the creation of a China-led Eurasian community, which could help resurrect the Chinese supremacy in the Eurasian continent that the country had before 1894. The other outcome is a reunified Korea aligned with the United States.

In the light of it, China has long kept a watch over South Korea's alliance with the United States, which Green said could explain why Beijing strongly objected to the deployment of the American-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. The anti-missile system installed on the doorstep of China is a big threat to China's security, said Green.

The high tensions on the Korea Peninsula have eased after North Korea's top leader Kim Jong-un declared that the country's quest for nuclear weapons is "complete" and it "no longer needs" to test its weapons capabilities, in a move that can help start the process of denuclearization on the Peninsula. Kim's announcement is seen as a significant diplomatic gesture before his meeting with the presidents of South Korea and the United States.

Economically, the massive trade with South Korea will help China take a leading role in the unification process of the Korea Peninsula, said Green.

China has big economic influence over South Korea as South Korea's trade with China already exceeds its combined trade with Japan and the United States. This influence can also be corroborated by the shutdown of many Lotte supermarkets operating in China last year. Back then, it was widely believed that the South Korean retailer's predicament in China stemmed from its decision to offer its private land for the deployment site of the THAAD system. Lotte's decision triggered a Chinese boycott against South Korean-made products.

If a reunified Korea depends on China economically, Beijing would positively support the reunification, according to Green, adding that such support would diminish if the reunified Korea seeks an economic alliance with the United States.

Green, however, said that the United States and China still have big cooperation space in the resolution of the Korean Peninsula problems. The two countries could work together to press North Korea, bringing it to the negotiating table.

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