Chinese President Xi Jinping`s recent visit to Seoul has focused great attention on the PRC-ROK relationship as well as on China`s overall interests on the Korean peninsula.
Clearly, the bilateral relationship has become enormously important to both South Korea and China and indeed to the rest of Northeast Asia. For example, China is now South Korea`s largest trading partner. Korean firms are irreplaceable links in the region-wide production networks that are vital to China`s economic future and to the growing prosperity of East Asia.
In Seoul and elsewhere much was made of the fact that President Xi visited South Korea before visiting Pyongyang despite China`s long-time ideological and security relationship with North Korea. In fact, the Chinese leader`s decision to go to Seoul before meeting with Kim Jong Un, in Pyongyang or in Beijing, should have come as no surprise. It has been clear for more than 20 years, ever since Beijing`s decision to establish diplomatic relations with the ROK, that the Chinese had made a strategic choice as to where China`s future interests lie on the Korean peninsula lie. Chinese policies reflect Chinese interests, and over the long term China needs strong ties with a vibrant, dynamic South Korea, more than it needs the economically decrepit and politically failing state in North Korea.
That does not mean, however, that China has no interest in the future of North Korea. Far from it. China needs stability and calm on its periphery soit can concentrate its own continued modernization. A weak, nearly collapsing North Korea is a threat to Chinese interests. For more than two decades, Chinese leaders have urged the Pyongyang regime to follow the Chinese model and embark on a program of serious economic reform, the same sort of reform launched by Deng Shao Ping in China in the 1980s. The Deng reforms represented a bold choice by the Chinese leadership. They opened the economy to the outside world, invited foreign capital and technology into China, and began to rely on market forces in the allocation of resources and less on State planning.
In the 1990s and 2000s, the Chinese pressed North Korea`s regime to follow the same path. With China`s sponsorship, Kim Jong Il toured China looking at the fruits of Chinese economic reform. If it worked for China, they argued, it would work for North Korea. Time and again, the Chinese thought they had finally persuaded the Dear Leader and that serious reform was about to begin.
But there is little evidence that the DPRK leadership ever seriously considered Chinese-style reform. It`s easy to understand why not. China attractedcapital from the overseas Chinese community all around East Asia. Money flowed into mainland China in order to make more money. The money had no political agenda, and there was no serious concern about the stability of the Chinese regime as long as the lives of the Chinese people continued to improve.
For North Korea, the calculation is quite different. The only realistic source of outside capital in the amount needed to turn around the North`s economy is South Korea. Yes, China provides some investment, but this money is tied tightly to projects seen to be in China`s national interests, not necessarily to North Korea`s priorities. However, the North Koreans fear that opening up the economy, especially to large-scale South Korean investment,would threaten their survival. In any comparison of which system works better, North or South, the North is clearly the loser. Only briefly, during the time of Kim Dae Jung`s Sunshine policy, did the North feel sufficiently unthreatened to experiment with limited economic reforms. Otherwise, even with strong pressure from Beijing, the Kim regime sees reform as too risky. They have chosen instead to become even more dependent on China for the food and energy needed to keep the North Korean economy limping along.
That does not, however, make the North Koreans more pliable or more responsive to Chinese pressure especially on matters Pyongyang believe to be vital to its survival. The leading example is of course the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Time and again, Pyongyang has resisted Beijing`s urgings shut down the program.
Many observers, including some in the U.S., argue that China just has to press harder, use its aid as leverage, and eventually Pyongyang will yield. For its part, Beijing fears too much pressure could result in the collapse of the Kim regime and as much the Chinese believe a nuclear North Korea threatens their interests in the region, they fear even more the consequences of collapse.
So, while China has a great and growing stake in its relationship with South Korea and in stability on the Korean peninsula, it would be a mistake for South Korea, or the U.S., to expect that somehow Beijing will manage the North Korean problem. We must all work together to respond to the North Korean threat to regional security. In the end, however, responsibility for South Korea`s interests in the North rests with South Korea, not with China. The same is true of the U.S. Our interests are similar to those of China in many respects, but they are not identical.
(Written by Stephen W. Bosworth, chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies)