China: Greatest Barrier to Korean Reunification?

Northeast Asia flag map
I was talking with a Georgetown student from South Korea (ROK) two days ago, and I asked her what she thought of the relationship between China (PRC) and North Korea (DPRK). She brought up the increasing dependence of the DPRK on China, which I was aware of, but she also said something incredible that I had never thought of before: If the North keeps getting closer and closer to China, Korea may lose the chance of ever becoming reunified.

In this post from several months ago, I predicted that the relationship between North and South Korea would change within the next decade. I still believe this is true, but the question becomes, how?

Some charge that the relationship between China (PRC) and North Korea (DPRK) is becoming increasingly colonial. North Korea is a closed society, after all, and depended on China, the Soviet Union, and other Communist countries since its inception, receiving aid from all around the Communist world when it had to rebuild after the incredibly destructive Korean War. (The U.S. air force essentially bombed North Korea's infrastructure into oblivion during the last years of the war.)

Since 1991, of course, the Soviet Union no longer existed to sponsor the North Korean regime, and there was devastating famine in North Korea during the '90s, with untold millions affected. Within just the last decade or so, the regime has become very connected to northeast China, particularly because North Korea has substantial mineral deposits that Chinese industry is eager to utilize. There's also a substantial Korean community in China, including many escaping the destitution of their home. Perhaps most importantly, the DPRK seems dependent on the PRC for its relations with the international community, as in talks about the DPRK's nuclear weapons.

So what does all this mean? Well, I believe it is a barrier to the prospects for Korea to become reunified.  South Korea's president Lee Myung-Bak recently said "We are the only divided nation in the world and it is inevitable that we will come to peaceful reunification at some point." Quite bluntly, however, even if North and South agreed to reunify, and even if it was in the interest of all Koreans for this to happen (as I believe it is), reunification does not appear to be in the interest of China. Indeed, Japan may not like the idea of reunification either, although I doubt it would act as a real barrier to it as China might. The USA has been generally supportive of reunification for the past few presidential administrations, but has so far done little of anything constructive to further the cause or articulate a concrete strategy.

There are extremely complex issues at play in this story, and no one can deny the significance of the past six decades of division between the two Koreas. However, I believe the prospects for Korean unification ultimately boil down to the following question: How loyal are North Koreans to their Communist regime, driving them toward China, and how loyal are North Koreans to their identity as Koreans, which would help them unite with their comrades to the south? The balance between these forces, and the political decisions made by all three countries in the coming years—the ROK, DPRK, and the PRC—will determine whether the extraordinary event of Korean reunification comes to pass.