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China 'wild card' in any Korean unification effort, report says

SEOUL — South Korea is downplaying a U.S. Senate report that suggests China might resist reunification of the two Koreas.

“The South Korean government expects that the Chinese government will put a lot of effort into the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula,” a Ministry of Unification official said last week.

A minority staff report filed in December with the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee called China a “wild card” on the possibility of reunification between the capitalist South and communist North, calling it “an eventuality that Chinese leaders may determine they cannot allow.”

“The interests of China and the United States related to North Korea — regional stability vs. denuclearization — are not the same,” the 84-page report said.

In a letter accompanying the report — “China’s Impact on Korean Peninsula Unification and Questions for the Senate” — Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., explained the document was aimed at alerting committee members that uniting the two Koreas may be more difficult than joining the two Germanys was in 1990.

“Another outcome is possible,” he wrote. “China’s historical claim to territory within the borders of the Korean peninsula and the expanding investment by China within North Korea point to a situation where China may attempt to manage, if not oppose, the process of Korean peninsula unification.”

Questions about the long-term viability of poverty-wracked North Korea have been rife for years, along with speculation on what might result as China, South Korea, the U.S. and other countries scramble to protect their interests.

The Senate report suggests reunification could result from “the warming of relations between the North and South, accompanied by accelerated commercial and other activities, or an abrupt seismic event within North Korea contributing to the demise of the present government.”

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The report indicates China would have a number of reasons for opposing any movement of North Koreans across its border, and any movement of the U.S. or its ally South Korea into the North.

There is a long-running joke here that China likes Korea so much that it will always want two of them — a reference to how North Korea serves as something of a buffer with the South. Chinese officials have made it known, according to the report, they reserve the right, “to place troops across the border inside North Korea to prevent hungry and impoverished North Koreans from fleeing into China.”

“These plans have been described not as an invasion, but as a pre-emptive move that would be taken in consultation with North Korean authorities,” it said.

“China could attempt to manage, and conceivably block the unification process,” the report said. “While working to safeguard its own commercial assets, and to assert its right to preserve the northern part of the peninsula within China’s sphere of influence, Beijing might seek to defend its actions as necessary to ensure regional stability.

“The possible presence of American military personnel north of the 38th Parallel does not conform to China’s definition of regional stability and is unacceptable to most Chinese officials.”

The South Korean Ministry of Unification countered that China has a history of helping the two Koreas solve some of the problems they share, and it has been active in “defusing tension on the Korean peninsula.”

“(Chinese officials) consistently keep defining the standpoint that they will continue to play a constructive role” on the peninsula, the ministry spokesman said. South Korea, according to the unification ministry, “has not been pursuing the collapse of the North Korean system, but has been hoping that North Korea gives up its nuclear development and becomes a healthy member of the international society.”

rabiroffj@pstripes.osd.mil

chang.yookyong@pstripes.osd.mil

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