BY: M. STEVEN OSBORNE
North Korean rapprochement with South Korea is rooted in fear of China and a drive towards civilizational consolidation. Chinese regional ambitions hinge on its ability to keep the peace among its neighbors. Likewise, the Korean people on both sides of the peninsula view themselves as one people and remember centuries of domination by surrounding powers. These are two factors driving Kim Jong-Un to the negotiating table.
Kim Jong-Un shocked the world by offering to formalize an end to the Korean War and take initial steps towards reunification. Understanding the motives and rationale of the North Korean leader and his regime is difficult. Many factors could impact their decision making, and their sincerity should not be assumed. Yet there seems to be a change in direction, and it is beneficial to know the causes that are driving the change.
First, North Korea has reason to fear China. North Korea may be looking beyond the standoff on the peninsula and to the larger context of East Asian politics and the imposing role China is playing in the region. The outside world often views North Korea in a vacuum. This is understandable considering the unique nature of the regime. It has been called the last Stalinist regime; a relic of the Cold War. Like some other remaining “Communist” entities, North Korea has retained a totalitarian personality cult without maintaining true faith and allegiance to Marxist political principles. The nation is isolated from most of the world, leaving international observers to merely speculate what is happening within the country and the mood of its people. The most information the world receives from North Korea comes from those who escape it. It is tempting to view North Korea as an isolated problem in light of these facts. However, it is necessary to remember that North Korea, like any other nation, has rational interests. Defense against an imposing neighbor is one such interest.
China has always taken particular interest in North Korea. China borders North Korea, hosts a significant ethnic Korean population, and remembers its involvement in the Korean War. Recently, China has been asserting itself in East Asia. With an economy and military that dwarfs many of its neighbors, China is rapidly expanding. On a certain level, North Korea may share the same concerns other East Asian nations have regarding China’s aggressive expansion.
Xi Jinping caused annoyance in South Korea when he possibly told President Trump the Korean peninsula was once part of China. North Koreans were surely aware of this statement. Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-Un only recently met for the first time. There is reportedly some level of personal disdain between the two. It has even been speculated that China may have been harboring his older step-brother with the thought of eventually engineering the overthrow and replacement of Kim Jong-Un. These facts reflect a personal animosity between the leaders of China and North Korea.
In addition to personal animosity, a more practical concern of avoiding nuclear war on its border motivates China to exercise a stronger hand with North Korea. At the beginning of his administration, President Trump took steps to triangulate China against the North Korean regime. China responded by taking unusually strong steps to enforce sanctions against North Korea. Some scholars speculated that Chinese military action on the Korean peninsula would likely not be to protect North Korea but to secure Chinese interests and shape the “post-Kim peninsula.” The potential of military intervention during a war by a powerful neighbor can be a strong motivating factor for peace.
While concern about hostile Chinese interference may be a factor, the traditional international relations example of a small state aligning against its larger ambitious neighbor is also part of the equation. For example, small states surrounding Russia have often aligned with Western powers to safeguard against Russian domination. While foreign policy cannot be reduced to simple formulas, it has been noted that small states tend to seek alliances with great powers competing with powerful neighbors. While Kim Jong-Un will never be in alliance with the United States, North Korea may be seeking to escape China’s orbit. Xi Jinping reportedly warned against closer relations with the United States in his first meeting with Kim Jong-Un. Perhaps he anticipated Kim’s upcoming overtures to South Korea and the United States. Xi Jinping reportedly reminded Kim Jong-Un that while President Trump would be in office for, at most, eight years, he would be the ruler of China for life. The prospect of a united Korea that is friendly to the United States concerns China. A neighborhood of small and divided states is easier to dominate.
Kim Jong-Un may view South Korean reapproachment as an opportunity to realign North Korea in the mold of Vietnam. Like North Korea, Vietnam was a hostile Communist nation during the Cold War and an enemy of the United States. Now, Vietnam’s communist identity does not prevent it from aligning with the United States and others against Chinese militarization of the South China Sea. North Korea may be looking to take a similar road.
Second, on a macro level, civilizational unity is overwhelming old ideological divides. Samuel Huntington, of Clash of Civilizations fame, predicted a global order whereby civilizational divides would be the primary organizing force in international relations. Increasingly, it appears that civilizational groupings are replacing national and ideological divides. Huntington once concluded Japan and China are distinct civilizations. He placed Korea within the greater Sinitic (Chinese) civilization. Yet it can be argued that Korea is at least a sub-civilization, located along the fault line between Sinitic and Japanese civilizations. Despite various periods of occupation, Korea has a unified identity stretching back thousands of years. It has a deep-rooted history, and the ideological divide between North and South Korea is relatively recent.
Some scholars have concluded that China is a “civilization-state.” As China becomes more assertive in spreading its system around the world, this is an increasingly relevant category that perhaps other regions will follow. Perhaps Kim Jong-Un is responding to this reality. If there can be a unified Korea and he can have a place in it, then he may be willing to move toward that goal. However, viewed objectively, it seems unlikely that Kim Jong-Un would have a place in a reunified Korea given his history of human rights violations and threats to his neighbors.
The politics of the Koreas may be heading towards a federated or confederated Korea built around a common Korean civilization. Koreans are painfully aware of the long history of domination by China and occupation by Japan. This history combined with new global dynamics create fertile ground for potential reunification. The eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula is a long-term goal which faces many obstacles. It is not an inevitable outcome, nor would it be a simple process. Also, it is unlikely that Kim Jong-Un would want any outcome that results in his losing power. However, he may be recognizing the larger forces at work around him.
Therefore, both fear of direct Chinese intervention in the event of war and long-term strategic considerations are driving North Korea to the negotiating table. Additionally, since underlying currents are pushing East Asian nations towards civilizational consolidation, this is a contributing factor in the stated Korean desire for reunification. Only time will tell how these factors and currents will manifest themselves on the Korean peninsula.
Steven Osborne is an attorney in the Commonwealth of Virginia practicing real estate law. He holds a Juris Doctorate from Liberty University School of Law and a Bachelor’s Degree in Politics and Policy from Liberty University. In addition to his legal practice, he is involved in foreign policy analysis and advocacy with a focus on domestic and international politics, special economic zones, and religious freedom.
Photo Credit: BBC
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