Korean reunification a step closer as Beijing steps away
What should South Korea and China do if an emergency occurs in North Korea? This question may not seem urgent, as the regime in Pyongyang shows little sign of instability and, more importantly, China continues to back its isolated and impoverished ally.
Yet China's support for the North should not be taken for granted.
President Lee Myung-bak recently said China had in fact already begun to amend its policy toward the North as its perception of the security situation in the region has begun to alter. Beijing's policy shift, said Lee, would accelerate under its new leader, Xi Jinping.
Based on his in-depth talks with Chinese leaders, Lee said the Beijing government had begun to embrace the idea that a Seoul-led unification of the two Koreas would not necessarily go against its national interests.
The change in the mindset of Chinese leaders was prompted by the North's persistent pursuit of nuclear weapons. Previously, China put North Korea's stability before anything else, as it provided a buffer from the threat posed by US forces in South Korea.
But the North's nuclear programmes have increasingly turned the wayward Cold War ally from an asset to a liability for China. As a result, it began to occur to Chinese foreign policy experts and policymakers that Beijing would have to tolerate a Seoul-led unification.
Of course, the Chinese government would not be able to officially announce such a view, Lee said. Beijing would have to continue to provide support to the North because otherwise the destitute country would break down, making matters more complicated.
Lee said Seoul needed to understand China's real intentions that underlie its ostensible backing of Pyongyang. He also stressed the need for Seoul to address China's security concerns in the event of a Seoul-led unification following a contingency in the North.
To ease China's concerns, Lee said he told his Chinese counterpart that US troops in the South would not be stationed north of the 38th parallel even after the unification of the Korean Peninsula.
Lee's remarks strongly suggest the need for President-elect Park Geun-hye to open dialogue with China's new leader to convince him that the unification of the two Koreas would do good rather than harm to China.