Is Status Quo Destiny? China’s Interests in Post-Kim Dynasty Korea

2010–11 National Asia Research Fellow Sung-Yoon Lee reflected on the dynamics of a post-Kim Dynasty Korean Peninsula in a January 24, 2011, presentation at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


Speaker Bio

Sung-Yoon Lee is an Adjunct Assistant Professor of International Politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s Korea Institute. Dr. Lee’s recent publications include “Engaging North Korea: The Clouded Legacy of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy” in Asian Outlook (2010) and “Life After Kim: Planning for a Post-Kim Jong Il Korea” in Foreign Policy (2010).


Is it possible to imagine a scenario under which the People’s Republic of China comes to see the continued existence of North Korea (DPRK) not only as unnecessary, but even undesirable? Sung-Yoon Lee, National Asia Research Fellow and adjunct assistant professor at the Fletcher School at Tuft’s University, believes so. Noting the rise and fall of states is inherent to international history, Dr. Lee argued at the very least, “the collapse of the DPRK falls within the realm of possibility—within a reasonable degree of possibility.” Indeed, mainstream academic discussion and military planning within South Korea assume such a contingency’s possibility and Dr. Lee reasons this discussion should be encouraged in China, too.

During his talk, Dr. Lee pondered which would be in China’s best interests were a reunification scenario to occur: a capitalist, democratic, open, unified Korea led by Seoul and aligned with the United States; or an autarkic Korea united by war, led by Pyongyang and hostile toward Japan and the United States. Dr. Lee noted China has always considered the Korean Peninsula a vital component of its strategic calculations, even in pre-modern times. But this does not mean that China will back the DPRK in any contingency today.

It is true that China has viewed the existence of the DPRK since the Second World War as a strategic buffer zone. Nevertheless, Dr. Lee asserts there are signs the status quo may soon change. While any Chinese support for a U.S. policy aimed at toppling the Pyongyang regime is out of the question, Dr. Lee contends Beijing may soon consider scenarios for change in North Korea, if it has not done so already.

Indeed, Pyongyang’s recent brinkmanship means North Korea has become a diplomatic liability to China. Moreover, the more prosperous China becomes and the more it seeks to make a mark on the world as an influential and responsible great power, the less incentive it feels to support North Korea’s gamble with nuclear weapons or its other illicit activities. Dr. Lee maintains China would now hesitate to take action to support the North even after the unlikely event of a first strike on the DPRK by South Korea and the United States. There would be too much at stake to protect a small peripheral ally that is increasingly a pariah on the world stage.

Dr. Lee contends it is both possible and desirable for the United States to begin indirectly engaging Chinese leaders to manage better the North Korean regime’s potential collapse. In the event of collapse, Washington would move swiftly to secure or account for all of North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction stockpiles, potentially bringing U.S. forces close to the Chinese border, where there are a number of North Korean military facilities. In the wake of a contingency in the North, either side could interpret ad hoc decisions by Washington or Beijing as aggressive intentions, exaggerating the threat posed by actual decisions. While Beijing would never agree to discuss plans for a contingency in public, Dr. Lee asserts the United States should begin to approach China through backroom diplomacy and through non-governmental organizations bearing “unofficial” messages to pave the way for more sustained discussion.

This event summary was written by Sonia Luthra (NBR) and Bryce Wakefield (Asia Program, Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars).