* ‘아시아엔’ 해외 필진 기고문 한글요약본과 원문을 게재합니다.
최근 동북아에서 민족주의 경향이 표출되면서 위기가 고조되고 있다. 중일 관계는 악화된 반면 미일 공조는 굳건해졌다. 우익성향인 박근혜 대통령은 한일 관계에서 손해보더라도 중국과의 우호관계를 원하는 듯하다. 또 가능한 한 미국과 중국 간 세력다툼에서 한 걸음 떨어져 있으려 한다. 미중 관계 악화는 한국에 득이 될 것이 없으므로 납득할 만하다. 동북아 관계의 핵심은 북한에 급변사태가 발생했을 때 중국이 취할 행보다. 물론 누구도 북한 세습정권이 실제로 붕괴할지, 언제 붕괴될지는 확신하지 못한다. 그러나 최근 북한에서 일어난 일련의 사건은 체제 안정성을 의심하게 만들었다. 만약 북한이 붕괴한다면 남한이 흡수통일하게 될 것이다. 그러나 이는 중국이 중립을 유지할 때만 가능한 시나리오다.
반대로 중국이 북한에 개입해 꼭두각시 정권을 세운다면 남한이 할 수 있는 일은 거의 없다. 따라서 한반도 통일에 대한 중국의 경계심을 완화시키는 것이 중요하다. 중국은 북한체제 붕괴 가능성과 붕괴 이후 취할 행동에 대해 논의하고 있다. 미국이 개입하면 중국도 응분의 조치에 나서 무력충돌이 빚어질 가능성이 높다. 낙관적 분석가들은 중국이 사전협의를 통해 남북한 통일을 인정할 것이라 예상한다. 중국이 ‘통일 한국’을 수용할 몇 가지 조건이 있다. 첫째, 통일 한반도 내 미 군사력 동결 또는 감소다. 중국은 비무장지대 이북에 미군이 주둔하지 않는다는 협정을 원할 것이다. 둘째, 현행 한중 국경선 고수다. 한국의 일부 민족주의자들이 주장해온 ‘만주 영유권’에 대한 의혹을 불식시켜줘야 한다. 셋째, 북-중 간 체결된 협정 유지다. 중국은 최근 수년 간 북한과 광업권·항만사용권 등 많은 협정을 맺었다.
이런 요구사항들은 지나치거나 불합리하지 않다. 이들 문제가 해결된다면 중국은 한반도 급변사태 시 침묵을 지킬 것이다. 현 상황은 불확실하다. 중국의 우려를 줄이기 위해서는 한국이 미국에만 의존하지 않음을 보여줄 필요가 있다. 최근 중국이 동중국해 방공식별구역을 선포해 한국을 불편하게 만들었음에도 한국정부는 미국보다 중국에 더 비중을 두고 있는 듯하다. 미국 또한 북한문제 해결 여건을 만들 수 있다는 점에서 한국의 이런 등거리 외교를 장려해야 할 것이다. 그것이 동북아에서 전략적 이득을 취해온 그동안의 방식보다 미국에 더 큰 이익이 된다.
China’s conditions to accept a unified Korea
Recent months have seen an unusual amount of noise and a sense of crisis in Northeast Asia, a region in which nationalist passions have not run this high for decades. Sino-Japanese relations have hit a nadir, while US commitments to Japan have been strongly confirmed.
While South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye comes from the political right and therefore has impeccable pro-American credentials, her actual policy seems to indicate that Seoul would like to have better relations with China ? at the expense of its relations with Japan, if necessary. It also appears that South Korea wishes to stay out of disputes between its ally the United States and China as much as possible.
This is quite understandable: it is Seoul who is likely to get it in the neck if relations between Washington and Beijing take a turn for the worse. What is of especial importance in all of this though, is the role that China may play if a crisis erupts north of the DMZ.
To be frank, there is little doubt that there is only one likely scenario for unification: that of Germany. A domestic crisis in North Korea, followed by the collapse of the Kim dynasty remains a distinct possibility. Of course, no one knows when it will happen ? and whether it will happen at all, but the recent developments in Pyongyang make many observers wonder how stable the North Korean regime really is.
If the government in Pyongyang disintegrates, the likely outcome is the absorption of the North by the South. Such a possibility can only be actualized so long as the Heavenly Kingdom remains neutral; if Beijing decides to intervene and create a puppet entity in the North, South Korea can do little but grin and bear what is imposed on their northern neighbors.
It is therefore important for Seoul to ameliorate Chinese fears about a unified Korea ? such fears are indeed widespread in Chinese foreign policy circles, as the present author has confirmed in talks with his Chinese colleagues.
Right now, most of my Chinese contacts, while not ruling out the possibility of regime implosion in North Korea, do not see such a scenario as highly likely (at least for the next few years). I have frequently heard that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the government inside North Korea, but I was frequently assured that in the absence of organized opposition, such dissatisfaction is unlikely to translate into political activities.
In case of N. Korean regime collapse
This might indeed be the case, but I am not sure, neither are the Chinese. Therefore, they are discussing the possibility of regime collapse in the North and what is to be done in such an eventuality.
It appears that such discussions have yet to produce a consensus amongst Chinese analysts and diplomats. Indeed, the issue of Korean unification is frequently seen through the lenses of steadily worsening Sino-US relations. I have been told a number of times that a unilateral American intervention in North Korea, especially if it is done without prior warning, is not acceptable to the Chinese side.
If this were to happen, China would retaliate, either by indirectly supporting what will be left of the North Korean regime (arms shipments, financial transfers and the like), or by establishing direct control over North Korean territory adjacent to the Sino-North Korean border. Such a response is likely to lead to a potentially dangerous confrontation. We can only hope that Washington and Beijing will discuss matters before it is too late. There is some room for optimism, though: most Chinese analysts believe that a South Korean intervention in the North is acceptable to China (especially if the Chinese are informed ahead of time).
There is little doubt that the unification of Korea will have a generally negative impact on the geopolitical position of China. However, it seems that the emergence of a unified Korean state still might be acceptable to the Chinese side if certain conditions are met.
I have heard for many years from the Chinese about a set of conditions that will make Korean unification permissible for the Chinese government.
First, the Chinese stress that a unified North Korea should not become an ‘American aircraft carrier’ placed on China’s borders. For unification to be acceptable, the Chinese will expect the US presence on the Korean peninsula to be frozen or reduced. Most likely, they will accept an agreement by the United States not to place any forces north of the current DMZ, as well as an assurance that the United States will not increase its forces on the Korean peninsula. This is important because in Beijing, US forces in Korea are seen as a serious potential threat.
Second, the Chinese are likely to insist that the government of a unified Korean state accept (unequivocally) the existent Sino-Korean border. This is important because some Korean nationalists have laid rather wild claims to chunks of Northeast China. The talks about alleged “Korean historic rights over Manchuria” do not remain unnoticed in China.
Worsening Sino-US relations
Third, the government of China also would like to make sure that the post-unification government of Korea will honor the Sino-North Korean agreements pertaining to mining rights, port usage rights and other concessions. In recent years, the Chinese government concluded a number of such agreements with Pyongyang.
If such demands (in my humble opinion by no means excessive or irrational), China is likely to remain quiet in the case of a major crisis on the Korean peninsula.
The current situation is rather uncertain, though. Chinese decision makers continue to see North Korea as being part of its relations with the United States, though the denuclearization issue is taken more seriously than it used to be. Therefore, in order to alleviate Chinese worries, it is quite important for South Korea to demonstrate that it will not merely follow Washington automatically and uncritically.
The current South Korean line is seemingly moving Seoul somewhat closer to Beijing ? even though the recent Chinese claims about the Air Defense Identification Zone (CADIZ) have made Seoul rather uneasy. Surprising though it may seem, Washington should also encourage such an equidistant line because it creates the conditions required to solve the perennial North Korean problem.
Needless to say, such a solution is more advantageous to the United States than all the strategic gains that can be reaped by clinging to all the minor strategic benefits created by the current situation in Northeast Asia.