TOKYO -- A recent report by U.S. Senate Republican staff members warns that China, because of its deepening economic ties with North Korea as well as its ancient claims on Korean land, could attempt to "manage, and conceivably block," an eventual unification between the two Koreas, if ever the Kim family falls from power in Pyongyang.
The report was released last month with little fanfare, but North Korea watchers say it gives voice to an increasingly popular but still-sensitive sentiment: that China will ultimately try to prevent the South from absorbing the North, the long-assumed post-collapse scenario. Such a situation is well down the road, experts say, but it resonates at a time when China is playing an aggressive role elsewhere in the region, staking claim to much of the South China Sea and to islands administered by Japan.
China might act with similar aggression in North Korea, the report says, 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."
The report was written primarily by Keith Luse, an East Asia specialist who worked as an aide for the recently defeated Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., who had been a Senate Foreign Relations Committee member with a long-standing interest in North Korea. The minority staff report, Mr. Luse said in an email, was written to inform committee members "to not expect an East-West Germany repeat situation" regarding unification between the Koreas.
The tight tie between China and North Korea represents a major policy challenge both for the Obama administration and for South Korea's incoming government. Conceivably, Washington and Seoul could try to try to re-engage with Pyongyang, but neither find that palatable.
Washington failed to influence North Korea's behavior during previous periods of one-on-one and multinational talks. Meantime, South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye, a conservative, says she won't reinstate major projects with the North unless the family-run police state dismantles its nuclear weapons. The North says it never will.
Outside analysts see no clear sign of instability in North Korea, under third-generation leader Kim Jong Eun. But the report lays out how China might respond if North Korea were to be teetering or collapsing. China could send its own troops into North Korea to prevent a mass exodus of refugees, the report says, citing conversations between Chinese officials and Senate staff. China might also try to use a protracted United Nations process to determine which nation has legitimate authority over the North.
Scholars now commonly describe North Korea as a Chinese vassal state -- although they note that the North, famous for its propaganda emphasizing self-reliance, bristles at its dependence on Beijing. In recent years, China has pumped billions in investment into the North, building up its roads and ports, helping the North in several special economic zones and importing North Korea's considerable reserve of natural resources and rare earths.
The Senate report devotes a section to China's relatively recent assertion of old territorial claims, and says China "may be seeking to lay the groundwork for possible future territorial claims on the Korean peninsula."