I’ve often referred to North Korea as the “world’s largest prison camp masquerading as a nation.” And let’s face it — it’s a basket-case made in a Stalinist hell: the people are brutally crushed, often rented out as slaves in all but name; the economy is frequently on the verge of collapse, dependent on drug dealing, counterfeiting, and smuggling; famine is an ever-present specter; the regime is nearly isolated internationally as a terror-sponsor and nuclear proliferator; and its almost certain eventual collapse presents nightmare scenarios to the world. So, why would anyone in their right mind want to own it? (1)
I don’t know, but that’s what China has in effect said:
China has told South Korea that it will not allow the unification of Korea under a democratic government. North Korea will remain under Chinese “influence.” If worse comes to worse, China will send in troops to set up a North Korean government that will faithfully follow orders from China. In an effort to dampen some of the anger in South Korea (the United States, Japan, and so on), China would maintain North Korea as a separate entity (and not a new province of China). China wants no misunderstanding about who “owns” North Korea.
Actually, one can understand China’s position. As the linked Strategy Page article notes, China has for years been urging North Korea to liberalize its economy along lines similar to China’s: a form of state capitalism under a one-party regime. For various reasons, North Korea has largely balked and thus often come to China for aid. Pyongyang has also in recent years caused China foreign policy headaches due to its nuclear program, aggressive moves against South Korea, and even harassing Chinese fishing vessels. By all accounts, relations between these two “allies” aren’t at all good.
Thus, as the “big dragon” in the region, China has a deep-seated interest in stabilizing North Korea. A sudden collapse would be almost or just as disastrous for China as it would for South Korea, with potentially millions of refugees flooding over the border into Manchuria and bringing huge headaches regarding food, shelter, and security in their wake.
Almost as bad, from a geopolitical perspective, would be a regime failure similar to that of East Germany’s, which lead to its absorption by West Germany. The specter of the Soviet Union’s collapse soon thereafter is almost certainly in the back of Beijing’s mind, and one of the last things China wants to see is a unified, prosperous, multi-party Korean democracy on its border, giving the Chinese people ideas. The Chinese military, in particular, would blow a gasket if this meant the US military entering the North as part of a stabilization force — which it might, just to secure any nukes.
So, consider this claim of ownership a bit of “defensive imperialism” on China’s part, a message to South Korea, Japan, and their American patrons that “we can handle the problem ourselves, thank you.”
(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)