Governments are usually no more homogeneous than the people they govern. They have their factions and their parties, their lobbies and agendas. Yet analysts, professional and journalistic, commonly use countries and their capitals as shorthand for national governments. Readers understand the convention and the inexactitude is insignificant on most occasions. In the case of the reports that China would accept a Seoul-led unified government on the Korean peninsula, based on the U.S. State Department cables leaked by WikiLeaks, the distinctions are highly significant.
The reports are based on the comments of South Korea’s former Vice-Foreign Minister Chun Yung-woo at a lunch with the U.S. ambassador to Seoul, Kathleen Stephens, that we noted earlier. Chun was summarizing conversations that he had had with officials in China’s foreign ministry (full cable). As we have noted before, the foreign ministry is the least influential of the three institutions that set China’s policies towards North Korea. Untypically and for obvious historical reasons, it is the Party’s department that deals with other Communist Parties abroad that is in the driving seat with the military in close attendance. The preeminence of the Party and the PLA inevitable gives an old school and nationalistic tinge to policy that is amplified by long-standing relationships to a regime that has ruled North Korea since the Korean War more than half a century ago.
China’s internal real politik is a reason that there were three riders attached to Chun’s assessment of the acceptability of a Seoul-led unified government to China, or at least to some of China’s foreign ministry officials; first that the government wouldn’t be hostile to Beijing; second that U.S. troops would remain south of the DMZ well away from China’s borders, and third that Chinese companies would be free to continue to trade and invest in what was North Korea (and that would probably include companies in which the PLA has interests as well as mining and fishing operations that another cable from the U.S. consulate in Shenyang suggested were seeing backhanders go to officials of both countries).
It has been the long-held position in Seoul that the South Korean government would become the unification government in the event of a political or economic collapse of the North, and that that would be acceptable to Beijing, whose own oft-stated if vague long-term goal is the peaceful reunification of the peninsular. Peaceful reunification may mean one thing in Beijing and another in Seoul, but, equally, Chun was talking his own party line.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Il may be a “spoiled child”, as described by a foreign ministry official in another leaked cable, but he is the Party and the army’s spoiled child, in a way that he isn’t the foreign ministry’s. The party and the army are also less burdened than the foreign ministry by having to weigh the implications of foreign policy in one part of the world on that in another. The foreign ministry’s rising generation of officials are smart, worldly and patriotic. Their career trajectories are following the rise of a more internationally engaged and influential China. For them the need for a last redoubt to protect China’s northeastern border is just outdated. They are playing on a far larger stage than a 120,000 square kilometer vestige of the Korea War. But they are not the only Chinese actors with roles.