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Report: China would likely block unification of Koreas

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By The Washington Post
Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 6:46 p.m.
 

TOKYO — A recent report by 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 argues, 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 member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations with a long-standing interest in North Korea. The minority staff report, Luse said in an email, was written to inform committee members — including Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., nominated by President Obama as the next secretary of State — “to not expect an East-West Germany repeat situation” regarding unification between the Koreas.

The tight connection between China and North Korea represents a major policy challenge both for the Obama administration and for the incoming government in South Korea.

Outside analysts see no clear sign of instability in North Korea, under third-generation leader Kim Jong Un. But the report lays out how China might respond if North Korea is 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 — China or South Korea — has legitimate authority over the North.

“Anybody who is a serious analyst can't discount this as a plausible scenario,” said Victor Cha, the Korea chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to the general argument of the report.

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