Even before North and South Korea told the world Monday that they would meet in a historic summit this June, China had been pushing its model for a new Korean union.
Beijing is pressing for a "one country, two systems" reunification scheme that would prevent one of its last Stalinist allies, North Korea, from being absorbed into democratic South Korea. The two sides of the Korean demilitarized zone have been separated by a fragile truce since the 1950-53 war.
The scheme, used in Beijing's takeover of the free-market enclaves of Hong Kong and Macau, guarantees China will remain communist and the former European colonies capitalist for the foreseeable future.
"China doesn't want to see the South take over the North the way West Germany did East Germany in a democratic union," says a Chinese scholar who asked not to be identified.
"The [Chinese] Communist Party still says communism is an unstoppable world trend, and it doesn't want a reunified, democratic Korea to provide another example that the tides have turned against communism," he adds.
A generation ago, China hoped to paint the world atlas red by providing arms to communist revolutionaries ranging from Asia to Eastern Europe to Africa. A decade ago, China's leaders watched in horror as their communist counterparts across the Soviet bloc were pushed or voted out of power and the bloc itself disintegrated.
Although China's leaders now support global free trade rather than world revolution, they don't want to see the world's remaining communist parties fade into extinction.
Kwon Byong Hyon, South Korea's ambassador to China, said earlier this week that "reunification will definitely be on the agenda" of the June summit, but he gave no forecast on how the Marxist and market societies might join.
Han Zhenshe, a Korean expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says that "China wants to see North and South Korea reunify through peace, not war," but that Beijing is apprehensive over the form that a federated Korea will take.
"China doesn't want to see the two Koreas unite into a society that would bring democracy to China's doorstep," says Kongdan Oh, a Korean scholar at the Institute for Defense Analyses in Alexandria, Va.
For two decades, Beijing has been dismantling its Soviet-model economy while resisting demands to reform its authoritarian rule. While alarmed at the North's decaying, unreformed economy, Beijing doesn't want its neighbor to become a showcase for the abandonment of Marxist economics and leadership.
North Korean leader "Kim Jong Il is only likely to agree to a union that would preserve his hold on power, and the 'one country, two systems' blueprint could be the only model that would ensure that," says the Chinese scholar, who frequently travels to North Korea to consult with Pyongyang. Under the Chinese proposal, "The North would gradually adopt market reforms while the Korean Workers' Party remained firmly in control," he says. "Strict border controls between the two sides of Korea would be maintained until living standards in the North approached those of the South, and that could take up to 20 years."
Adds Ms. Oh, "China wants to maintain North Korea as a buffer zone against South Korea and its US troops." The US still deploys 37,000 troops in South Korea.
For decades after the Korean War, Beijing was Pyongyang's top arms supplier, but some moderates in the leadership began to fear the closed-off, heavily militarized North Korea their revolutionary predecessors helped create. William Perry, who led a task force appointed by President Clinton to reassess US ties with North Korea, wrote in a 1999 report that "China realizes that [North Korean] nuclear weapons could provoke an arms race in the region." Chinese "concerns with North Korean nuclear weapons and ballistic-missile programs are in many ways comparable to US concerns," added Perry, a former defense secretary.
Scholar Han says that "China knows that if North Korea acquires nuclear weapons, the South and Japan could try to build their own nuclear stockpiles, and that could trigger an arms race throughout Asia."
He says war or widespread famine in Korea "could each trigger a mass flow of refugees into China," and adds Beijing has been quietly encouraging the North's market reforms to feed its people and opening of diplomatic ties with the West to end its belligerent image in the world arena.
Beijing "hopes that economic reform and peace moves between the Koreas will persuade North Koreans to remain in their own country," Han adds. North Korea has tottered on the brink of massive famine for five years, while Beijing has propped up its ally with food and energy supplies.
Untold thousands of malnourished North Koreans have already sought refuge in China, but Beijing is committed to returning them under a long-standing treaty with Pyongyang.
Many experts say North Korean leader Kim Jong Il finally agreed to meet his South Korean counterpart because he desperately needs funding to keep his country and regime afloat.
It is the West's "hope that South Korean contacts and investment will expose the North to capitalism and freedom, and that North Koreans will eventually reject communism," says Oh.
"Kim Jong Il is very aware of the fact that opening the doors to South Korea could eventually endanger his regime, but he's choosing the lesser of two risks: capitalist contamination versus economic collapse," she adds.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society