As the United States positions fresh military assets near the Korean peninsula and reports emerge that China has positioned 150,000 troops at the border of North Korea, there appears to be a strong shift away from the longstanding policy of secretly opposing reunification of the two Koreas supported by factions within the West and China. This policy was outlined in paid speeches Hillary Clinton gave to Goldman Sachs in 2013 which were released by Wikileaks in late 2016 during the presidential election. The record gives an interesting glimpse into a diplomatic trend which has now been all but totally reversed by political developments over the past several years.
I. The U.S. Has Historically Opposed Korean Reunification In Secret
The Goldman Sachs speeches focused on economic and financial issues. However, they also showed a foreign policy approach now totally altered by geopolitical changes in China, the United States and the Koreas themselves. In the first of a series of three speeches, Clinton made an substantial revelation: the United States has secretly opposed Korean reunification, since such a development would result in South Korea becoming dominant economically and politically.
The speech further mentioned that the United States opted instead to maintain a balance with North Korean leadership, keeping the peninsula in a state of political flux. The death of Kim Jong-il and his son Kim Jong-un’s assumption of power changed this equilibrium, however. Clinton’s speech in 2013 revealed an already heightened level of annoyance with the new leader’s willingness to seek confrontation not just with traditional enemies such as South Korea, Japan and the United States but also their strongest ally, China.
II. Xi Jinping Has Reined In Support For A Belligerent North Korea
Clinton further revealed that China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was traditionally one of the main sources of support for North Korea, given the deep connections between the countries’ two militaries. Chinese President Xi Jinping changed this culture of support, reining in individuals as part of a drive to reduce corruption and consolidate power with the aim of facilitating a Chinese shift to focus on expansion into other areas of the world, such as Africa and the South China Sea. Diplomatic cables from 2009 released by Wikileaks revealed increasing Chinese annoyance with North Korea, who they referred to in private as a “spoiled child.” One year later, a cable indicated that officials within the Chinese government were ready to accept a reunified Korea that was benign and anchored to the United States diplomatically, since this would provide trade and labor-export opportunities for Chinese companies as well as marginalize their regional opponent, Japan.
Xi’s cleanup of the PLA appears to be twofold: including them in his widely touted campaign against corruption while also showing the PLA special attention by upgrading their capabilities and increasing investment in the military. On April 24th, 2016, The Wall Street Journal reported on Xi’s drive to upgrade the military in a politically ambitious plan that would come to fruition by 2020. The shift would end Chinese policies of isolationism that have lasted since the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century and would see China’s military used in theaters such as the Middle East and Africa. The increased investment comes at the same time that Xi replaced the PLA’s vice chairman of the Central Military Commission in March 2017, a move that many observers saw as an effort to clean up corruption and consolidate Beijing’s control of the PLA.
China has also engaged in increasingly harsh rhetoric towards North Korea. On April 10th, 2017, South Korean Yonhap News Agency reported that China had issued a strong warning against North Korea over any intended nuclear tests the country might have planned. The next day, ZeroHedge noted that a tabloid run by Communist Party-controlled People’s Daily had issued a strongly worded ultimatum threatening military action should North Korea engage in any nuclear tests that affected the “stability and security” of northeast China (the article has since been removed from the tabloid’s web page). Such language suggests that China is perhaps finally ready to cooperate in reaching a lasting solution to the Korean conflict.
III. China And The United States’ Shift On North Korea Comes After Political Turnover In The South
The move to take stronger action against North Korea comes in the immediate aftermath of a political scandal that has rocked South Korea and disrupted the influence of state and private foreign actors in the country. On March 31st, 2017, Disobedient Media reported on the arrest of South Korean President Park Geun-hye, which also led to the indictment of Samsung Group leader Lee Jae-yong after it emerged that he had paid 43 billion Korean won ($36.6 million) to entities connected to President Park. The Samsung Group maintained business relations with the Clinton Foundation, an obvious supporter of policies opposing Korean reunification which were outlined in Clinton’s Goldman Sachs speeches. The Samsung Group also had financial ties to the Rothschild family, who have been revealed in Wikileaks releases to have been staunch supporters of Clinton during her 2016 political run for President.
President Park’s arrest and the disruption of Western-friendly business entities in South Korea tied to parties who oppose reunification creates a unique window for the United States and China to reverse previous policies which kept the peninsula divided. With China reining in factions who have traditionally supported the North Korean government, the opportunity to create a unified Korea has never been closer to realization. So long as both parties are able to manage the transition in a way that benefits both China and the United States politically and economically, the North Korean crisis could result in a successful exercise of bipartisan cooperation that would avoid military conflict and lay the ground for further cooperation on broader trade issues that the two countries are continuing to negotiate.