Thursday, December 16, 2004

With each passing day, it seems more and more likely that the current North Korean regime’s days are numbered. Suspicious railroad explosions, the recent purge of a powerful relative of Kim Jong Il and an exodus of upper class elites all indicate a regime on the verge of a breakdown.

This means America should not limit her strategic perspective only to the nuclear issue but should also prepare for a possible North Korean implosion. What we do in the immediate aftermath of North Korea’s collapse will dictate what we can do in this vital region for a long time to come.

The worst long-term scenario for America is that the Chinese will take the initiative and trigger an internal coup that would overthrow Kim Jong Il and replace his cabal with a Beijing?friendly military dictatorship. It would truly be a foreign policy disaster for America to allow the Chinese to do this, for it would help China establish hegemony over vast stretches of north Asia.

It cannot be denied that China represents the biggest challenge to America’s primacy in economy, technology, industry and international influence. According to recent New York Times feature stories, Chinese economic and cultural influence is supplanting America’s in many regions of Asia. Chinese ambition to dominate much if not all of Asia is evident, as proven by official policies aimed at purposely misinterpreting local histories around its border regions in order to justify a possible Chinese territorial takeover in the future.

China has a history of such actions. For example, China claims that Tibet is now part of China because Tibet was part of the original Mongolian empire founded by Genghis Khan. According to the same logic, half of Eastern Europe should be China’s.

A far more urgent example is the Northeast Asia Project backed by the state-run China Academy of Social Sciences. With funding in the billions of dollars and spanning over 5 years and counting, this supposedly academic project researching the history of the northeast region of China suddenly claims that the most important parts of ancient Korean history are actually Chinese. China claims that Koguryo (B.C. 37-A.D. 668) and Palhae (698-926), both ancient kingdoms of the Korean people that largely occupied what is now Manchuria and North Korea, were actually Chinese vassal states.

The main reason for these patently false claims is obvious. China wants to safeguard her interests and extend her influence in northeast Asia. Most assume that the two Koreas will be unified once North Korea collapses. However, a more likely possibility is for North Korea to be absorbed by China. With North Korea currently dependent on China for many of its basic necessities including fuel, the absorption process could actually be very smooth and natural. Further, in order to justify a full absorption, China can conveniently point to the “academic” research by the Northeast Project team that purports to prove that Manchuria and North Korea were originally Chinese to begin with. However, one has to wonder why China would want to absorb North Korea and its massive problems.

One reason is the border security issue: massive number of North Korean refugees streaming across the Yalu River would create difficult socioeconomic disruptions in the region. A more important reason can be found in the 2 million ethnic Koreans living in Manchuria. In fact, the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture borders on North Korea. If the two Koreas were to be unified under South Korea’s leadership, then a unified Korea that shares America’s democratic values and entrepreneurial spirit would exert a strong sociocultural influence in large parts of Manchuria through its common ethnic ties just across the border. It would necessarily compete with Chinese political control. The Chinese absorption of North Korea, therefore, would provide China with a buffer zone against American influence. Also, unencumbered Chinese access to North Korea’s minerals, labor and ports would fuel China’s ever-growing economy. Through the calculated distortion of history, China is therefore being proactive against scenarios on the Korean peninsula it dislikes.

Furthermore, a strong leadership from a unified Korea could influence not only the Chinese?Koreans, but also the Koreans in the former Soviet Union. Significant numbers of ethnic Koreans live in former Soviet Republics, with Uzbekistan alone being home to 1.2 million Koreans, comprising 4.7 percent of the nation’s total population. Because of these ethnic ties, South Korea is the second largest import partner with Uzbekistan after Russia. Moreover, Mongolia’s ethnic makeup is almost identical to that of Koreans: Koreans actually consider their genetic ancestry to originate in Mongolia.

When you examine the ethnic Korean distribution in Asia, you will notice a geographical axis that runs along the border between China and Russia. That presents America with an interesting opportunity. A strategically-located ethnic Korean axis strongly influenced by a unified Korea with close American ties offers a unique opportunity to not only check the Chinese hegemony but also to extend further influence into this all?important region and make sure that any dawning “Asian Century” also includes America. The 2 million-strong Korean American community can be utilized as a natural bridge to this ethnic Korean axis.

It is vital that American foreign policy not be blinded by the short-term nuclear issue in northeast Asia. Long-term national interests and strategic options must also be seriously considered.

Jason Lim was the Director of Special Projects for an international NGO.

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