It has been years since any change in China's perspective on Korean reunification, but now Beijing is making official comments on the issue that were unimaginable in the past.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in a report late last year analyzed the development of the Asia-Pacific region and forecast three possible scenarios: Korean reunification, maintaining the status quo, or military confrontation. The academy said Korean reunification would become the focus of cross-border relations in the future and stressed the need to quell concerns that China would continue to support North Korea under any circumstances.
The academy is the country's biggest think tank which is under the direct control of the State Council of China. The gist of the report is that if necessary, Beijing can and will distance itself from North Korea. This is simply astounding. North Korea has been among China's closest allies and the two fought against the U.S. and South Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War.
The younger generation of officials in China's Communist Party, military and academia have a very different perception of North Korea than the older generation, which viewed the North as a strategic asset. They see it as a burden. In informal discussion with South Korean officials, Chinese officials are apparently showing keen interest in the prospect of reunification.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said during a recent security conference in Germany, "I will be in China in two weeks working on the North Korean issue, working with [South] Korea, Japan, reunification, you name the issue."
It is unprecedented for a high-ranking U.S. official to make such comments, and the U.S. has habitually downplayed the prospect, even if there were discussions with China behind closed doors.
The political situation on Korean Peninsula is still fraught with uncertainties, but the surrounding conditions supporting reunification have never been as favorable as they are now. If Seoul wants to seize this opportunity, it needs to create a framework of strategic talks with Washington and Beijing. And it must leave room for North Korea to participate in these talks down the road.
Seoul has so far been left on the sidelines. The U.S. Congressional Research Service in a report early this year said that in 2009, when former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il suffered a massive stroke, Washington and Beijing discussed the possibility and consequences of regime collapse in the North. South Korea must try to play a central role in international talks that will determine the future of the peninsula.
Fortunately, discussions without South Korean participation are becoming harder to imagine. The report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences may reflect that. The time has come for South Korea to wake up to the possibilities.