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 retired Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who had been a member of the Foreign Relations Committee with a long-standing interest in North Korea. The minority staff report, Luse said in an e-mail, was written to inform committee members — including Sen. John F. 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.
A Kerry spokesman said neither Kerry nor his staff would comment on the report, adding that the senator has declined all interviews since his nomination.
The tight connection between China and North Korea represents a major policy challengefor the Obama administration and for the incoming government in South Korea. Conceivably, Washington and Seoul could each try to re-engage with Pyongyang, but neither finds that palatable. Washington failed to influence North Korea’s behavior during previous periods of one-on-one and multinational talks. Meantime, South Korean President-elect Park Geun-hye, a conservative, says she won’t reinstate major projects with the North unless the family-run police state dismantles its nuclear weapons. The North says it never will.
Outside analysts see no clear sign of instability in North Korea, under third-generation leader Kim Jong Eun. 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 members. China might also try to use a protracted U.N. 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.