Departing Senator Richard Lugar had a long-standing interest in North Korea. In 2006, he co-sponsored several versions of a North Korea Nonproliferation Act that sought sanctions on individuals involved in transferring weapons and technology, in line with then-current legislation on Iran and Syria. In November 2010, he released a press statement in response to the Hecker revelations about enrichment that took a “time to get tougher” line (“The White House once and for all should place major focus on China–whose support, and acquiescence to North Korean WMD activities have been emboldened.”) And as we were approaching Myanmar, he argued strongly that North Korea ties should be part of the discussion, a policy line that was picked up and pursued by the administration.
His parting shot as ranking minority member of Senate Foreign Relations was to orchestrate a lengthy report entitled China’s Impact on Korean Peninsula Unification and Questions for the Senate; the National Committee on North Korea has a page on the report with links. The report is framed around the possibility of unification—a long-shot in our view—and the prospect that Chinese economic interests and historical claims could prove a serious complication if the eventuality were to arise.
The report starts with a summary of the history controversy, based on two, even longer appendices: a concise and well-crafted Congressional Research Service memo on China’s views of its historical claims and a lengthy survey by the the Northeast Asian History Foundation, a government-sponsored think-tank in Seoul. Founded in 2006, the mission of the Foundation is to establish “a basis for peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia by confronting distortions of history that have caused anguish in this region and the world at large, and developing an accurate understanding of history….” Even if we are sympathetic with the Foundation’s claims, its very existence is symptomatic of the unfortunate move toward official histories.
Nonetheless, in tandem the CRS and NAHF reports are a primer—if a bit mind-numbing in their detail—of the history controversy; indeed, one of the best summaries we have seen. The documents and copious maps and figures provide ample evidence of a particular hobby horse of ours: that Japan is not the only country in the region that has a history problem; China, too, clearly has its revanchists. The report is ambiguous on whether these historical claims are in fact endorsed by the government; this is not a trivial issue. But we know how crackpot ideas can get mobilized by nationalists. Look at the Dokdo issue.
In addition, the Lugar report walks through the growing economic integration and asks whether “the trend of North Korea becoming a Chinese protectorate and economic colony is irreversible?”
The deep policy question is whether this growing dependence is a good or a bad thing. The report comes down on the worried side because of the long-run strategic consequences: that Chinese engagement could lock in political and economic forces opposed to unification even if a crisis were to arise. This fear has gotten ample airing in South Korea, and is the foundation for a kind of realist critique of the Lee Myung Bak approach: that by taking a tough line, Seoul is effectively ceding North Korea to China.
What are the policy implications? The report is surprisingly unclear, beyond “watch out for China’s interests.” But the integration with China may be the route to a semi-reformed North Korea. Our surveys of Chinese firms paint a picture not only of increasing trade and investment, but of Chinese-style commercialization as well. Are we really worse off with China pursuing an engagement strategy with the North? The trick is to figure out how to get other parties engaged as well. The new Park administration is likely to take a shot at it, but the Lugar report hardly draws the inference that we should. But if balancing China is the ultimate concern, why not?