As has been noted in several places, this is one hell of an interesting cable. The upshot is that South Korean officials seem to believe that North Korea will collapse in a fairly short interval after the death of Kim Jong Il, and that a few Chinese policymakers have suggested that China is prepared to acquiesce on a reunified Korea governed by Seoul.
Drezner throws the cold water:
I don’t doubt that Chinese officials said everything reported in the documents. I do doubt that those statements mean that China is willing to walk away from North Korea. It means that Chinese diplomats are… er…. diplomatic. They will tell U.S. and South Korean officials some of what they want to hear. I’m sure that they will say somewhat different things to their North Korean counterparts.
Indeed, although that’s not quite the right framing for the Chinese comments. Diplo-speak is about more than simply telling the other side what it wants to hear; there’s an element of that, but diplomats also try to refrain from saying stuff that could be dangerous for national interests. Chinese diplomats aren’t just going to tell Seoul that Beijing is groovy with reunification to be polite, because that removes leverage and may create an incentive for South Korea to get reckless. Indeed, suggesting that Beijing would accept reunification on South Korean terms is really kind of dangerous, whether or not it reflects official state policy. At the very least it confirms that there are divisions in China regarding the proper policy towards Korean reunification, which could in itself be a dangerous message to send to Seoul.
That said, Drezner is correct that any Chinese queasiness about North Korea hasn’t yet made it into visible public policy. Nevertheless, that even some Chinese diplomats are willing to even hint that the existence of North Korea might be a negotiable issue is very interesting.
See also E. on the downsides of assuming that North Korea will collapse. More on that later.
…this seems to imply that China is thinking seriously about leaving North Korea in the cold.