China's North Korean con­tra­dic­tions

Thus China does what it must, shoring up the Kim fam­ily dy­nasty to pre­vent Korea from re­uni­fy­ing on South Korean terms.

The Pak Banker - - Editorial5 - Zhu Feng

The re­lease by Wik­iLeaks of Amer­i­can diplo­matic ca­bles writ­ten be­tween 2004 and 2010 con­tains con­sid­er­able ma­te­rial on China's pol­icy to­ward North Korea. The leaks sup­pos­edly un­veil a Chi­nese readi­ness to ac­cept the re­uni­fi­ca­tion of Korea in fa­vor of South Korea.

This propo­si­tion al­most beg­gars be­lief be­cause it starkly con­tra­dicts China's ac­tions in fail­ing to openly con­demn North Korea for its sink­ing of the South Korean war­ship Cheo­nan in March, or for the re­cent ar­tillery at­tack on South Korea's Yeon­pyeong Is­land. Sim­i­larly, rather than de­mand that North Korea stop its brinks­man­ship, China's lead­ers have called for emer­gency con­sul­ta­tions in­volv­ing the United States, Ja­pan, Rus­sia, China, the United Na­tions, and South Korea. None of these ac­tions sug­gest a will­ing­ness to make the North Korean regime pay the price it de­serves for its provo­ca­tions.

So why doesn't China move more de­ci­sively to rein in North Korea? The con­ven­tional wis­dom is that China doesn't want to lose North Korea as a buf­fer be­tween it and the US mil­i­tary in South Korea. Thus China does what it must, shoring up the Kim fam­ily dy­nasty to pre­vent Korea from re­uni­fy­ing on South Korean terms. In­deed, the con­tro­versy in Chi­nese eyes is not re­ally about Korean re­uni­fi­ca­tion - few in Bei­jing spec­u­late that the endgame will be oth­er­wise - but to what ex­tent re­uni­fi­ca­tion can be achieved with­out dam­ag­ing China's se­cu­rity con­cerns.

Ev­ery time North Korea acts provoca­tively - test­ing nu­clear bombs, launch­ing mis­siles, tout­ing its se­cre­tive ura­nium en­rich­ment fa­cil­i­ties, and killing South Korean sol­diers and civil­ians - China comes un­der diplo­matic fire. Its chronic in­de­ci­sive­ness about the North and un­will­ing­ness to use its lever­age, thus shield­ing its so­cial­ist ally, seems to re­veal to the wider world a China ob­sessed with its own nar­row in­ter­ests.

But these in­ter­ests are hard to quan­tify. The vol­ume of China's trade with South Korea is al­most 70 times that with the North. Thus, if China truly is the mer­can­tilist power that many in the West claim, it should tilt de­ci­sively to­wards the South.

More­over, China has no in­ter­est in stok­ing a "new Cold War" in East Asia, so it should be en­thu­si­as­tic about the cause of de­nu­cle­ari­sa­tion and thus play a big­ger role in cur­tail­ing North Korea's nu­clear provo­ca­tions. The irony is that Chi­nese dither­ing has in­cited Cold War-type con­cerns in South Korea, Ja­pan, and the US. In­deed, given its lack of con­fi­dence in China's readi­ness and will­ing­ness to keep the North in check, South Korea is now seek­ing even deeper de­fen­sive ties with the US, as well as en­hanc­ing its po­lit­i­cal and de­fense co­op­er­a­tion with Ja­pan. If North Korea fails to re­strain it­self, and China's ap­proach re­mains tan­ta­mount to cod­dling a dan­ger­ous, nu­cle­ar­armed state, strate­gic ri­valry across East Asia might re­vive around a Washington-Toky­oSeoul axis vis-à-vis a China-North Korea coali­tion. Not sur­pris­ingly, that prospect of­fers scant com­fort to China.

And yet China seems to turn a blind eye to it all. Un­for­tu­nately, China's ob­so­lete ide­ol­ogy plays a key role here. Al­though China claims that it "nor­malised re­la­tions" with North Korea in 2009, its poli­cies and at­ti­tudes to­ward the North re­main mired in a mor­bid com­rade­ship.

For ex­am­ple, in Oc­to­ber, on the 60th an­niver­sary of the start of the Korean War, Chi­nese Vice Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping (the likely suc­ces­sor to Pres­i­dent Hu Jin­tao) dubbed the con­flict a glo­ri­ous fight against a "US-ini­ti­ated in­va­sion." A ma­jor­ity of Chi­nese dis­like Kim Jong-il's dy­nas­tic Lenin­ist regime. And the two coun­tries have di­verged enor­mously in po­lit­i­cal, eco­nomic, and so­cial terms. Yet China's lead­ers re­main in­ca­pable of seem­ing to aban­don the North, no mat­ter how odi­ous its be­hav­ior.

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