‘Lips and teeth’ no more as China’s ten­u­ous ties with North Korea fray

Saturday Star - - NEWS -

BEI­JING: When Kim Jong-un in­her­ited power in North Korea in late 2011, then-Chi­nese pres­i­dent Hu Jin­tao was sup­port­ive of the untested young leader, pre­dict­ing that “tra­di­tional friendly co-op­er­a­tion” be­tween the coun­tries would strengthen.

Two years later, Kim or­dered the ex­e­cu­tion of his un­cle Jang Song Thaek, the coun­try’s chief in­ter­locu­tor with China and a rel­a­tively re­form-minded of­fi­cial in the her­mit state.

Since then, ties be­tween the al­lies have de­te­ri­o­rated so sharply that some diplo­mats and ex­perts fear Bei­jing may be­come, like Wash­ing­ton, a tar­get of its neigh­bour’s ire.

While the US and its al­lies – and many peo­ple in China – be­lieve Bei­jing should do more to rein in Pyongyang, the ac­cel­er­a­tion of North Korea’s nu­clear and mis­sile ca­pa­bil­i­ties has co­in­cided with a nearto­tal break­down of high-level diplo­macy be­tween the two.

The no­tion that mighty China wields diplo­matic con­trol over im­pov­er­ished North Korea is mis­taken, said Jin Can­rong, an in­ter na­tional re­la­tions pro­fes­sor at Bei­jing’s Ren­min Univer­sity.

While their re­la­tion­ship has al­ways been clouded by sus­pi­cion and mis­trust, China grudg­ingly tol­er­ated North Korea’s provo­ca­tions as prefer­able to the al­ter­na­tives: chaotic col­lapse that spills across their bor­der, and a Korean penin­sula un­der the do­main of a US-backed Seoul gov­ern­ment.

That is also the rea­son China is re­luc­tant to ex­ert its con­sid­er­able eco­nomic clout, wor­ried that mea­sures as dras­tic as the en­ergy em­bargo pro­posed this week by Wash­ing- ton could lead to the North’s col­lapse.

In­stead, China re­peat­edly calls for calm, re­straint and a ne­go­ti­ated so­lu­tion.

Un­til his death in 2011, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il made nu­mer­ous en­treaties to en­sure China would back his pre­ferred son as suc­ces­sor.

While then-pres­i­dent Hu re­cip­ro­cated, the younger Kim, in his late 20s at the time, be­gan to dis­tance him­self from his coun­try’s most pow­er­ful ally.

For­mer Chi­nese leader Mao Ze­dong’s de­scrip­tion of North Korea’s re­la­tion­ship with China is typ­i­cally mis-char­ac­terised as be­ing as close as “lips and teeth”.

His words are bet­ter trans­lated as: “If the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold,” a ref­er­ence to the strate­gic im­por­tance of the North as a ge­o­graph­i­cal se­cu­rity buf­fer.

De­spite its re­sent­ment at the pres­sure North Korea’s ac­tions have put it un­der, Bei­jing re­frains from tak­ing too hard a line.

It said lit­tle when Kim Jong- un’s half-brother was as­sas­si­nated in Fe­bru­ary. Kim Jong-nam had been seen as a po­ten­tial ri­val for power in Pyongyang and had lived for years in Bei­jing, then Ma­cau.

Zhao Tong, a North Korea ex­pert at the Carnegie-Ts­inghua Cen­tre in Bei­jing, said North Korea was deeply un­happy with China’s back­ing of ear­lier UN sanc­tions.

“If China sup­ports more rad­i­cal eco­nomic sanc­tions that di­rectly threaten the sta­bil­ity of the regime, then it is pos­si­ble that North Korea be­comes as hos­tile to China as to the United States.” – Reuters

Kim Jong Un

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