‘Lips and teeth’ no more as China-N Korea ties fray


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

Two years later, Mr 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 her­metic 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 United States 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 near-to­tal break­down of high-level diplo­macy be­tween the two.

Be­fore re­tir­ing this sum­mer, China’s long-time point man on North Korea, Wu Dawei, had not vis­ited the coun­try for over a year. His re­place­ment, Kong Xuanyou, has yet to visit and is still car­ry­ing out du­ties from his pre­vi­ous Asian role, trav­el­ling to Pak­istan in mid-Au­gust, diplo­mats say.

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

“There has never ex­isted a sub­or­di­nate re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two sides. Never. Es­pe­cially af­ter the end of the Cold War, the North Kore­ans fell into a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion and could not get enough help from China, so they de­ter­mined to help them­selves.”

A famine in the mid-1990s that claimed any­where from 200,000 to three mil­lion North Kore­ans was a turn­ing point for the econ­omy, forc­ing pri­vate trade on the col­lec­tivised state. That al­lowed the North a de­gree of in­de­pen­dence from out­side aid and gave cre­dence to the of­fi­cial “Juche” ide­ol­ogy of self-re­liance.

China fought along­side North Korea dur­ing the 1950-53 Korean War, in which Chi­nese leader Mao Ze­dong lost his el­dest son, and Beijing has long been Py­ongyang’s chief ally and pri­mary trade part­ner.

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 Wash­ing­ton could lead to the North’s col­lapse.

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

The North Korean gov­ern­ment does not pro­vide for­eign me­dia with a con­tact point in Py­ongyang for com­ment by email, fax or phone. The North Korean em­bassy in Beijing was not im­me­di­ately avail­able for com­ment.

China’s for­eign min­istry did not re­spond to a faxed re­quest for com­ment. It has re­peat­edly spo­ken out against what it calls the “China re­spon­si­bil­ity the­ory” and in­sists the direct par­ties — North Korea, South Korea and the United States — hold the key to re­solv­ing ten­sions.

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.

“There’s a lot of do­mes­tic pol­i­tics in North Korea where this young leader who isn’t well-known, he’s not proven yet, es­pe­cially has to show that he’s not in the pocket of Beijing,” said John Delury of Seoul’s Yon­sei Univer­sity. “I think he made the de­ci­sion first to keep Hu Jin­tao and then (cur­rent Pres­i­dent) Xi Jin­ping re­ally at bay.”

Within months of com­ing to power, Mr Kim tele­graphed North Korea’s in­ten­tions by amend­ing its con­sti­tu­tion to pro­claim it­self a nu­clear state. The ex­e­cu­tion of Jang’s un­cle in 2013 sealed Beijing’s dis­trust of the young leader.

“Of course the Chi­nese were not happy,” said a for­eign diplo­mat in Beijing fo­cused on North Korea. “Ex­e­cut­ing your un­cle, that’s from the feu­dal ages.”

In an at­tempt to warm ties, Mr Xi sent high-rank­ing Com­mu­nist Party of­fi­cial Liu Yun­shan to at­tend the North’s Oc­to­ber 2015 mil­i­tary pa­rade mark­ing the 70th an­niver­sary of the found­ing of the Work­ers’ Party of Korea.

Mr Liu hand-de­liv­ered a let­ter from Mr Xi prais­ing Mr Kim’s lead­er­ship and in­clud­ing con­grat­u­la­tions not just from the Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Party but Mr Xi’s per­sonal “cor­dial wishes” in a pow­er­ful show of re­spect.

Mr Xi’s over­ture has been re­paid with in­creas­ingly brazen ac­tions by Py­ongyang, which many ob­servers be­lieve are timed for max­i­mum em­bar­rass­ment to Beijing. Sun­day’s nu­clear test, for ex­am­ple, took place as China hosted a Brics sum­mit, while in May, the North launched a long-range mis­sile just hours be­fore the Belt and Road Fo­rum, ded­i­cated to Mr Xi’s sig­na­ture for­eign pol­icy ini­tia­tive.

Mao Ze­dong’s de­scrip­tion of North Korea’s re­la­tion­ship with China is typ­i­cally mis­char­ac­terised 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 half­brother was as­sas­si­nated in Fe­bru­ary at Kuala Lumpur’s air­port. The half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, had been seen as a po­ten­tial ri­val for power in Py­ongyang and had lived for years in Beijing, then Ma­cau.

An edi­to­rial in China’s in­flu­en­tial Global Times warned af­ter Py­ongyang’s lat­est nu­clear test that cut­ting off North Korea’s oil would re­di­rect the con­flict to one be­tween North Korea and China.

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.”

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