May 05, 2010 12:20
China seems to have decided to put up with South Korea's complaints and accusations for the time being. Otherwise, how to explain the lavish diplomatic discourtesy Beijing has heaped on North Korean leader Kim Jong-il? Chinese President Hu Jintao, meeting with President Lee Myung-bak in Shanghai on Saturday, expressed sympathy for sailors who died in the sinking of the Navy corvette Cheonan, just as it was becoming clearer that North Korea was probably involved in the shipwreck, but dropped no hint that Kim would arrive there only three days later.
During Lee's visit to China in May 2008, Beijing proposed to upgrade its relationship with the South to a "strategic cooperation partnership." It explained that the proposal would put South Korea above Japan in its foreign policy priorities and give it the same priority as India and Russia. Cheong Wa Dae accepted the explanation and briefed the media. Yet the Chinese head of state mentioned nothing whatsoever about Kim's imminent visit when he met Lee. How is Seoul to interpret that?
Cheong Wa Dae and the Foreign Ministry are furious, but there is nothing they can do. China's policy for the Korean Peninsula policy has changed little. Only South Korea prematurely assumed that its strategic value in China's eyes exceeds the North's on account of increasing trade volume, tourism and other exchanges.
Inviting Kim was a considerable gamble for China. The North Korean regime is still the worst human rights abuser in the world, running political concentration camps, squandering W6 billion on fireworks displays while its people are starving, and accustomed to terror and provocation (US$1=W1,116). There are few countries Kim can safely visit. Since 2000, he has been to Russia once and to China five times.
Beijing has been trying to improve its "soft power," finding that military and economic strength alone are insufficient to make it a world leader. In October, China hosted the 1st World Media Summit with representatives from 170-odd media companies in over 70 countries. Hu told the opening session the Chinese government fully supports news coverage by the foreign media. Yet Beijing has yet officially to confirm Kim's visit and tightly controls media coverage of Kim's visit. How serious is it about becoming a world leader?
But China apparently feels that these risks are worth taking for the sake of its national interest. Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, in a meeting with the North Korean military leadership in November, toasted the "blood ties" between the two countries. And still Seoul and Washington look to Beijing whenever a North Korea problem flares up, saying that they expect it to play "a constructive role."
The six-party nuclear talks were first convened in August 2003 at China's proposal and often ran aground on the brink of breakthrough agreements to scrap the North's nuclear weapons program. Even while China was the host, North Korea boycotted the talks and conducted two nuclear tests. China has been the North's sturdiest supporter through all this.
Beijing has clearly made a strategic decision to keep North Korea in its embrace. Seoul and Washington have done everything they can to bring about change in the North through China, which is evidently the most important factor in the North Korea problem. A new strategy is needed. Nothing can be achieved by simply hoping that China will do something.
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