May 05, 2010 12:40
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visited Dalian as the first leg of his China trip and spent one night in the port city before heading to Jinzhou. His final destination appears to be Beijing.
The visit is the fifth visit since Kim rose to power in 1994 after the death of his father Kim Il-sung. Previous visits to China preceded major policy changes. In 2000, there were pre-arrangements for the landmark inter-Korean summit that year, while the visit in 2001 came before a measure of the market economy was introduced in the North, including the designation of the Sinuiju special economic zone. In 2004, Kim went to China at the height of the second North Korean nuclear crisis, while the purpose of a trip in 2006 was apparently to look at China's booming economy and learn from the opening of its market.
The reclusive leader has also been to Russia twice, but he has never visited any other country and has yet to attend a single international meeting. Over the last 50 years, the North Korean regime, with its hereditary power succession, has only looked to China as a foreign ally. It has traditionally leaned on China when its food shortages worsened or when it faced increasing isolation from the international community due to its constant provocations. And every time China has lent the North a helping hand. That is why the international community has grown to believe that North Korea's problems are China's problems.
Now the North Korean regime faces internal unrest and economic chaos due to a botched currency reform compounded by an acute food shortage stemming from lack of fertilizer and bad weather. The North also finds itself increasingly under suspicion as the culprit behind the sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan. If China accepts Kim's plea and offers economic assistance in return for a pledge to return to the stalled six-party nuclear talks, then Beijing might just as well declare to the world that it will always take care of North Korea's problems.
The cause of the sinking of the Cheonan will be announced soon. It is likely that the finding will mean major changes to the security and diplomatic strategies of neighboring countries. The issues it may raise would have to be resolved through negotiations between North and South Korea and China, which share the West Sea, and the U.S. Until now, China has been able to improve its status in the international community by mediating between the belligerent North and the rest of the world. But it risks being viewed as turning a blind eye to or even supporting North Korea's nuclear tests and acts of terrorism.
China may have had no choice but to maintain these abnormal ties with North Korea for historical and geopolitical reasons. But if it continues to be seen as being on North Korea's side, it could face setbacks in its goal to become a world leader. What country in the world would trust China to take charge of the world order if it continues to sit idly by as its ally pursues a dangerous nuclear weapons program? If North Korea's economy collapses, where will the refugees head? And will China be able to handle the chaos along its borders when they flood in?
China is the world's second-largest economy. It must think carefully about the damage to its international image if it continues to sponsor the North Korean regime. After all, North Korea is deeply involved in terrorism, drug and counterfeit money production and kidnapping. It operates scores of concentration camps where horrible human rights abuses take place. Before they meet Kim Jong-il face to face, China's leaders must think hard whether it is better to prop up his benighted regime or change it.
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