Chinese President Hu Jintao told his South Korean counterpart Lee Myung-bak on Monday that his government attempted several in-depth talks with Pyongyang to express its "deep concern" over the North's planned rocket launch. Hu added Beijing is urging Pyongyang to give up the rocket launch plan and focus on improving the livelihood of its people. Regarding the controversial issue of Beijing's repatriation of North Korean defectors arrested in China, Hu said his country is "taking a lot of interest and giving consideration" to the issue. It "respects the position" of South Korea and will "strive to ensure that the issue is resolved smoothly."
Judging from Hu's comments as quoted by a South Korean official, China is taking a more positive line on the North Korean missile and defector issues. But the position will not become fully clear until Chinese media reports about the summit are released.
China has repeatedly expressed concern to North Korea since Pyongyang announced on Feb. 16 it would launch what it claims is a satellite-carrying rocket. That contrasts markedly with Beijing's response back in April of 2009, when North Korea launched its second long-range missile, and China, though urging restraint, said it was difficult to curb what it called Pyongyang's right to peaceful space research. This time, Beijing is refusing to go along with North Korea's ludicrous claim that the long-range missile it is going to test is a space rocket.
And when the issue of North Korean defectors arrested in China cropped up in the past, Beijing simply repeated the formula that it would handle them "according to international regulations, domestic laws and humanitarian principles." The end result was always the same: they were sent back to North Korea. Hu's latest remarks, however, raise hopes that Beijing is willing to try a different approach, given his references to resolving the matter "smoothly" and respect for South Korea's position.
The missile North Korea launched in 2009 was a two-stage intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of 3,200 km, twice as long as the one it test-fired over Japan in 1998. If the missile that is being readied for launch now proves capable of hitting targets 6,000 km away, that would put the western coast of the U.S. within range, and Washington could then consider the North's missiles a credible threat to its own national security and consider military options. That is the regional scenario Beijing dreads the most.
If China continues to deal with the North Korean defector issue simply from the perspective of a border treaty it signed with Pyongyang in 1998 and continues to ignore the human rights of defectors, it would seriously undermine Beijing's goal of becoming a global leader. The time has come for China to consider not only relations with long-time ally North Korea, but also to think about the standards that are expected from a leading global power.
Seoul, too, must decide what has to be done by the government and what can be left to civic groups in persuading China to deal more humanely with North Korean defectors.