Human rights activists in China demonstrated in China's Guangzhou on Saturday condemning North Korea for its recent nuclear test and accusing Beijing of failing to restrain Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions. Demonstrations also took place in front of the North Korean Consulate in Shenyang, as well as in Changchun and Hefei in northeastern China.
Although they were small, the fact that the demonstrations took place at all in multiple locations across China demonstrates a shift in sentiment among the Chinese public about North Korea. Chinese Netizens criticized comments from Beijing officials apparently seeming to protect the North and are demanding economic sanctions and even military steps to deal with Pyongyang's belligerent behavior.
Chinese academics and journalists are also urging Beijing to change its North Korea policy. Zhu Feng, a North Korea expert at Peking University, said in on op-ed piece for the Singaporean daily Lianhe Zaobao that any Chinese government official who seeks to protect North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at this point would be "insane."
The editor of China's quasi-official Global Times daily warned the North Korean public would end up paying the price for Kim's mistakes. And one researcher at a think tank affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Commerce even voiced concerns that Pyongyang might one day aim its missiles at China. Some scholars in China view the North as a "rogue state."
Chinese netizens worry that North Korea's third nuclear test, conducted last week just 100 km from the border with China, could have contaminated Chinese territory. As a result, China's Environment Ministry has mobilized 12 monitoring teams to start probing for radioactive contamination in groundwater tables and soil.
A country's diplomacy is directly and indirectly influenced by public sentiment. The voices of intellectuals have an even greater impact. China is undergoing rapid changes, and the growing influence of public opinion is one of them.
For South Korea, the Chinese government must of course remain the first to contact in attempts to convince Beijing to change its North Korea policy. But it also needs to boost civilian exchanges.
Trade between South Korea and China has grown explosively, but exchanges in culture, sports and the arts have not kept pace. There are more than 60,000 South Korean students in China and an equally large number of Chinese students here. In contrast, there are only 900 North Korean students in China and just 150 Chinese studying in the North. Yet the level of friendship and trust between South Korean and Chinese students is no stronger than the bond that exists between North Korean and Chinese students.
The South Korean government and businesses must create more ways to boost civilian exchanges between the two countries in order to deepen understanding and communication between experts and ordinary people on both sides.