China Juggles Diplomacy with Both Koreas

      May 23, 2011 13:32

      North Korean leader Kim Jong-il comes out of the Holiday Inn hotel in Mudanjiang, Heilongjiang Province in China on Friday night. /Kyoto News-Yonhap

      China is busy balancing high-level diplomacy with both Koreas in the same week. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao attended a trilateral summit with South Korea and Japan on Sunday and held separate talks with President Lee Myung-bak, while North Korean leader Kim Jong-il kicked off a visit to China on Friday. Diplomatic sources in China say Kim will meet Chinese President Hu Jintao and Wen in Beijing this coming Thursday or Friday.

      This is not the first time that China has held summits with North and South Korea at almost the same time. Hu met Lee in May last year when the South Korean president was visiting the Shanghai Expo, and just three days later China invited Kim to visit, apparently failing to notify Lee of Kim’s impending visit.

      Wen, apparently mindful of Korean sensitivities, explained Kim's visit to Lee during their latest meeting, saying the purpose was to give the North a chance to understand and use China's economic development strategy. And China on Friday apparently informed South Korea of Kim's latest visit through diplomatic channels to avoid further upset.

      But this simultaneous diplomacy sticks in the craw of many South Koreans. Not only does it give the impression on the international stage that the Korean peninsula is an area of conflict, but it can also lead to the misconception that China is a mediator between the two Koreas.

      China did offer to act as a mediator after the sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan last March and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island later that year. But it was the widespread view in the international community that the two incidents were clear military provocations by the North. China is trying to ignore this conclusion and seeking to support North Korea, to give the impression that it is pursuing peace and reconciliation.

      While the South slapped economic sanctions on the North on May 24 of last year and the UN also tightened sanctions, China invited Kim to visit three times since May of last year. Beijing is being criticized for making the problem worse, by giving the North Korean regime the impression that it can survive by boosting ties with China even though it flagrantly violated international regulations.

      On the other hand, some observers believe China is juggling diplomacy with both sides to avoid being accused of unilaterally supporting the North.

      Still others say it is an example of "divide and rule." Kim Ki-soo at the Sejong Institute, said, "China is pursuing a two-timing strategy." Allowing Kim to visit just when the Seoul-Beijing summit is being held can be interpreted as a bid to use closer ties with North Korea as a bargaining chip in negotiations with South Korea.

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