[EDITORIALS]A problematic bondPyongyang and Beijing are fast becoming closer these days. Following Kim Jong-il’s visit to China in January, several North Korean leaders including his brother-in-law and Labor Party chairman Chang Sung-taek have knocked on Beijing’s door. Also, in April, Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan reportedly will visit Pyongyang.
What’s most noticeable is the increase in economic transactions between the two countries. In 2003, Chinese investment in North Korea was a mere $1 million ― last year it ballooned to $100 million. Trade between the two was worth $1.6 billion last year, far outpacing the $1.1 billion worth of inter-Korean trade. More than 90% of the commodities sold in North Korea are supposedly Chinese. There are even some analysts who foresee the North Korean economy becoming completely dependent on China.
Such a state of affairs seems to have been brought on by the United States’ sanctions against North Korea. The North has no choice but to rely on China to escape from the corner it was driven into by the economic sanctions. China, on its part, has no choice but to help the North if it is to prevent a total collapse of the North Korean regime and a subsequent flood of refugees across its border. China seems determined to assist North Korea beyond the point of just helping it through moments of crisis, as it did in the past.
The thickening ties between North Korea and China pose serious concerns for us both in the short and long-term. In the words of Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok, “unless we establish a strategy on how the North Korea-China economic cooperation will influence us in 10 to 20 years, we could face another problem.” He is right, all the more so because most of the joint projects China is conducting with North Korea are scheduled to last for more than 20 years. One such is the recent agreement that China will hold the mining rights to the Musan mountain mines in North Korea for the next 50 years. This could pose a serious problem after unification. Also, we cannot exclude the possibility that Pyongyang will push ahead with building its nuclear fuel reserve now that it has China on its side.
Such circumstances require a shift of paradigm in our foreign policy. For example, we must decide on the future direction of inter-Korean economic cooperation. We cannot sit and watch China’s wooing of North Korea when Beijing is showing intentions of taking over the North, at least in terms of economic and political influence. North Korea’s leaning toward China also goes against the United States’ strategy to position the North as a buffer zone to check China’s power in the Northeast Asian region. Therefore it is in the interests of both Seoul and Washington to reinforce inter-Korean economic cooperation. Yet this will be impossible if Washington insists on its basic policy that there must be a change in the North Korean regime.
The international politics surrounding the Korean Peninsula cannot be seen from only one point of view. As such, we should move on from proclaiming vague ambitions to basing our policies on a realistic and practical mindset. We must strive to analyze signs such as the North Korea-China bond from different perspectives and different points in time in order to use them to promote our national security and economic interests.