[Outlook]Keeping a secretNorth Korea is said to be as close to China as the teeth are to the lips. In the geopolitical context, North Korea was China’s strategic bulwark and China was North Korea’s most important guardian.
But after the Cold War ended, China’s international relations changed. Accordingly, Pyongyang-Beijing relations switched from being a special blood alliance to friendly ties. The relationship is still changing.
A good example of the shift can be seen in China’s reaction to the North’s testing of a nuclear bomb in 2006. China condemned the brazen move in unusually strong language, and submitted a draft resolution to the United Nations to sanction the North.
North Korea’s view of China has also started to change. When Kim Jong-il met with Chung Dong-young, then a South Korean minister, in 2005, Kim said China was pursuing its own interests in dealing with North Korean issues and the Taiwan question.
North Korea-U.S. relations improved drastically after the agreement in Berlin in January 2007, due to political calculation by Pyongyang. Closed-door talks between Washington and Pyongyang made Seoul and Beijing nervous for quite a long period.
China then wanted to build trust with Pyongyang after ripples from the nuclear test died down. From experience, China knew that the moment China exerts its influence on North Korea, the effect of that influence weakens. The efforts paid off in June this year, when Vice President Xi Jinping, who is likely to become the next leader of China, visited North Korea. Xi met with Kim Young-nam, the chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, and emphasized the importance of political exchanges through mutual visits by high officials. When he met with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Xi said the two countries are bound by blood, an expression that had not been used for a long time.
In the meantime, rumors have been swirling about Kim Jong-il being incapacitated by illness. Word is that he had an operation and now cannot brush his teeth on his own or walk 27 meters without resting. These stories closely resemble secret intelligence, as one can’t get this type of information without looking into the private space of the North Korean regime. And in fact, many of the rumors were leaked by high officials of the South Korean government.
Pessimistic outlooks on North Korea’s future poured out along with speculation about who would succeed Kim. Some made the hasty argument that OPLAN 5029-99, a contingency plan to be used in case an emergency breaks out in North Korea, should be implemented, and this argument was reported without being filtered.
For political reasons, Seoul would have wanted to show that it is handling North Korea intelligence well despite deteriorating inter-Korean relations. But it should have known that such a revelation would make it lose one more channel to the North and cause relations between the two countries on the peninsula to worsen even further.
The Ministry of Unification asked for a more discreet and careful approach, but it was too late to take back what had already spilled out.
China’s response, meanwhile, was extremely careful. The Chinese foreign ministry retained the stance that it didn’t get any information related to Kim’s physical condition. But it is very unlikely that China is unaware of the situation because it shares a border with North Korea and both official and unofficial diplomatic channels are still in operation. China said it didn’t know about the news probably because it was careful enough to appear considerate about its neighbor. China probably wanted to raise its values by hiding sensitive information and thinking about all the possible outcomes of changes in Pyongyang.
Whether in personal or international relations, true colors are unveiled when difficulties are faced. When dealing with rumors about Kim, Seoul should have followed the correct path rather than a shortcut. Lack of trust between Seoul and Pyongyang has always been a problem. It is important to be careful with words in order to build up mutual trust. Confucius said, “Behave as if you don’t have it, even when you own something. Being full, behave as if you are empty.” The intelligence agency should heed this advice.
Because of Kim’s incapacitation, concerned countries surrounding the Korean Peninsula are fighting a war without firing any bullets. It has once again become vital to have a control tower that can collect information, keep it private, and handle it strategically. Recovering the diplomatic upper hand in South Korea is even more important.
We should be able to gain this capacity through the upcoming dialogues with the United States and China.
*The writer is a professor at the department of political science and international relations of Sungkyunkwan University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Hee-ok