[Viewpoint] Give the North a card to play

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[Viewpoint] Give the North a card to play

China’s hearty investment in the war-stricken region of Darfur in Sudan has often been said to epitomize the country’s voracious appetite for natural resources to feed its economic expansion.

The northwestern region of Sudan had been tainted by a bloody civil war over the last seven years, costing thousands of lives and creating millions of refugees. The United Nations had sanctioned the Sudanese government for its role in mass killings and genocide. The UN Security Council voted on a peacekeeping mission to prevent further killings in 2005 but was vetoed by China. China instead sent its military forces of 4,000 to Sudan to claim security protection around the Nile project that pumps out the majority of Sudan’s oil output - a Chinese state company has a 40 percent stake there. China gets 5 percent of its annual oil imports from Sudan.

China was harshly criticized by the international community for its self-serving interest in Sudan. Hollywood campaigned for a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games. American filmmaker Steven Spielberg also withdrew as artistic adviser to the Games because of the country’s role in Sudanese sufferings.

Beijing lost face and broke its own self-imposed diplomatic rules of noninterference in another country’s internal affairs and actively supported the UN and other multinational organizations. It surrendered principle for the sake of acquiring oil and other resources that the African country could offer.

The Darfur precedent bodes ill for the Korean Peninsula. China casts a shadow over the vast underdeveloped resources of North Korea.

Seven out of 10 underground mines and reserves under joint development with foreign companies are led by China. And China is shoring up its interest more and more. Last month it signed a contract to build a new bridge over the Yalu River and will construct another one to the bordering cities of Sinuiju in North Korea and Dandong in China in October. A few days ago, China won an agreement to use North Korea’s Rajin Port for another 10 years.

The more it has access to the land and sea borders, the easier it can drain North Korean resources. North Korea sits on abundant underground resources. Korea Resources Corporation estimates its potential value at stunning 3,700 trillion won ($3.26 trillion).

What is worrisome is that North Korea can resemble Sudan if chaos erupts. China will probably pour money into the country to capitalize on its tragedy. It can immediately send military forces to control the mines it has a big stake in. China already is preparing for such a scenario. Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, said during a visit here that China won’t tolerate it if other countries try to meddle in North Korea’s internal affairs through military or diplomatic force if there are signs of disturbances there. “Though I would not mention the scenario in detail, nevertheless it reflects the Chinese government’s position,” he said.

But how about us? The Lee Myung-bak administration’s so-called diplomacy of practicality has no tolerance for North Korea. Inter-Korean exchanges have been deadlocked since the shooting of a South Korean tourist at Mount Kumgang in July 2008. The number of people traveling between the countries plunged by 35 percent last year from 2008. Humanitarian aid came in at 63.7 billion won, half the amount in 2008. Discussions on developing North Korean resources have not even come up.

A former deputy minister who has been involved in inter-Korean talks on economic cooperation said the more the South invests in the North, the greater its claims over the country will be. “If we just sit around, we probably will see all North Korean resources end up in Chinese hands,” he predicted.

Seoul is poised to suspended tourism programs to North Korea unless Pyongyang apologizes for the shooting and gives a safety guarantee. This has produced no progress at all. But a game of cat and mouse isn’t any good for either country. A verbal promise is meaningless as the North has many times broken its word.

This week North Korea has invited South Korean companies which invested in projects at Mount Kumgang to visit. This is the North’s typical method of pressuring its counterpart through the channels of corporate investors. The government should make concessions and call for joint development of natural resources.

It’s much better if the government makes a move before North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visits China next month. North Korea can better position itself against China with a South Korean card. Kim may want to hand over whatever China demands for any bit of cash to salvage the economy devastated by the recent currency revaluation.

If we don’t do something soon, Kim will not be the only one to pay for the consequences.

*Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is an economic editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

By Yi Jung-jae
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