[Viewpoint] The North and China cozier than ever

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[Viewpoint] The North and China cozier than ever

Ever since North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s health allegedly began deteriorating two years ago, the reclusive state has been preparing the rest of the world for the eventual succession of his third son Kim Jong-un as the next heir - by firing long-range missiles and conducting nuclear tests.

It then implemented shock therapy at home with 150-day and 100-day revolutionary campaigns and a sweeping currency redenomination to stimulate the devastated economy, which ended only in disastrous fallout. It appears North Korea’s structural regime crisis is too deep and extensive to respond to such a sedative propaganda campaign.

Kim is poised to make a trip to China in early April with a mission to seek aid for the famine crisis and a myriad of other troubles. But his visit remains uncertain due to another set of variables: Unsettlement over U.S.-North Korea talks, the mysterious explosion and sinking of the South Korean Navy ship along the disputed sea border with North Korea and Kim’s health problems.

The relations between North Korea and China have become cozier than ever. Many worry about the North’s growing reliance on China as aid has dried up from South Korea and other countries amid international trade sanctions following its nuclear test a year ago. China is expected to emerge as the second economic powerhouse after the United States this year and its ever-growing stature is eclipsing other economies struggling with repercussions from a global credit crisis.

Now China is as concerned about the catastrophic collapse of the Kim Jong-il regime as it is about the nuclear threat. Emboldened by its economic prosperity, China has the leeway and confidence to finance impoverished North Koreans. China might have thought that it can use North Korea’s rich natural resources and maintain its clout over North Korea via security guarantees, food supplies and investment.

Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-ranking North Korean politician to defect to South Korea, said at a forum in Washington D.C. that the Kim regime won’t likely come down as long as it has China as its patron. In other words, China’s grip over North Korea is big enough to sway the state’s fortune. Both countries have already restored ties to Cold War-days of comradeship as North Korea’s economic needs met with China’s necessity to keep the Northeast Asia stable to continue its life in the fast lane.

If Kim visits China this time, North Korea will likely pay back China’s economic rewards by returning to the six-party talks hosted by Beijing.

As the past incremental approach and a multilateral framework has proved ineffective - as evidenced by North Korea’s second nuclear test in May 2009 - the international community has thought about addressing the North Korean nuclear problem through a quid pro quo of sorts - a peace treaty in exchange for denuclearization.

But such an approach has seen little progress so far. Washington-Pyongyang talks have been at a stalemate since special envoy Stephen Bosworth’s visit to North Korea in December. North Korea’s nuclear envoy, Kim Gye-gwan, also failed to make a return visit to Washington. But North Korea would have to recommit to the six-nation nuclear talks if it wants a breakthrough in sanction and peace treaty talks.

The Obama administration may reward North Korea for a gesture of goodwill ahead of the Nuclear Security Summit in April and Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference in May. Kim’s visit to China is likely to serve as a curtain-raiser for Pyongyang’s return to the six-party talks.

As the host, the failure of the six-party framework can mean a diplomatic failure for Beijing. China is also likely to feel pressured by a growing urgency in neighboring countries to build nuclear and missile deterrence against North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction. Moreover, serious regime instability in North Korea due to prolonged sanctions is a risk that Beijing cannot ignore. China inevitably will try to strengthen its ties and support to North Korea to sustain the latter’s status quo.

North Korea’s dire economic condition will only be alleviated by aid from China, the fruits of another North-South summit, and a contribution by the other three members of the six-party talks.

North Korea may have sought to set the stage for its return to the six-party platform via an inter-Korean summit attempted last year. Apparently it demanded from South Korea food and other economic aid in exchange for its recommitment to six-party negotiations. But that idea flopped after Seoul maintained that it cannot provide a reward for a summit meeting and demanded the inclusion of issues such as returning prisoners of war and abducted South Koreans.

North Korea appears to have dropped South Korea for China as it recently stepped up negative rhetoric against Seoul while cozying up to Beijing with offers of investment opportunities. Its recent movement suggests North Korea will for now rely primarily on China and try to use the six-party platform instead of inter-Korean dialogues in order to find a way out of its economic and regime crises.

*The writer is a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Koh Yu-hwan
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