Decision time for China

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Decision time for China

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s visit to China yesterday took place at a sensitive time when the South is still in deep grief over the Cheonan sinking. His visit happened just four days after President Lee Myung-bak mentioned the tragedy in his summit with Chinese President Hu Jintao during the Shanghai Expo.

Expressing deep disappointment over Kim’s visit to China, Chung Mong-joon, chairman of the ruling Grand National Party, stressed that China should deliver the South Korean people’s anger to Kim. The question is why China accepted his visit at such a sensitive time. If China welcomes his visit with applause as before, it would just fan the fury of our people.

This is Kim’s fifth visit to China as head of state. His four previous visits were focused on consolidating ties to draw economic support. This time would not be different, as many observers expect him to ask for more economic assistance while inspecting rapidly developing industries in the three northeast provinces by making gestures to return to the six-party talks. It all amounts to getting substantial benefits while showing off the special bilateral relationship at home and abroad. So far China has chimed in with Kim by respecting his intentions and acting as a proud mediator between North Korea and the international community.

But China should not treat the North the same as before. The international community’s suspicion over the North’s potential involvement in the Cheonan disaster is growing deeper; even Hu gave his condolences to the families of the dead or missing sailors of the ship. He therefore should express indignation on behalf of South Korea and the rest of the world. Of course, Kim will deny any involvement. However, China should at least state clearly that it can’t stand aloof if North Korea is proven to be the culprit. That’s an attitude befitting a great power.

The same applies to the nuclear issue. Some say China has not successfully played its role of host for the six-party talks to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambition. By sticking to its special relationship with the North, China acquiesced to or rather aided the North’s effort to develop nuclear weapons. Such an attitude is likely to bring much hardship to China as it could create a new Cold War paradigm not only in Northeast Asia but in the world. This is not at all desirable to the rest of us, except the North.

In his earlier visit to Shanghai back in 2001, Kim called the dazzling transformation of the city “unbelievable.” We strongly urge him to see another glitzy makeover during the 2010 Expo. We ask Kim to never forget that he can also achieve such remarkable development only if he decides to open and reform his country, just like the Chinese leaders before him.

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