Irrational support for NorthNorth Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s visit to China is unusually visible. Unlike his four other recent visits, which were kept secret and under heavy security, this time the reclusive leader was seen limping through ports and industrial sites in Dalian and Tianjin. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why. He obviously wanted to let the world know the belligerent state had an ally to offer it aid, regardless of sanctions. Working-level officials have already agreed on Chinese investment in Shinuiju.
But the North Korean northern border cities Shinuiju and Rason are unlikely to thrive like Dalian and Tianjin. North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear development and bold provocations will constrain Sino-North Korean relations. Both states must be aware of their limits.
Still, it’s hard to fathom why China snubbed Seoul and Washington and invited Kim. Unless it’s willing to risk souring relations with South Korea, the United States and the international community, China cannot sustain strong ties with North Korea, especially considering the latter’s suspected involvement in sinking a South Korean naval warship. We want to believe China wouldn’t be that reckless.
Over the last decade, China has been advising North Korea to emulate Chinese-style market opening and reform. But even as Kim Jong-il’s jaw dropped at the economic development he witnessed in Shanghai in 2001, his country hangs onto its state-controlled economic system. It developed and tested nuclear devices and missiles, further isolating itself and threatening regional peace. It frequently provokes skirmishes along the disputed maritime border and is now strongly suspected of torpedoing the Cheonan.
There is one reason behind the North’s stubborn adherence to its system, despite examples of communist countries that are now successful open economies, like China and Vietnam: It can’t risk unmasking the personality cult that has been the core of the regime from the start.
China is probably preaching market reform to Kim on this trip, too. We hope it will successfully guide North Korea to lay down its nuclear weapons and come out of its shell and coexist with the international community. It must seek out the truth about the Cheonan, and if North Korea admits involvement, it must pressure the state for a formal apology and compensation to South Korea. As an emerging superpower, it must force Kim to give up on the third generation of his dynasty and join the 21st century.
Sino-North Korean relations will not flourish by challenging regional and global peace. China should know by now that an economy cannot prosper without stable external relations. It can’t go on covering for North Korea. If it does, China will be risking its own prosperity.