[Viewpoint] Time no longer on our side

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[Viewpoint] Time no longer on our side

The North Korea-China summit, which was held despite an ongoing investigation by the South Korean government on Pyongyang’s possible involvement in the Cheonan sinking, shows clearly that the rules in Northeast Asia have shifted.

In particular, it shows us that the China factor might be far bigger than we had anticipated. Despite our government’s pleas, China has maintained its position that the Cheonan incident and the six-party talks are separate issues.

It also invited North Korean leader Kim Jong-il at this sensitive time and flaunted its alliance with the rogue nation both domestically and internationally, despite continuous UN sanctions against Pyongyang.

This signifies that China is now the rule maker, at least in Northeast Asia. It also presents a new challenge to our foreign-policy strategy.

In what might be his last visit to China, Kim Jong-il was given the best of formalities and met with all of the country’s top policy makers, as is tradition.

In this atmosphere, the two states agreed on new guidelines for their bilateral relations. These included the continuation of high-level exchanges, reinforcement of strategic communication, stronger economic and trade relations, expansion of cultural exchange, deeper cooperation on international and regional issues and mutual efforts to maintain peace and order in the region.

One noticeable element was the emphasis the two sides put on economic cooperation. North Korea aimed to highlight this point as the purpose of the visit. Kim Jong-il stopped in Dalian and Tianjin - two major port cities in China’s northeast region - in an apparent move to benchmark the two cities for the development of the North Korean cities of Sinuiju, Najin and Seonbong.

There has also been a change in the countries’ bilateral economic relations. In the past, the relationship focused on short-term aid. Now, however, the two nations are discussing long-term development plans such as business alliances and social infrastructure. This is also why Kim Jong-il has said that he welcomes direct foreign investment.

Revival of the six-party talks is the key issue. North Korea has announced that there has been no change in its position on denuclearization and that it wishes for favorable conditions in resuming the six-party talks with other members.

On the surface, it seems that there was little, if any, progress made on this issue. However, the two countries have already finished their bilateral coordination on this matter, and China’s strong will to resume the six-party talks could result in progress.

One shortcoming is that South Korea and the United States failed to present a valid argument for linking the Cheonan incident with the six-party talks.

Amid all of this there is also the issue of Kim Jong-il’s successor. With North Korea launching a rocket and then carrying out a nuclear test in April of last year, China had yet to confirm its position on North Korea’s succession plans.

However, through internal debates that started last July, China has decided that it will separate the issue of North Korea’s power succession from the country’s nuclear program. China chose to accept the succession blueprint, and this translated into momentum for restoring North Korea-China relations.

During his visit, the North Korean leader gave a rare statement in which he said the China-North Korea friendship “has stood the test of time and will not waver despite the change of time and alteration of generations.”

Kim’s remarks carry another reminder to China of North Korea’s interest in the succession issue.

Kim Jong-il’s visit to China also points to the necessity of a new strategy on our side. If the long-term plan is to create a multilayered and complex strategic map of the Northeast Asian order, we must figure out the relationship between the Cheonan incident and the six-party talks.

This is a dilemma, as we need to consider both the settlement of this security crisis and the dynamics of international society.

The reality is that it will be extremely difficult to link the Cheonan incident to the six-party talks. First of all, China’s cooperation seems unlikely, and the current “strategic patience” of the Obama administration in the pursuit of nuclear disarmament could very well run out anytime.

I hope, however, that this situation will change a little with the second U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue meeting to be held on May 24 and 25.

As the saying “timing is everything” goes, we need to simultaneously pursue denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through the diplomatic framework of the six-party talks while taking firm measures following the results of the investigation.

Time may have been on our side so far, but it surely will not be so in the future.

*The writer is a professor of politics and diplomacy at Sungkyunkwan University.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Lee Hee-ok

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