[Viewpoint] Is China a guardian of North Korea?

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[Viewpoint] Is China a guardian of North Korea?

Efforts by Seoul and Washington to hold North Korea responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan warship in March and to send a strong warning to the North are being blocked by China.

China now says the international community should “close the Cheonan issue and move ahead on the six-party talks” on the denuclearization of North Korea.

But we should not forget that the North, which maintains its innocence in the Cheonan sinking, would probably refuse to honor any promises it makes to dismantle its nuclear program.

The whole world wonders, therefore, why China continues to shield North Korea from international condemnation and proposes that the six-party talks be resumed.

Until the end of April, the South Korean government had expected that China would at least take the position of passive cooperation in the South’s effort to hold North Korea responsible for the Cheonan’s sinking.

Seoul realized that it would be difficult to prod the UN Security Council to pass more sanctions against the North, but it thought China wouldn’t actively oppose the adoption of a presidential statement.

It seemed only natural to expect China’s cooperation.

Diplomatic and economic relations between China and South Korea have grown rapidly since re-establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992, and relations were recently upgraded to those of “strategic cooperation and partnership.”

However, China was opposed to even mentioning North Korea as the principal agent of the attack in a presidential statement.

The country also raised strong objections to the planned joint South Korea-U.S. military drills in the Yellow Sea, on the grounds that they were held too close to its own shores.

A Chinese military leader even said that the U.S.S. George Washington, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, would become “a moving target” if it entered the Yellow Sea.

Ultimately, South Korea and the U.S. decided to avoid conflict with China and carried out joint exercises in the East Sea.

Further signs that relations between North Korea and China were undiminished appeared after North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visited China in May.

At a party celebrating Kim’s successful China trip, Choi Tae-bok, chairman of the Supreme People’s Assembly of North Korea, said, “Let’s develop the North Korea-China friendship from generation to generation.”

His remarks implied that the purpose of Kim’s visit to China was to get Chinese recognition of its leadership succession to Kim’s third son, Kim Jong-eun. The remarks also indicated that certain agreements were made between North Korea and China.

On June 7, at the third session of the Supreme People’s Assembly, calls were made for backing agreements signed by Kim.

On June 21, Liu An Chao, a Chinese Communist Party official who met with a delegation from North Korea, said implementation of the agreements was in progress.

The delegation was led by Kim Chang-ryong, the minister of National Territory and Environmental Protection.

It should also be noted that North Korea-China relations were dramatically strengthened in a cultural sense.

Although North Korea relies heavily on China in matters of politics, economics and defense, it has maintained its cultural identity and regards its ethnicity with national pride.

It seems, however, that Pyongyang decided to open its doors to Chinese culture in order to curry favor with Beijing.

The North’s Pibada Music and Drama Troupe, which is the equivalent of North Korea’s national opera, has even been performing the Chinese classic “Hong Lou Meng,” or the “Dream of the Red Chamber,” a masterpiece of Chinese fiction.

The production premiered at a Beijing theater during Kim’s visit to China. The event was meant to reaffirm the strong friendship between Kim and Chinese President Hu Jintao. The performance then toured through 13 Chinese cities over two months and received much praise from audiences.

The Arirang Games, which North Korea boasts are the world’s largest and most famous mass games, has inserted a new chapter in this year’s version.

The latest version, released at the beginning of August, now includes a chapter called “Friendship Arirang,” which shows scenes commemorating the 60th anniversary of the participation of China’s Volunteer Army in the Korean War.

During this year’s Arirang Games - which involves gymnastics, acrobatics and 80 minutes of synchronized card flipping by 100,000 participants - dancers in Chinese costumes perform in praise of the North Korea-China friendship. They dance to Chinese music, hold Chinese flags and traditional music instruments.

The performance will continue until the end of October, and North Korea attracts tourists from abroad to this gigantic annual performance.

At the same time, North Korea has recently allowed the training and dissemination of films of Chinese martial arts. In short, the Hermit Kingdom has opened its doors to Chinese popular culture, particularly its music and movies, which are infiltrating North Korean society.

Since Kim Jong-il’s last visit to China, the country seems to have decided to give North Korea more special treatment than that which it affords to even its closest allies or other friendly nations.

In retrospect, the signs of change were apparent when Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited North Korea in October last year.

China recognized that if a sudden change, like a leadership succession, broke out in North Korea, it would have serious consequences for China’s own national interest.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao promised large-scale economic assistance and investment in the North, so that North Korea would be relieved from its economic suffering.

The reason why China prevents the international community from holding North Korea responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan becomes clear when you see just what the North means to China.

If North Korea becomes culturally subordinate to China, given its already heavy dependence on China in its politics, economics and defense, it will have no choice but to follow in the footsteps of Tibet or to become a satellite state of China.

*The writer is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.

By Park Sung-soo
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