[Viewpoint] China looms over the NorthChinese President Hu Jintao and North Korean leader Kim Jong-il held their second summit meeting in the past three months in Changchun, the capital of Jilin Province in China, on Aug. 27. It signifies that the interests of the two countries coincide with each other. North Korea is in need of Chinese support for the succession to leadership of Kim Jong-il’s third son, and China considers the power transition period in the North an opportunity to maximize Chinese interest there.
In the aftermath of the sinking of South Korea’s gunboat, Cheonan, the international community expected that China would exercise influence over North Korea to get an apology for the attack and assurance that it would prevent a recurrence. However, China chose to stand on North Korea’s side advocating the claim that it had nothing to do with the incident.
There are two reasons why China defends and gives support to North Korea.
First, China does not want to repeat the mistake of losing its influence over North Korea again. Beijing had the experience of losing influence over Pyongyang once before. During the first North Korean nuclear crisis in 1993-1994, China had no choice but to look on with folded arms, as it had no role to play.
When the United States and North Korea engaged in a shuttle diplomacy series in New York and Geneva and concluded the Agreed Framework in Geneva in 1994, China had to watch the progress without a chance to make a comment. And it had the bitter experience of watching the exchange visits of Jo Myong-rok, a North Korean marshal, to the White House and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to Pyongyang. At that time, Beijing lost influence over Pyongyang as it established diplomatic relations with South Korea despite strong objections from Pyongyang.
When the second North Korean nuclear crisis broke out in 2002, China started to move in at a fast pace. Dai Bingguo, vice foreign minister, visited Pyongyang as well as Washington, unfolding shuttle diplomacy. And Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, visited Pyongyang to persuade Kim Jong-il. As a result of such efforts, the six-party talks on North Korean’s nuclear weapons program were inaugurated in August 2003, and China became the chairman country of the talks. Since then, there was no such occasion in which China was excluded from participation in issues related to the Korean Peninsula.
Second, Chinese foreign policy is decided not on the basis of justice and international peace and the universal values of civilized society, but on the basis of China’s national interest. China provided aid to countries - like Iran, Myanmar and Zimbabwe - that are condemned by the international community for their involvement in nuclear and human rights violations. China had a track record of trying to win the favor of dictatorial regimes on the excuse of “noninterference in internal affairs.” The diplomatic goal of China lies in the expansion of its influence and procurement of natural resources.
In the latter half of last year, China established a plan that it would consider the leadership crisis in North Korea as an emergency situation and that China would actively make use of it. It seems that China set the following goals: First, prevent the rush of refugees from North Korea. Second, maximize China’s economic interest. And third, complete China’s Northeast Project, including a plan to incorporate the history of Goguryeo into Chinese history.
On one hand, China worries that, if there were a rush of refugees from North Korea due to an emergency situation there, China’s economic development would be jeopardized. On the other, China aims to maximize its economic interest in the North, while Pyongyang suffers from a leadership crisis. China is interested in two things: securing abundant underground resources in North Korea and establishing bridgeheads to the East Sea.
In North Korea, it is estimated that about 6,750 trillion won ($5.79 billion) worth of underground resources are buried in the North. According to data presented to the National Assembly in 2009, North Korea has the largest deposit of magnesite and uranium in the world, one-third the amount of South Africa’s gold deposit, one-fourth the amount of Brazil’s iron deposit and large quantities of copper, zinc, limestone and coal reserves.
China has already monopolized the development rights of such abundant underground resources. China also plans to develop the Changchun, Jilin and Tumen area as a pilot project for the development of three northeastern provinces - Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang. As an extension of the development of the three cities, China plans to develop Hunchun, which borders North Korea, to make it the largest logistics center in Northeast Asia.
For this, China has already secured the right to develop three North Korean ports along the east coast - Najin, Cheongjin and Dancheo.
When all the projects are completed, it will result in the rebirth of North Korea’s economy, which relies for more than 78 percent of its trade with China, into the economy of three Northeast Provinces of China. While North Korea has a crisis related to leadership succession, China will promote a plan to incorporate North Korea into three northeastern provinces of China, while maximizing its economic interest in North Korea.
*The writer is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.
by Park Sung-soo