[Viewpoint] China is North Korea’s enablerNorth Korea’s artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island was a military provocation aimed at protesting and obstructing the South Korea-U.S. joint naval exercise in the Yellow Sea. And it was staged with the tacit approval of China. Although the shelling left two South Korean civilians and two marines dead, dozens injured and dozens of destroyed homes, the ultimate target of the provocation was the United States, not South Korea.
The meeting among representatives of the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program, which was proposed by China on Sunday, is not to solve the North Korean nuclear problem.
It is instead an attempt to define the joint military exercise as a threat to the security of Northeast Asia, while providing evidence that China tried to prevent a possible military conflict caused by the exercise.
One must bear in mind that the six-party talks are actually meant to persuade North Korea to stop provocations or give up its nuclear weapons development program.
At the time of the sinking of the Cheonan, China did not live up to international expectations that it would exercise influence on North Korea by forcing the North to apologize for the attack and give assurances that it would not repeat the action.
On the contrary, China exerted all its efforts to oppose a joint military exercise in the Yellow Sea that was planned to give a warning to the North not to attempt another provocation. As a result, South Korea and the United States postponed the naval drill in the Yellow Sea to avoid conflict with China. A smaller-scale exercise was carried out in the East Sea instead.
China considers the Yellow Sea its backyard. The Chinese foreign ministry said, “China opposes any foreign troops performing military exercise in China’s exclusive economic zone without permission.” It added that “military exercises that foreign troops stage in the neighboring waters of China are in violation of China’s security interests.” China has made its intentions clear that it will impose hegemony over Northeast Asia and keep the influence of Japan and the United States in check.
While China tries to consolidate its hegemony in Northeast Asia, the third-generation leadership succession in the North is in progress, and Pyongyang needs to demonstrate its military power to the public to help consolidate Kim Jong-un’s leadership. This is the background against which the provocations of the Cheonan sinking and the Yeonpyeong attack were carried by the North - with China’s tacit approval. It is not plausible to assume that the North staged military provocations arbitrarily.
Let’s examine the situation a bit more in detail. As was announced in advance, the U.S.S. George Washington - a symbol of U.S. military power - emerged in the Yellow Sea at the head of the formidable U.S. 7th Fleet on Nov. 28. If North Korea and China did not take any action to protest or obstruct the joint military exercise in the Yellow Sea, North Korea would appear to be cowed and North Korea’s military leadership, which supports Kim Jong-un, would lose its prestige.
China would also be humiliated in the eyes of neighboring countries by being overwhelmed by U.S. military might advancing into its backyard.
This is the reason why China does not mention the responsibility of North Korea, which provoked the military attack, calling for composure and restraint from both Koreas. Claiming that the issue should be resolved through dialogue and negotiations, China also insists that the six-party talks should be resumed despite the opposition of three countries - the United States, Japan and South Korea.
It is disappointing that the United States still thinks it can change North Korea by relying on China’s influence. U.S. President Barack Obama said on Saturday that China was one of the few countries that can exercise influence over North Korea. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview with ABC, “The one country that has influence in Pyongyang is China and so their leadership is absolutely critical.”
China has given the appearance of participating in international efforts to prevent North Korea’s nuclear development program. But in the meantime, it gave support to North Korea’s nuclear program by providing grain, oil and other materials that the North needs, despite violating UN resolutions that imposed sanctions on the North.
North Korea will change if China changes itself. It is an illusion that China will persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear program and force it to apologize for the sinking of the Cheonan. Now, the free world should put pressure on China. We must demand China to live up to its status as a G-2 nation.
When Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo met President Lee Myung-bak on Sunday, he raised the issue of resuming the six-party talks as a solution to the North Korean attack on Yeonpyeong Island. But President Lee rejected the proposal, saying it wasn’t the right time.
Nevertheless, Wu Dawei, China’s vice foreign minister who accompanied Dai, called a press conference upon his return to Beijing and officially proposed a meeting of envoys to the six-party talks in early December.
A civilized country seldom commits such a diplomatic blunder as announcing a proposal that has already been rejected by a head of state since it appears to willfully ignore his opinion.
If China wants to restore the confidence of international society, it should persuade Kim Jong-il, through a special envoy who will visit Pyongyang soon, to comply with international demands. These include reprimanding those responsible for the attack, apologizing to the family members of the dead and making guarantees that provocative actions will not be repeated.
Proposing the resumption of the six-party talks should come after that. This should be the sequence of events.
*The writer is a visiting professor of media studies at Myongji University.
By Park Sung-soo