[Viewpoint] Pyongyang’s China syndrome

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[Viewpoint] Pyongyang’s China syndrome

North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island was not merely directed at us. Pyongyang is also employing a thoroughly pre-calculated gambit against China.

North Korea and China drew closer together when international condemnation mounted against North Korea’s torpedo attack on a South Korean naval ship, holding summit meetings twice to show off their close-knit ties. When North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visited China for the first time in four year, he may have expected a bonus gift from his longtime ally in military as well as economic aid.

Kim is said to have presented an invoice for several latest model fighter jets, $30 billion worth of economic aid projects, and annual supplies of 1 million tons of oil and 1 million tons of rice.

Chinese leaders, however, beat around the bush, avoiding the topic of aid. Instead they had harsh words for the Pyongyang regime about its inability to sustain and feed a population of 20 million.

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao offered to give a lesson or two on the opening of the economy and reform measures, and sent Kim home empty-handed. In August, President Hu Jintao was equally unsympathetic toward Kim, who had a lot on his mind as he prepared for a risky third-generation power transfer to his twenty-something son. Kim may have decided to raise the stakes to focus Beijing’s attention and the fat package of aid he requires.

North Korea is a seasoned player in brinkmanship. It raked in enormous gains by raising tensions on the peninsula during the Cold War era. When Leonid Brezhnev took power, Pyongyang veered away from Beijing to improve ties with Moscow and in return demanded aid in constructing power plants and factories to produce metal, aluminum and ammonium.

It was audacious enough to ask for support in building an oil refinery even as it lacked facilities to store crude oil. Moscow needed to keep Pyongyang as leverage in its power struggle with China, but dragged its feet on fulfilling Pyongyang’s demands.

On Jan. 23, 1968, the U.S. Navy spy ship U.S.S. Pueblo was attacked and seized by North Korea near the Wonson coast. The U.S. Navy immediately dispatched three fighter carrier warships and fighter jets flew from Okinawa waiting for the command to attack.

Washington officials partly blamed the Soviets for the North Korean attack. Brezhnev hit the ceiling and immediately issued a statement to Washington that the Soviets had nothing to do with North Korea’s provocative action.

North Korean leader Kim Il-sung tested his 1965-signed military pact with Soviets by capturing a U.S. navy ship. He did not go when Brezhnev summoned him to Moscow.

Instead he sent the deputy prime minister. Brezhnev demanded the North Koreans negotiate with Washington. He in return accepted North Korean demands for free weaponry and economic aid. North Korea embarked on construction of a thermal power station with Soviet money and supplies. The Soviets saved face as the leader of the Socialist camp, and important consideration for them, but at the cost of giving into a maverick ally.

China is now in a similar spot. Tension in East Asia usually exacts U.S. involvement and defense buildups by Japan. This is what Pyongyang exploited.

By bombarding a civilian territory, North Korea pulled in the U.S., sending a message to Beijing that raising and easing tension in the region is in its hands. China is also criticized by the international community for tolerating or doing too little to contain Pyongyang whenever it makes a reckless move.

Kim Jong-il, then 27, saw his father whip up trouble and tension in the region and work on world powers like the U.S. and Soviet Union. He may be trying to show his twenty-something son and heir the same tricks and how to play the U.S., South Korea and China.

The way North Korea does business worked with the Soviets. Whether it will work with China, we will have to wait and see.

*The writer is a senior research at Korea Institute for National Unification.

By Cho Min
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