[Viewepoint] Ending the Beijing-Pyongyang axisKim Jong-il’s provocations against South Korea bring back the painful memories of Kim Il Sung’s Korean War. The two clashes cannot be compared in terms of intention, scale and character. However, they are alike in many ways. Strictly speaking, the Korean War was a war for Northeast Asia. The key players in the war were not just South and North Korea. It was the first conflict in which the United States and China engaged in a conventional war.
The U.S. fully mobilized its arsenal of what were then advanced weapons, and China countered with brute force and sheer numbers. The People’s Republic of China sent 5 million troops. China’s involvement - “to resist U.S. aggression and aid Korea” - changed the shape of the Korean Peninsula and international relations. The war resulted in a truce that confirmed the divided status of the Peninsula, and the U.S. maintained sanctions against China for 20 years.
Kim Jong-il’s attacks on the Cheonan warship and Yeonpyeong Island have again affected the political map of Northeast Asia. The U.S. and China had already been bickering over bilateral issues such as trade and exchange rate policies and over multilateral issues such as nuclear nonproliferation and global warming. But the attacks represented a crucial moment that aggravated friction between the G-2.
Cooperation between the G-2 in Northeast Asia was a mere illusion. China was a prop supporting North Korea. Beijing sided with and advocated for North Korea in the UN. Criticism from the international community and China’s reputation as a superpower received less priority. Its current support is similar to Mao Zedong’s participation in the Korean War, when troops were sent despite domestic problems such as the suppression of Kuomintang rebels and a severe economic breakdown.
Military exchanges between North Korea and China are also expanding. China has started a territorial dispute with Japan, and the U.S. is calling for solidarity in Asia in an effort to orchestrate a loose encirclement of China. China, meanwhile, has unveiled a plan to build aircraft carriers, and Japan’s new defense plan aims to add more warships. We are seeing a return to the system of 1950 even as we celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Korean War. It is a tragedy that the ghosts of Kim Il Sung and Mao Zedong are returning.
Did Kim Jong-il foresee these developments in advance? He must have. No other country has the animal instinct to understand China better than North Korea. As the U.S.-China relationship deteriorated, North Korea may have calculated that China needs an alliance and a buffer zone.
The G-2 partnership may have posed more of a loss than a gain to North Korea. When he was defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld prepared a policy memo stating that Washington should pursue regime change in North Korea in cooperation with China. Kim Jong-il’s provocations against the South are meant to drive a wedge between China and the U.S.
Kim has made two visits to China this year, in May and in August, in a sign of an existing alliance while the entire world was condemning North Korea. During the military parade celebrating the founding of the Workers’ Party in October, Kim Jong-il displayed the tight alliance by clasping hands with Zhou Yongkang, a senior leader in the Chinese Communist Party.
Fifteen days later, Kim paid a visit to the grave of Mao Anying in South Pyongan Province. Mao Anying was the eldest son of Mao Zedong and was killed in a U.S. bombing attack in the Korean War. The day after the Yeonpyeong Island attack, Kim Jong-il visited a glass factory built by China. He certainly inherited his DNA from Kim Il Sung, who was a master tightrope walker between China and the Soviet Union.
Kim Jong-il’s provocation attempts may be related to the succession of Kim Jong-un. By exploiting the war threat, Kim Jong-il shut off debate about the third-generation power transfer, and Kim Jong-un was given a chance to make his mark. North Korea is based on a “Military First” policy, but the attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong Island may be the political means to secure the survival of the system. Kim Jong-il is seeking a breakthrough with a softer attitude on the nuclear issue, indicating a pause to conventional attacks.
Their vicious plans will have consequences. North Korea has displayed national strength and diplomatic skills that exceed its actual capacity. Kim Jong-il’s mental strength must be exhausted, and it is about time that China loses its patience. South Korea, the U.S. and Japan should not be tricked any more. Cooperation between the U.S. and China will be a gain for both countries and the world as well, so the socialist alliance between Pyongyang and Beijing may lose momentum.
Pyongyang will have to pay for its provocations. We have to remind the North that it has chosen to win a battle but lose the war. Strategic patience is a passive choice. The time has come for Seoul to strategically manipulate the North Korea-China alliance to encourage estrangement. The Republic of Korea has all the justification, persuasion and economic strength for such actions.
*The writer is editor of foreign policy and security affairs at the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Oh Young-hwan