[Viewpoint] China plays a long game on Korea

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[Viewpoint] China plays a long game on Korea

China is not an easy neighbor to live next to. The bigger, stronger and more united the country becomes, the more difficult the lives of Koreans will be. It is the geopolitical fate of Koreans. The Chinese leadership is a seasoned player in self-serving pragmatism. It is also an expert in chameleon-like changes when national interests are at stake. Principles are easily discarded, dumbfounding the parties involved. Both South and North Koreans have bitterly experienced this.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il was quoted as telling Hyundai Group Chairwoman Hyun Jeong-eun that he does not trust China during their meeting in Pyongyang in August 2009, according to diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks. Hyundai Group in a statement denied such a comment. But North Korean leaders are said to be suspicious of their Chinese counterparts. North Korean delegates to inter-Korean talks during the previous Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations have often made similar complaints. They said it is hard to decipher the thoughts of the Chinese.

North Korea’s confidence suffered a shock when China normalized ties with South Korea in August 1992. China made a cold diplomatic choice, delivering a blow to the North Korean leadership. At the time, Chinese President Jiang Zemin sent his foreign minister, Qian Qichen, to Pyongyang. Qian recalled that the meeting with North Korean leaders was the shortest ever, without any reception formalities. His recollection underscored the air of unspoken tension and discomfort on both sides.

It was South Korea’s turn to be irked and thrown aside by Beijing when it took Pyongyang’s side after North Korea’s attack on the Cheonan warship and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. China ignored South Korea in mourning for the victims. The so-called strategic partnership between South Korea and China was thrown out the window.

China chose nuclear-armed North Korea to gain leverage. A nuclear-armed North Korea is useful for China in strengthening its position vis-a-vis South Korea, the United States and Japan. North Korea is paid with food and fuel for this service, but just enough to survive. The Pyongyang regime is in a pitiful state. The international community has been calling upon Beijing to exercise clout over North Korea. But China is turning a deaf ear as if it wants to help North Korea save face.

Former President Kim Young-sam hit the nail on the head about China. During his summit talks with his Chinese counterpart, Jiang Zemin, in November 1995, President Kim recalled that he asked about the North Korean situation. The Chinese president said he had no idea. President Kim asked how that was possible when China was giving economic and diplomatic aid to the country. Yet the Chinese president said he did not know anything and retorted by saying that South Koreans should know better since they share the same language and are of the same race.

President Kim shook his head in amazement at the poker face displayed by the Chinese leadership. At the time, the Seoul leadership had the confidence to confront Beijing. For a decade after 1988, the Chinese played up to South Koreans and appeared eager to learn from our rags-to-riches modernization. Korean tourists enjoyed special treatment during their trips to China. It was the first - and probably the last - time in a centuries-old relationship that South Korea stood tall in the face of China. That heyday is long gone.

China’s clout over the Korean Peninsula today has become decisive thanks to China’s economic and military might. But we are also largely to blame. China has been playing host and architect of the six-party negotiations involving two Koreas, the United States, Japan and Russia to denuclearize North Korea. Ten years of sporadic talks have proved unproductive.

The six-party game is a strange one that deals with the pivotal international problem of North Korea’s nuclear program and the security of South Korea. Yet South Korea has poorly addressed the North Korean nuclear issue. Instead, the South has pleaded and clung to China for its help in persuading the Kim Jong-il regime to relinquish its nuclear ambition.

The fallout has been costly. China’s say in Korean affairs has become stronger. We have sowed and germinated China’s influence over us. Our incompetent and clumsy diplomacy has been defeated by China’s shrewd mixed strategy of ambiguity and clarity on the foreign policy front.

A new tumultuous decade has dawned. China may well play the leading role. We inevitably would have had to befriend our powerful neighbor. The country is important economically and diplomatically. We must come across as an alluring neighbor and that is only possible with wealth and power. We must return to the driver’s seat in our regional affairs. The times desperately call for creative leadership.

*The writer is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Park Bo-gyoon
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