[Viewpoint] Talk with China and the North

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[Viewpoint] Talk with China and the North

President Lee Myung-bak has said that North Korea’s policy - “Talk with the U.S., isolate the South” - is no longer valid, adding that it is time for South Korea to talk with China to isolate the North. After the remarks, Lee was attacked by both liberal and conservative camps.

When he gave a lecture at the Institute for Unification Education under the Ministry of Unification, he wrote on the blackboard, “Talk with China, isolate the North.” He explained that it is not that the Blue House is pursuing such a policy, but from Pyongyang’s point of view, it would be displeased with Beijing’s cozy relationship with Seoul while it hopes to remain close to China.

Critics argued that Lee may be overly assessing the slight improvement in Korea-China relations and his remark could put China in an awkward position. However, the lecture by the president can partly answer the critical question: “I have had more than ten summit meetings with Chinese President Hu Jintao and met with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao six times. How many times did Kim Jong-il meet with them?”

President Lee must have been encouraged by the number of meetings with Chinese leaders.

President Lee also pointed out that Beijing hopes for a free trade deal with Seoul and the two countries’ defense ministers have begun to meet. According to a high-level source, China’s strategy is to dilute America’s influence on South Korea through the Korea-China FTA, and such a stance may be one of the reasons for the growing distance between Beijing and Pyongyang. In other words, China’s intention is to keep South Korea at bay with an economic alliance, even if the deal may mean a loss for Beijing.

As the idea is being developed, it is highly likely that the leaders of Korea, China and Japan may agree to conclude a free trade pact among the three countries as soon as possible when they meet in Beijing this week.

President Lee is hopeful not just because of the government-level relationship. Recently, some writings on the Korean Peninsula issue by Chinese experts illustrate signs of change in Beijing’s Korean Peninsula strategy. While these scholars are not mainstream, the tone of their argument is noteworthy. Professor Zhang Liangui of the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China complained that some Chinese who believe North Korea’s nuclear possession enhances China’s bargaining power in China-U.S. relations are opportunistic and seriously mistaken in a paper published in the February issue of a Hong Kong magazine, whose readers include about 20,000 party and government executives.

If the nuclear disarmament of the Korean Peninsula is broken, China will be the biggest victim, Professor Zhang warned. He also asserted that those who want to preserve the status quo and prioritize the stability of North Korea over nuclear disarmament are against the basic interests of China, quoting Karl Marx that all things are in a ceaseless state of movement and change.

The February issue of the Contemporary International Relations, a journal published by China’s Ministry of State Security, offered the premise that the reunification of the Korean Peninsula is inevitable and featured a discussion demanding the Chinese government shift its policy from opposing the reunification to securing key interests in case of reunification.

In the “Northeast Asia Forum” published by Jilin University, Professor Jin Qiang-yi of Yanbian University criticized Beijing’s perspective of favoring the status quo in the Korean Peninsula, arguing that reunification and resolution of the nuclear issue corresponds with the strategic interests of China.

President Lee’s remarks seem to have been based on these movements in the Chinese academia. However, while we hope for China’s desirable changes on its strategy on the Korean Peninsula, it is only a possibility and not an actual policy change.

Therefore, President Lee may have been too rash to speak his wishful thinking out loud. He may be counting on the personal friendship he has built through a number of meetings with Hu Jintao, but Xi Jinping is to succeed Hu as General Secretary in October. President Lee visited Beijing six times between 2008 and 2012, but has met with Xi only briefly. When Xi visited Seoul in 2009, President Lee had to keep the breakfast meeting short as he had to leave for Copenhagen to attend the Climate Change Conference. If a personal relationship with Xi is crucial, building a meaningful connection is an urgent task for President Lee.

President Lee’s remarks are not entirely groundless, but from China’s standpoint, it is too early for the Korean president to say, “Talk with China, isolate the North.” If Beijing shows tangible signs to make changes in its Korean Peninsula policy, Seoul should still be prudent in its speech and conduct, and try to maintain composure. Whether we talk with China or the United States, our ultimate goal should be to communicate with Pyongyang. What is the purpose of continuing discussion of reunification if we were not aiming to reach out to North Korea?

If Pyongyang refuses inter-Korean contacts and maintains a hostile stance, then Seoul only needs to be thoroughly ready to retaliate in case of provocation. For example, we should wrap up the Korea-U.S. missile agreement to expand the missile range to cover all of North Korea and establish a security cooperation system with Japan in sharing military information and logistics.

* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo

by Kim Young-hie

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