Talk with China and the North

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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President Lee Myung-bak has said that North Korea’s policy — “Talk with the U.S., isolate the South” — is no longer valid, adding that it is time for South Korea to talk with China to isolate the North.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.

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