Diplomatic turmoilA quiet but major realignment is currently taking place in Northeast Asia, and the changes and restructuring in the China-North Korea relationship are a part of it. The man behind it is Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Xi administration promoted a “new type of great power relationship,” demonstrating its intention for a new diplomatic approach to manage the international order. And the principle was applied to the recent visit by North Korea’s special envoy, Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, where North Korea was publicly humiliated.
The changed Sino-North Korean relationship showed a clear contrast to that from the era of Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun. The elder Xi visited Pyongyang in October 1982 when he was the vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. He met with then-leader and founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung. The two leaders promoted the two countries’ brotherly bond, blood friendship and unity in battle.
Xi Zhongxun visited the Northern side of Panmunjom at the inter-Korean border during his visit, and a photo of his visit was captured in the Rodong Sinmun on Oct. 14, 1982. “If South Korea and the United States start the fire for the war, we will support North Korea by crossing the Yalu River and through other means,” he said. “The friendship between China and North Korea will continue through generations.”
Thirty-one years later, in his son’s era, the pledge of Xi Zhongxun was dramatically upset. The difference between the father and son was a strong symbol of the changed relationship between China and North Korea. Last month, Xi Jinping pressured the North’s envoy Choe. Xi didn’t hide his displeasure toward North Korea’s latest nuclear arms test. The emotion reached its peak when he received the personal letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Xi received it with one hand and handed it over to his secretary. The letter from the North’s “supreme dignity” was disrespected.
The visit was a clear contrast to the 2000 visit by Vice Marshal Cho Myong-rok to the United States. At the time, Cho’s rank and title were the same as those of Choe. Although it was unusual to see Cho wearing his military uniform, he showed his dignity. It gave the impression to the world that North Korea was respectable.
In contrast, Choe’s military uniform was unrefined. The strange hat with the exaggerated front didn’t suit him. And it gave the impression that North Korea didn’t have anyone respectable to send.
The inter-Korean relationship also changed, and it is a positive factor in the great realignment of Northeast Asia. Last month, North Korea shut down the Kaesong Industrial Complex. Sudden attacks, unpredictability and a quick about-face are the strength of North Korea’s diplomacy. President Park Geun-hye, however, responded to the move with a withdrawal of South Korean firms and workers. It was an unpredictable counterattack, and the North’s typical moves and language became ineffective. The North’s attempt to create an internal rift in the South also failed.
The North’s diplomacy once demonstrated strong negotiation power with no record of a defeat. The United States has suffered countless defeats. The North uses the cycle of threats and provocations, dialogue and negotiation and concession and rewards. They won higher rewards when the tensions were high. Their brinkmanship heightened their negotiation power. But the tactic no longer works as effectively and President Park is trying to stop the vicious cycle.
North Korea has never stopped its surprise maneuvers while running the country in an abnormal way. The latest repatriation of a group of young defectors from Laos to the North is an extreme example of the abnormality. The North’s behavior has long been the source of a headache in the international community. And the North relied deeply on its nuclear weapons when the headache grew worse. The power of nuclear weapons is proven in such a paradox.
That is why pessimism has grown over the prospect that the Kim Jong-un regime will give up its nuclear weapons. It is nearly impossible to dismantle the North’s nuclear arms program and that creates the dilemma. It is the pessimistic factor in the realignment of Northeast Asia.
President Park has paid special attention to China. At the end of June, she will meet with Xi in Beijing. The summit will be an arena for Seoul and Beijing to cooperate to pressure Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs, normalize its diplomatic behavior and stop the efforts to forcibly take back the defectors. It is, however, unknown how much China will cooperate, because of the strategic value of North Korea. In the diplomatic community of Beijing, more officials say the China-North Korea relationship is no longer a blood tie, but just another relationship between two countries. It, however, is the Chinese way of expressing its disappointment toward the North. China enjoys a monopoly on North Korea’s geopolitical value and it is a strategic factor that it can never give up.
The Obama administration has announced its“pivot to Asia” foreign policy and the situation makes North Korea’s value more attractive. Therefore, the China-North Korea relationship will be restructured with limits. Pressuring the North to give up its nuclear arms will be made with the Chinese way of restraint.
An international relationship is about mutual exchange. The more the South relies on it, the greater China’s influence on the Korean Peninsula will be. The six-party talks decisively strengthened Chinese diplomacy.
China is cautious about the South Korea-U.S. alliance and China will demand to see the blue print for the alliance’s future. We must carefully calculate what China will want. And focusing our diplomatic power on China will also bring about a protest from Japan. The Abe administration’s approach to history has triggered rage and frustrations, but to pressure the North, cooperation with Japan is still crucial.
South Korea’s relationship with China is a strategic, cooperative partnership while its relationship with the United States is an alliance. An alliance and a partnership can coexist. Despite the tensions between the United States and China, we can keep the delicate beauty of the coexistence. The Korean Peninsula is in turmoil, but the realignment is an opportunity. It offers a decisive space for a great transformation, and Park’s diplomacy must take advantage of this chance by smoothly managing the situation. A tactful strategy, wisdom and skill to win are what we need.
* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon
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