Park’s diplomatic dilemmaImmediately after the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan warship in the tense maritime border on the Yellow Sea, I received an e-mail from an American expert on Chinese affairs. He advised us not to be moved by China’s overprotective attitudes toward North Korea. South Koreans instantly turned resentful toward the Chinese after Beijing sided with Pyongyang despite an international investigation team concluding that North Korea torpedoed the South Korean warship.
My American friend said Seoul needs to pay more attention to Beijing’s traditional perspectives on time. China is inherently past-oriented, which South Koreans often forget. He said China is like a fisherman who concentrates on the river flowing under his eyes. And he has such trust and conviction in the trajectory of the river that he needs not look back to see where the water is coming from.
The American thinks South Korea is the opposite. It is busy looking back, forward, all around - always distracted. He pointed out that China places trust in the past for guidance and direction instead of the unknown and ephemeral future because such visionary thinking requires real risk-taking.
He was right. Before becoming president of China, Xi Jinping advocated China’s involvement in the Korean War, saying it was a just war to defend peace and resist an invasion. He emphasized that China and North Korea are bound by blood and underscored that the traditional ties between the two states go beyond immediate national interests. A fisherman does not turn his eyes away from the flow.
But there are subtle signs that President Xi may be lifting his eyes away from the traditional flow. He no longer appears to sit on his hands relying on the past. He is fidgeting to prepare for a somewhat risky journey into uncharted waters.
Last week Xi surprised many Chinese experts. Three months after ascending to presidency in March, he invited South Korea’s new President Park Geun-hye to Beijing before North Korean leader Kim Jong-un - the third generation leader from the Kim dynasty. Pyongyang must have been confounded and even anxious that its traditional ally may turn its back on a blood-tight relationship to seek a new path for future interests.
After a summit with his South Korean counterpart, Xi agreed that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program poses a “serious threat” to the peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia. In a joint statement with Park, he said China opposes any party disrupting the regional peace and stability and supports improved ties between the two Koreas to realize reconciliation and cooperation to ultimately achieve an independent peaceful reunification.
It is surprising that he included the taboo word “reunification” in the statement.
In addition, Xi urged all related parties to work together to resume bilateral and multilateral talks on denuclearization as early as possible. President Park’s statesmanship shone in her summit in China.
But there has not been a fundamental change in Beijing’s traditional view on the North Korean nuclear issue. It adhered to its usual phrase of “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” - instead of “denuclearization of North Korea.” It unequivocally takes the side of Pyongyang and employs the nuclear problem as its leverage against South Korea and the United States. We had expected a tougher stance from Beijing against Pyongyang to rein in its nuclear threat this time. It is clear that Beijing is still hesitant to turn its back on its ally once and for all.
Therefore, the relevant parties - South Korea, the U.S., Japan and Russia of the six-party platform - are still skeptical of the host of those talks, China, and wondering where it will take them on their ride toward the goal of denuclearizing North Korea. The passengers remain distracted and suspicious. That is the dilemma of President Park’s trust-building process with North Korea.
President Xi expressed support for Park’s envisioning of building trust between the two Koreas to establish peace and stability on the peninsula. The question is how to deftly combine China’s endorsement with support from South Korea’s allies.
But Seoul appears to be not very confident about a new three-way partnership among South Korea, America and China. Washington is unenthusiastic about the idea of the three-way partnership and Tokyo appears to be resentful.
Japan is shocked by the remarkable developments in Seoul, Washington and Beijing. South Korea’s new president made successive visits to the U.S. and China in an attempt to establish a three-way front to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue. Tokyo is feeling left out and tempted to spoil the mood.
In the meantime, Beijing still cannot make up its mind whether it should sit still or stand up and change its stance on North Korea. A three-way front among Seoul, Washington and Beijing may not be on the immediate horizon. It is too hasty to lose Tokyo and the traditional common front among South Korea, America and Japan on the North Korean issue. It is time for President Park to work her statesmanship on Tokyo as well.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.
by Chang Dal-joong