The China chimera

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The China chimera

I was in Beijing last week to participate in the first Korea-China Dialogue jointly sponsored by South Korea’s East Asia Foundation and the School of International Studies at Peking University. I met officials from China’s Communist Party and exchanged constructive conversations with key party theorists responsible for affairs related to the Korean Peninsula. It was a good opportunity to hear frank views on various issues related to the two Koreas from, shall we say, the horse’s mouth.

Many have talked about the signs of changes in Beijing’s past attitude toward Pyongyang under the new leadership of President Xi Jinping. Hopes have been raised in Seoul for a fundamental change in Beijing’s perspective and attitude toward Pyongyang after South Korean President Park Geun-hye received a red-carpet welcome from Xi during a visit to Beijing in June in which the two leaders agreed to strengthen strategic communication.

But what I learned on my visit was that it was wishful thinking on Seoul’s part to believe that Beijing was moving away from its previous stance on Pyongyang based on deep historic and ideological bonds. Seoul jumped to a highly misleading conclusion by naively seeing what it wanted to see.

Communist Party members admitted that there had been room for misunderstanding. Instead of playing the “willfully blind” advocate of North Korea as it has in the past, China willingly accepted the UN Security Council’s resolution for heavier sanctions following the country’s third nuclear test in February. But that was misread. Beijing was simply applying more cool-headedness when it came to the unquestionable missteps by Pyongyang, such as detonating a nuclear device and firing off a long-range missile.

A change in tone does not mean a change of heart by Beijing on North Korea. Beijing is committed to its long-standing position that peace and security as well as denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula must be achieved through diplomatic talks and negotiations. The traditional alliance based on the Sino-North Korea Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty signed in 1961 remains intact. There is no evidence that China’s policy on North Korea strategically shifted following the South Korea-China summit, the officials said.

One Chinese official cited a poem by the famous ancient poet Su Dongpo to explain Chinese policy on North Korea. The Song Dynasty poet celebrated the exquisite beauty of Mount Lu in Jiangxi Province, a region with many undulating ridges, peaks, valleys and hills. “The mountain appears different from many angles/From afar and near, high and low, views vary/One cannot see the real Lushan.” The essence of China’s policy on North Korea, like the mountain, remains unchanged, but its look can seem different when viewed from different standpoints.

In short, it is foolish to expect Beijing to take drastic measures like cutting off gas and food supplies to punish Pyongyang - and risk a collapse of the regime. The Chinese firmly believe that it is America, not China, that can ease the security threat from nuclear-armed North Korea. China’s role stops at being the host, a middleman, to bring North Korea to the six-party talks. It will never live up to the expectations of Seoul or Washington that it will take up a more active role to persuade Pyongyang to give up nuclear weapons.

Chinese officials also believe that it is in America’s interest to maintain tension on the peninsula to a certain extent. In that case, Washington can save money by drawing up a stronger military alliance with Tokyo. At the same time, the United States can continue selling expensive weapons to South Korea and Japan while containing China through North Korean nuclear leverage.

The biggest victim in this power game among giants is, of course, South Korea, which must live with a nuclear threat every day. The United States can afford to idly sit back until North Korea agrees to return to the six-party talks, but we cannot. We cannot forever continue to pour in tax money to invest and build a questionable “kill chain” and missile defense systems.

Washington has a point that it cannot enter into dialogue for dialogue’s sake. But dialogue is better than doing nothing. Seoul should take the initiative to resume bilateral or multilateral talks. It must exercise aggressive diplomacy to make America and North Korea meet each other halfway. The Park administration’s foreign policy depends on North Korean diplomacy. The South Korean chief delegate for the six-party talks should be ready when he flies to Washington and Beijing next month.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok
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