True diplomacy of leverage neededIn an essay on marriage, Chinese philosopher and essayist Zhang Zhongxin classified the four grades of matrimony. Couples may be in conjugal harmony, share similar values, need patience for each other or cannot bear each other.
Couples in the second group, who share similar values, may not be completely content with the relationship but have enough things in common to prevent a divorce. The third group is trying to maintain the union due to inevitable circumstances. Couples who cannot bear each other are better off divorced. Zhang’s classification of matrimony is as widely applied as degrees of different relationships at workplaces, schools and military divisions.
As the Xi Jinping administration emphasizes diplomacy with its neighbors, foreign relations scholars often use the four grades of matrimony for international dynamics. After all, relationships between countries have a lot in common with marriage.
Russia, Mongolia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have the best conjugal harmony with China, a win-win relationship with obvious strategic gains. North Korea falls into the second group, while South Korea is somewhere between the second and third groups, depending on the tendency and interest of the experts. Japan is China’s unbearable partner for its ultra-conservative inclination.
It may seem that China is elevating pressure on North Korea by actively participating in sanctions by the UN Security Council. But the China-North Korea relationship is built on “sharing the same values.” North Korea has the prime geopolitical value of preventing Japan and the United States from advancing to the continent.
No matter how Korean and Chinese leaders build personal friendships and strengthen strategic communications, China will always prioritize North Korea over the South in the final moment of a decision - based on geopolitical interests - as long as North Korea remains in its current position.
A diplomat in Beijing lamented that the only way to take away North Korea’s geopolitical value is to station China’s People’s Liberation Army in South Korea. If South Korea becomes the buffer hindering the ocean-based power’s northward advancement, North Korea’s strategic value would lose its meaning. The zero-sum game of South and North Korea means choosing between America and China, which is realistically unacceptable and impossible.
Since the United States supports Japan’s right to collective self-defense, international cooperation to force North Korea’s denuclearization could crack. International politics is a field of action and reaction. China wouldn’t allow a blockade against itself. Already busy embracing Southeast Asia to break through the siege, Beijing could turn back to the old habit of sheltering Pyongyang.
Sanctions on North Korea and the approach of persuasion and pressure through China are essentially limited. We need true diplomacy by leveraging Russia, Mongolia and Southeast Asian nations that can exercise direct and indirect influence on North Korea.
*The author is Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by CHEONG YONG-WHAN