The Koreas’ China chanceJust as North Korea’s vice chairman of the National Defense Commission Jang Song-thaek’s life was at stake earlier this month, North Korean Ambassador to China Ji Jae-ryong, who is known to be a member of Jang’s faction, made a public appearance. He attended the end-of-the-year banquet for foreign dignitaries in China hosted by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
Ambassador Ji was accompanied by his wife. Most of the attendees came by themselves without their spouses, so the couple stood out. A diplomat from another East Asian country that attended the event said that Ambassador Ji’s face seemed tired and haggard. Mrs. Ji kept her head down, looking at her plate mostly, and Ambassador Ji stared in the air and hardly spoke. Other diplomats knew the political turmoil in progress in North Korea, so no one dared to approach and strike up a conversation. Meanwhile, those at the table of South Korean Ambassador to China Kwon Yong-se were enjoying the holiday party. State Councilor Yang Jiechi delivered a congratulatory message and the Maltese Ambassador, who studied in the U.K. with Yang, and his wife, led the festive mood.
After more toasts than one can count, the attendees talked and laughed without speaking through interpreters. At the holiday party for Beijing’s diplomatic circle, the North Korean diplomat’s presence was not much different from his country’s isolated status in the international community. Few diplomats were unaware of the awkward presence that did not mesh with the festive atmosphere. China had not condoned North Korea’s faults because of their special relationship as “blood brothers.” But now that China has become half of the G-2, along with the United States, Beijing is under psychological pressure to stop backing North Korea.
As the sudden execution of Jang Song-thaek made the news, Chinese people expressed their shock online. Young Chinese Internet users said that it reminded them of the crazy days of the Cultural Revolution and they were tired of North Korea. Having personally experienced the aftermath of group madness, the older generation said that it was unpleasant to confront that painful memory again. Chinese scholars have long considered North Korea a failed state. Of course, the North Korea-China relationship will not change much on the surface. Beijing will still acknowledge North Korea’s traditional strategic value of preventing the oceanic powers’ northward movement in the Northeast Asia region. However, Chinese authorities also need to consider the dignity of their nation and the opinions of its 600 million Internet users.
A star hidden behind the thick clouds can briefly shine from between the clouds. Germany seized the moment and captured the star to attain reunification. Are we ready to catch the star? We must not miss the change in reality as North Korea and China grow distant.
*The author is the Beijing correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By CHEONG YONG-WHAN