China’s shifting relationsEarlier this month, I visited Changchun, China. A high-level diplomat who had worked with the National Intelligence Agency told me about the atmosphere in the China-North Korea border region. On July 1, a bus accident in Jilin killed 10 Korean civil servants and 16 others were injured while attending a training program. The Chinese authorities sent the vice-governor of Jilin Province there to oversee the situation.
There is no major hospital in Jian, and seriously injured people were moved to the Jilin University Hospital in Changchun, about four, five hours away.
All 16 ambulances in Jilin were mobilized, each with a doctor and a nurse on board. The local Korean school was closed, and teachers were assigned to the ambulances to help communication between the Korean patients and Chinese medical staffs. Korean teachers in Changchun were also assigned at Jilin University Hospital to provide language assistance until the patients were discharged.
The most sensitive issue was bringing back the bodies of the 10 victims to Korea, which the surviving families requested. Cremation in China would have been easier, but we had to bring them home. In China, the law requires that the bodies go through an airport with quarantine facilities; the Shenyang Airport was the only one that meets the condition in the three Northeast provinces.
Shenyang is seven hours away from Jilin. Also, when bodies are transported in China, a special triple-layer coffin must be used in order to prevent possible viruses from spreading. A wooden coffin is completely sealed with a metal layer, which is then covered again by a wooden coffin.
And there was only one funeral service in Beijing that can handle the process. When the company got a call, they spent the night making the triple-layer coffins and drove more than 20 hours.
Five days after the accident, the bodies of the victims arrived at Incheon International Airport. While it cost hundreds of millions of won, the process was quick beyond expectation. The diplomat said he thought it would take more than 15 days, and it wouldn’t have been possible if the Communist Party and the central government hadn’t helped behind the scenes.
But China is sensitive about the China-North Korea border region because of the disturbances by North Korea. In December, 2014, a North Korean soldier sneaked into Helong in the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture and killed four civilians. In March, an armed deserter was captured in Dandong after staging a hostage situation. In Changbai, a North Korean soldier fired at a Chinese civilian vehicle, leaving three injured. After the series of incidents, the Chinese feel increasingly cold towards North Korea.
China’s response is becoming more nervous. According to a local source, an order has been made that police can fire at the illegal border crosser if he does not obey the authorities. In fact, a North Korea was shot and killed in June while crossing over to China. Last weekend, agents of the North Korean police department were arrested in China. Of course, the increasing friction in the border region does not mean the North Korea-China relation is shaky fundamentally. But it is not as cozy as before. In Changchung, you can feel the discord in the air.
The China-North Korea relationship is cracking in Beijing as well. President Xi Jinping prioritizes relations with the United States under the “New Type of Great Power Relations.”
In the Korean Peninsula policy, the officials who studied at Kim Il-sung University are losing influence, and the new elite who studied in the West are gaining power. They find North Korea’s nuclear and missiles program more of a strategic burden than an asset. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said that all UN resolutions should be implemented, strongly suggesting additional sanctions if North Korea conducts additional tests.
President Park Geun-hye’s attendance of the Victory Day parade at the Tiananmen Gate has historic significance. The president also said she had an in-depth discussion on peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula with China.
The liberals in Korea criticized that the reunification should be done with North Korea, not China. But her remarks reverberate in Changchun.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 22, Page 34
*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho