A resilient status quo
When North Korea’s Moranbong Band abruptly canceled its performance and left Beijing on Dec. 12, Korean and U.S. intelligence authorities paid the most attention to reports about Chinese officials who visited their hotel, trying to persuade them to stay.
Those officials included Wang Jiarui, the former director of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China, and Song Tao, his successor.
In China, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang both handle foreign affairs. Xi is in charge of diplomacy with the United States, Russia and North Korea - the countries directly involved in China’s fate. The director of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party directly reports to Xi without going through the premier.
So attempts to discourage the band’s trip back to North Korea were essentially direct pleas from Xi.
Still, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered them back to Pyongyang and later ordered a fourth nuclear test.
Afterward, the world has paid close attention? to the underground oil pipeline between the Chinese city of Dandong and the North Korean city of Sinuiju. It’s a lifeline that provides 90 percent of the North’s oil supply and conspicuously has “technical glitches” whenever the North decides to carry out a nuclear test.
China hung up a “maintenance at work” sign and shut down the pipeline for about two months. The North returned to the six-party talks without complaint.
The pipeline will once again undergo a repair, but it is still clear that Xi wants it to reopen. Why?
China’s biggest goal is maintaining its one-party system. The mainland shares borders with 14 other countries, but they all have far weaker economic and military capabilities. However China is particularly sensitive about the Korean Peninsula. It is Beijing’s official position that if North Korea collapses, refugees can enter China en masse. But the truth is more than that.
The idea of U.S. troops stationed near the border in the event that North Korea collapses, terrifies China. Furthermore, a unified Korea will be a capitalist country with a gross national income of about $30,000 per capita.
Furthermore, two million ethnic Koreans currently live in China’s three northeastern provinces.
Kim is smart. He knows his geopolitical value. He does not believe China can control him and that’s why he recklessly orders nuclear and missile tests.
China also apparently enjoys the situation, because its prestige in the international community goes up as its neighbors ask it to exert pressure on North Korea.
It’s hard for South Korea to sway China. President Park Geun-hye’s increased diplomacy?, including her attendance at the Victory Day parade in Beijing, has its limits.
The United States also has its limits. For U.S. political leaders, the North Korean nuclear crisis has little political and diplomatic value. It is simply a potential threat that has nothing to do with votes. That is why America is trying to downplay the latest nuclear test, insisting that Pyongyang did not set off a hydrogen bomb, as it claims.
Kim’s nuclear brinkmanship will continue. It was Kim Jong-il’s dying wish that the nation’s nuclear and missile programs advance, and the North berecognized as a nuclear power. But if oil, rice supplies and money transactions are blocked, the country will not survive. Therefore, the United States and China still have control over its fate.
Washington will only take a more aggressive stance against North Korea if a nuclear-armed North Korean missile were to fly over the United States, or if North Korea were to sell nuclear materials to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State?. U.S politicians will only act when American voters feel a threat under their skin.
Another important - and neglected - factor is international opinion. China faced a predicament after its brutal crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square was publicized by the foreign reporters who accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989. In the face of stern economic sanctions, China used South Korea as its exit. That was how both nations cemented diplomatic ties in 1992.
This year, China’s economy faces a crisis. Its growth rate is falling, while its foreign exchange and stock markets remain injured. If the Chinese economy continues to fall and the international community’s criticism toward the North’s nuclear program grows, China could be left with no other choice. It may have to completely shut down the oil pipeline as Seoul and Washington hope.
But Uncle Sam is still passive, and Xi has no immediate plan to touch Kim.
We can hardly harbor hasty optimism, as our wishful thinking was never realized even when the North conducted its first, second and third nuclear tests.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 11, Page 30
*The author is a senior editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho