China’s moral responsibility
China has remained stoic about North Korea. Even after Pyongyang launched a long-range ballistic missile on the heels of a fourth nuclear test, Beijing reacted with a strange sense of tolerance and apathy, which has raised suspicions that it may have an ulterior motive.
The interests of a state and the ruling power don’t always coincide. And in a society where public opinion is reflected in political decisions, the discrepancy may not be that wide. But in a controlled society, the ruling power’s needs become the priority. National interests are pursued up to the limits to serve the ruling power.
The Chinese Communist Party has advocated the single-party system to safeguard its socialist idealism. When China abandoned a strict state-controlled socialist economy in favor of a semi-capitalist open market in the late 1970s, the Communist Party lost its legitimacy as the sole ruling power and quickly embraced a new nationalist dogma.
China had to fight foreign powers from the Opium Wars in 1842 to Japan’s final pullout after the end of World War II. It wasn’t the Communist Party, but the United States that closed the chapter on a century of tumultuous and disgraceful foreign rule and intervention.
The governing party on the mainland was also the Kuomintang. The Communist Party strengthened its hold over the mainland via its engagement in the 1950-53 Korean War, which it claimed it ended by defeating the Americans on behalf of North Korea.
To rationalize its self-proclaimed victory over the Americans, North Korea must prevail over the Korean Peninsula. But for the South to live richly while the North struggles is an embarrassment for China. This does not help the Chinese Communist Party’s nationalistic dogma. Therefore, Beijing cannot risk the Pyongyang regime potentially breaking down.
A conflict on the Korean Peninsula works favorably for Beijing, and having influence over a rogue state like Pyongyang is a good leverage against Washington.
But the repercussions from a possible breakdown of the North Korean regime is a more pressing reason for China. A wave of democratization and liberalization could spill over to China if the repressive regime crumbles down in North Korea. National revolutions usually have a domino effect in neighboring countries. The Arab Spring is a good example.
The self-immolation of a young street merchant’s set off a wave of protests across Tunisia against an authoritative regime that spilled over to dictatorships in other Muslim societies. Mass-scale protests followed here, too, with a clampdown on street vendors in Hong Kong, which sent a shiver down Beijing’s spine after the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Despite its steadfast hold, the Chinese regime is vulnerable due to a contradictory mix of political totalitarianism and economic capitalism. The political interests of the party and broader society often collide, and its protection of the North Korean regime is one of them.
The collapse of the Kim Jong-un government wouldn’t harm Chinese society overall, but it could deal a fatal blow to the rule of China’s Communist Party.
Beijing inevitably has to shoulder the cost of sustaining the North Korean regime, even if it doesn’t approve. It has to come up with excuses and put on a show to hide its real intentions.
Beijing has emphasized that there is a limit to its influence over Pyongyang and that it even has to tolerate insolence from time to time. Economic sanctions, it argues, won’t do much help, as North Korea is already an isolated society. Instead, it opposes the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system as a bigger threat.
Our response to North Korea has become more complicated and restrained by China’s ambiguity.
We must first persuade Beijing that the viability of the North Korean regime is unrelated to its nuclear weapons development.
We must also argue that the North Korean nuclear program could hamper China’s strategy to buy more time to catch up with the United States in undermining the latter’s influence.
Most of all, we must raise the issue of morality. We must argue that a country of China’s rank should not condone nuclear development by an unruly regime. It is foolish to think that morality has no room in practical foreign affairs. Morality is a universal human concept and should guide all policies.
Major historical events, such as the end of apartheid in South Africa, demonstrate the moral approach of good versus evil.
North Korea embarked on developing nuclear weapons with the technology and capital China provided. It also receives assistance from Pakistan.
Pakistani nuclear development received Chinese funding, so China should feel morally responsible for North Korea’s nuclear empowerment.
Our diplomatic work toward China should start from such an approach. Morality can always save the weak - whether it’s the people or a nation.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 20, Page 27
The author is a novelist.
by Bok Koh-ill