China casting wary eye on North Korea

Asia Times
Ting-I Tsai

The likelihood that North Korea’s nuclear disarmament will be completed just a year after Pyongyang announced that it had tested a nuclear bomb has been widely welcomed around the world, with the exception, perhaps, of China.

There are increasing concerns among Chinese academics that Pyongyang’s actions are hurting Chinese interests. Last October’s nuclear test not only unmasked the contradictions of a relationship frequently described as being “as close as lips and teeth”. It may have led to a further downturn in bilateral ties.

As the host nation of the Six Party Talks and once North Korea’s closest ally, China has reacted to the prospects for disarmament in a decidedly cool manner, with its North Korea experts debating how Pyongyang will harm China’s interests.

“There is no doubt that Pyongyang will create conflicts between China and the United States once it improves its relationship with Washington,” said Zhang Liangui, professor of international strategic research at the Central Party School in Beijing. He predicted that it was only a matter of time before Pyongyang took revenge on Beijing for China’s vote to impose sanctions on North Korea at the United Nations last October.

Zhang Yushan, researcher at the Jilin Academy of Social Sciences, however, doubts that North Korea could develop a close relationship with the US in the upcoming months.

After a year of dialog, North Korea agreed in October to shut its main nuclear reactor and provide detailed descriptions of all its nuclear programs by the end of the year. Furthermore, it has pledged not to transfer nuclear materials, technology or knowledge to other countries. Pyongyang fulfilled one of those promises in July by shutting down the reactor in Yongbyon. It has yet to make any substantial moves toward providing a description of its nuclear programs.

Chinese academics who question whether North Korea’s pledges to completely abandon its nuclear program are sincere also worry about Washington’s lack of determination to shape a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula after having received Pyongyang’s assurance that it would not transfer nuclear materials, technology or knowledge to other countries.

“China has always seen North Korea’s nuclear weapon issue as the Americans’ problem and has never adopted any strategic plan for itself in the Six Party Talks, which have led to where we are now,” said Jin Linbo, a research professor at the Beijing-based China Institute of International Studies. Jin argued that Beijing might have gained nothing but a security threat from its neighbor by hosting the talks.

What has particularly frustrated Beijing has been North Korea’s selfish neglect of China’s interests. The Central Party School’s Zhang noted that the latest developments have led some Chinese academics who originally had sympathies for North Korea to change their attitudes.

“Some of them have started to argue that North Korea is outrageous,” Zhang said.

Scoot Snyder, senior associate at the Washington based Asia Foundation, noted that North Korea’s traditional strategy is to play larger parties against each other; having found their country over-reliant on China for critical inputs, North Korean leaders would certainly like to stimulate a competition between China and the United States and South Korea to see who can most effectively win influence in Pyongyang. He pointed out in particular that DPRK negotiator Kim Kye-gwan’s public criticism of the United States for relying too much on China to carry out its Korea policy, US negotiator Christopher Hill’s sudden visit to Pyongyang without passing through Beijing, and the “three- or four-party” phrase in the inter-Korean summit declaration had all caused speculation and concern in Beijing.

In a study titled, “How North Korea threatens China’s interests“, conducted by Gregory Moore, assistant professor of political science at the St. Petersburg, Florida-based Eckerd College, the start of the decline in PRC–DPRK amity coincided quite closely with the rise of Kim Jong-Il in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. It was sealed with the passing of Kim Il-Sung in 1994, and contact between Beijing and Pyongyang broke down almost completely between 1994 and 1999.

Kim Jung-il, Moore suggested in his study, revealed his willingness to affront China in 1990-91 by conducting a dialog with China’s rival Taiwan and making a deal in which Pyongyang would have been paid to accept Taiwan’s nuclear waste. He played the same “Taipei card” again in 1996 when Beijing offered one-tenth of the grain that Pyongyang had asked for. In 1997, North Korea again opened discussions with Taiwan on direct flights between the island’s capital of Taipei and Pyongyang after another quarrel with China. At the time, Chinese agricultural experts publicly encouraged Pyongyang to adopt Chinese-style reforms, which led Pyongyang to call Deng Xiaoping a traitor to socialism. That jibe prompted Beijing to mull cutting off food aid to North Korea.

Other factors have also caused the relationship to sour. North Korea’s admission to US diplomat James Kelly in October 2002 that it was indeed pursuing a uranium enrichment program, its plan to establish the free trade zone and gambling city of Sinuiju, its counterfeiting of US$100 bills and Chinese currency, and China’s cutting off of an oil pipeline and deploying troops to the border in 2003 have all caused friction. In addition, rumors have surfaced that Pyongyang’s Chinese-built Taen Friendship Glass Factory resulted from Kim Jung-il’s flirtation with the “Taipei card”.

According to a Pyongyang-based foreign diplomat, bilateral relations “are mainly close in commercial and economic matters, especially with neighboring Liaoning province” in China. Bilateral trade in the first three quarters of 2007 reached US$1.44 billion, representing 16.6 growth year-on-year. The Chinese are reportedly operating three major coal mining sites in North Korea, although related government agencies in Pyongyang have denied this.

It remains to be seen how Pyongyang will handle its relationship with China. But both governments have made efforts to demonstrate their friendship.

On November 26, Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to the DPRK, delivered a speech to students at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, sharing the success of the Chinese Communist Party’s 17th congress, the significant accomplishments of its 29-year-long period of liberalization and reform, and China’s appreciation of its historical friendship with North Korea. The speech, which the embassy described as “a new page in the bilateral friendship”, came shortly after the visit of Liu Yunshan, member of the Secretariat of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee and head of the Publicity Department of the CPC Central Committee, to Pyongyang on October 29. In July, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi made North Korea the first nation he visited after taking office.

In return, Pyongyang authorities issued a series of stamps featuring the 2008 Beijing Olympics in mid-November, and Kim Jung-il paid a visit to China’s embassy on the occasion of the Chinese lantern-festival holiday Yuan Xiao Jie.

In the eyes of South Korea, which has aggressively sought to improve its ties with the North, ties between China and North Korea remain unquestionably close.

Haksoon Paik, senior fellow at the Seoul-based Sejong Institute, argued that the US-PRC relationship is the key factor shaping East Asian international politics, and North Korea has simply “tried to just find some breathing space in between”.

Having dealt with North Koreans for more than a half-century, Chinese academics are now preparing for North Korea’s eventual tilt away from Beijing because of the landscape change in East Asian politics.

“For the upcoming decade, the relationships among the six-party-talk members will put the US, Japan and North Korea on one side, and China, South Korea and Russia on the other,” predicted a Chinese expert on North Korea, who spoke under the condition of anonymity.


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